Published October 11, 2021
In 2007, my friend Ishraq was an Iraqi biologist working in quality control in a government agency testing products coming into the country for contaminants – food products and plants, anything meant for consumption or planting – a job she had studied and worked hard to attain, a job she loved. Her husband, Luay, owned a car dealership. Although other Christians were leaving Iraq after the chaos that engulfed the country after the US invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein, they didn’t want to leave their homeland. With the increase in crime and the abduction of Christians, they thought it best to sell the dealership and wait it out until things settled back down.
One rainy day as Luay got ready to drive Ishraq to work, two cars pulled up in front of them. Men got out and snatched Luay. As they dragged him through the mud, she grabbed hold of his leg, shrieking. One of the kidnappers disentangled her from Luay and flung her off. “I lost my mind, I was screaming like a crazy woman, I was screaming for someone to come help us,” she remembers. The men shoved Luay into one of their cars and left. A minute later a police officer came driving by and stopped when he heard her crying. He got out and stood over her as she lay shaking on the ground. When she told him what had happened, it became clear he knew who the kidnappers were. “He gave me his card and told me that when the kidnappers called me to ask for ransom money, to let him know and he’ll see what he can do. I told him, ‘What you can do is get in the car and go after them right now.’ The policeman left and I just sat there in the mud on the side of the street wailing.”
One of her neighbors, a kind Muslim man, came out to see what was happening and helped her back into her house. The next day, Ishraq received a phone call from the kidnappers demanding $100,000. When she insisted that she didn’t have the money, they made her listen while they beat him. After many threats and false assurances, she scraped together $60,000 for the safe return of her husband. “You wouldn’t believe what he looked like after five days of beating and no food. Even after he had been kidnapped from just outside his home in Baghdad, beaten, starved, and held for ransom, Luay still thought that maybe they could stay. He still wanted to stay. But the day after he was returned to his home he received a phone call from one of the kidnappers saying: “This is not your country, you have one day to leave.” “And so we had to leave, we had no choice,” Ishraq told me.
They packed what they could and drove to the Syria-Iraq border where, after some complications and a cold night spent in the car, they were able to get through. They went to the United Nations office in Damascus and started the application process for asylum in the United States. They lived in Qamishly, Syria, for one year and then moved to Damascus for another two years. They later learned it was their other Muslim neighbor who had summoned the kidnappers; this man and his family were squatting in the house that Ishraq’s long-time Christian neighbors had had to abandon.
During that first year in Qamishly, Luay got a visa to work in Italy. He went to Italy, and from there to Sweden, in an attempt to get permission to stay in Sweden legally. He showed them the pictures Ishraq took of him after the kidnapping and told them everything he went through. They didn’t believe him and refused to accept him and his wife as refugees. Meanwhile, back in Syria, Ishraq worked on their asylum application to America. They were accepted. While Ishraq and Luay waited for their visas, America closed its embassy in Syria due to the escalation of violence, but the Canadian embassy stayed open. Their application was quickly processed. And so they ended up in Canada, far away from her mother and sister, my good friends who live near me in Arizona.
Speaking with exiles like Ishraq and Luay stirs up my own memories of leaving Iraq. I look in the mirror and see a reflection of Nana Rahel, my paternal grandmother whose picture sits on my desk. A soft, wistful smile is on her face. The last time I saw her I was eight, when she and my grandfather came to visit us while we were refugees in Greece in the 1970s. Time, space, and age separate us, but we share a soul.
I can hear still my father’s voice in my ears back at the American consulate in Greece. He was asked: “You say you were persecuted in Iraq, but the Christians are not being killed in Iraq.”
“There are many kinds of persecution, there is persecution here,” he said, pointing his forefinger to his temple. I would not come to understand my father for many years; at the time all I felt was fury, and the confusion, loneliness, and pain of being existentially homeless. I’m sure my parents spared me from that kind of persecution by fleeing Iraq – but I paid another price, and suffered from other persecutions.
Separation from extended family is an essential element of exile – I recognize this sorrow in my fellow Middle Eastern immigrants. I think that Americans who readily move for jobs or personal desires do not grasp the gravity of displacement from family and home.
I also think American Christians have trouble grasping Eastern Christians’ response to persecution. American Christians are taught: “Fight for your rights!” And so it can be very difficult for Americans to understand people like my friend’s family and many others like them, who may respond with more passivity and submission to injury and injustice. Their apolitical and pacifist reaction is how these communities survived for almost two thousand years. They believe that when Jesus said, “Put your sword away” (Matt. 26:52; John 18:11), he meant it.
According to the International Society of Human Rights, a secular organization based in Frankfurt, Christians are the victims of 80 percent of all religious discrimination worldwide. A reality that Middle Eastern Christians know but most Americans deny is that whenever Western powers interfere in Muslim lands, the population tends to take it out on the local Christian population.
The Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture collaborated with the Religious Freedom Institute to study how Christians around the world respond to persecution. The project, called Under Caesar’s Sword, produced numerous resources to understand the persecution Christians are experiencing – from the nearly extinct Christians of Iraq and Syria to the less frequent persecution of Christians in Latin America – as well as a list of recommended actions Westerners can take, a documentary film, and a well-researched 2018 anthology titled Under Caesar’s Sword: How Christians Respond to Persecution, edited by Daniel Philpott and Timothy Shah.
Patterns emerge from this study: the attempts to transition to democracy in Muslim majority countries bring on an increase in anti-Christian violence; persecution is more widespread when it is state-sponsored; and yet across the world, most responses by Christians to their persecution are apolitical and nonviolent. This is a marked contrast to the West, where Christians regularly and voluntarily serve in the armed forces, obtain fire arms, agitate for their rights, use the court system to resist any breach of their freedoms, and attempt to gain political power to affect their society based on their beliefs.
