In 2003, as President George W. Bush unleashed his invasion of Iraq-based on the false premise of WMDs- for the overarching goal of reengineering the Arab world to conform to Western notions of governance and economics, the Christian community of that ancient Mesopotamian land numbered 1.5 million, representing some 5 percent of the Iraqi population. At present, eleven years after the disastrous American intervention, the Christian community in Mesopotamia has dwindled by more than two thirds. How many remain is hard to estimate; credible figures range from under half a million to as low as 200,000, the latter estimate postulated by The Economist. How ironic that the most powerful Christian-majority nation on the planet unleashed a series of events in the heart of the Arab world that may see the eventual extinction of the nearly two-millennia old Christian community in Mesopotamia.
Christianity predates Islam in the Middle East by hundreds of years. With the establishment of the Arab empires following the death of the Prophet Mohammed, particularly the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates, the status of minorities within the Islamic world became defined as dhimma, an Arabic term defining the granting of a minority religion the right to practice