What stands out about persecuted Christians in the East is that on the whole they do not take collective action to defend themselves against their persecutors. If they are allowed to form Christian militias or bear arms, they do so reluctantly. “Their fight is not primarily for their faith, but for their nation,” writes Carl Drott in Under Caesar’s Sword. The most common and historic response to persecution is endurance.
Flight is yet another response – one that does not always include geographic relocation; sometimes it means public recantation of the faith and the ceasing of public worship. This can distance subsequent generations from the faith. We don’t know to what extent Christians give up their faith across the world in the face of terror. Flight was the route my mother and father took when, under the guise of going on holiday, we left Baghdad in the summer of 1976 for Greece, where my father filed for asylum.
Christians in the region have sometimes been pressured to join political parties. The Ba’ath, Communist, and other socialist parties had rules about keeping your religion private and out of politics; thus they were open to all, Muslim and Christian alike. When we lived in Iraq my father was often approached by the Ba’ath Party, but always refused. Many Christians don’t join, because of the apolitical nature of the Christian communities in this region. However, after years of religious prejudice with little or no political power, these parties provided an opportunity for those Christians who were interested to finally enter politics on an equal footing with Muslims. During the twentieth century, the Communist Party in Iraq was the thinking person’s party, and it was very popular among Christians. When I’ve asked Christians what drew them to this, they have explained that they believed the values of the party approximated Christian values and that, unlike the Communist Party in Russia, it did not require them to be atheists. Every once in a while, a Christian would rise through the ranks of whatever regime was in power, but none tried to use it for political gain for their Christian community. If they had a high political rank, they were there to work for everyone, for the common good. Their goal was never to gain political power and wrest control for the benefit of the local Christian community. The goal of these Christians in political office was to live peaceably and create a better system for everyone. But such peaceful and inclusive periods eventually come to an end.
One point in particular drew my attention in Under Caesar’s Sword: a warning to Westerners and do-gooders not to debase true persecution by conflating it with the waning of their own cultural power. It cheapens what is happening across the world to Christians in non-Western nations, and it introduces complications for non-Western Christians who must convince officials – often secular and not usually sympathetic – of the truth of their persecution stories. Some Eastern Christians even fear the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. When Christians flee Iraq and Syria, they are afraid to register themselves and seek help from the organization because they fear retribution from government officials in their country of origin. If they register their names they will be known, and if they are not accepted for resettlement, they will not be able to return to their home country.
The nonviolent response of the Christian communities in that region goes back to the beginning, when these peoples first became Christian and believed that Jesus’s instructions to his disciples to put away the sword was a command for them as well. When this belief is coupled with being a conquered and persecuted people, it is not so hard to see why these communities don’t fight back. Violence against Christians began with the Son of God, Jesus the Christ, and continues until today. One might say that the East has a heavy emphasis on the theology of the cross whereas the West emphasizes Christ as victor. The cross and the resurrection are the lenses through which Christians across the world see themselves, often through one at the expense of the other. It’s too bad, because Christ encompasses both.
On a 2019 trip sponsored by the Philos Project, an organization working to educate Westerners about the conditions faced by Christians in the Middle East, I spent a week talking to Christians in Israel and the West Bank, including Palestinian Christian refugees from Gaza. As an Iraqi Christian, I felt in tune with them, speaking in Arabic on Middle Eastern soil.
Of those I met, the Christians living within Israel had greater stability and more opportunity to participate in politics, seek dialogue, and work to address the needs of their community, even when they are harassed by their neighbors.
The Christians from Gaza tended to be poor. It seemed they lived in fear of all: Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, and the State of Israel (if they are caught outside of Gaza by Israeli soldiers they are forced to return to Gaza, which makes them vulnerable to retaliation from Hamas). And so they keep their heads down; they attempt to work and live without drawing attention to themselves – praying for peace and a decent job so they can raise a family.
The Christians in the West Bank (now only about 1 percent of the population) are governed by the Palestinian Authority. Their age-old Christian villages are slowly shrinking, mostly due to emigration. While the Christian population is declining, the Muslim population is expanding. With this demographic change comes a corresponding change in local government and an increase in violence against the Christian population that stays behind. In one incident, a car accident between a Muslim and a Christian sparked trouble throughout the town, resulting in mob violence against the Christians. And when the town council called for mediation instead of police and court involvement, the priests advised the Christians to forgive, accept the mediation outcome, and move on. We met one young woman from a Christian village in the West Bank. Some Muslims in the village had become upset over a Facebook comment her brother made, and damaged their home and harassed the family. His family was called to mediation; he was asked to apologize, and the family was told that they must forgive those who assaulted them. They are Christian after all, and Christians are called to forgive.
This Christian call to forgiveness and nonviolent response is on the lips of priests throughout the Middle East. “The Muslim community knows we are called to forgive, they know it and they take advantage of a central creed of our religion,” one Christian told us. The push by clergy to forgive, to avoid going to court, and to live peaceable and quiet lives – as Saint Paul instructs Christians to do in the scriptures – at times frustrates Christians, not because they want to seek retaliation, but because they feel that the Muslim majority wields it as a weapon against them. And yet they do it nonetheless, because they are Christians, because they believe that is how Christ called them to live.
When I talk to Eastern Christians, they do not wish harm on their persecutors, nor do they want to forcibly convert them. In many ways they share a common ethos with Muslims. As Jesuit Islamic Scholar Fr. Samir Khalil Samir has said, Middle Eastern Christians share the same culture with Muslims, including their commitment to religion and concern about secularism. They mostly just want to be allowed to live in peace in the land of their heritage.
Luma Simms is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an associate fellow at The Philos Project, and the author of Gospel Amnesia: Forgetting the Goodness of the News.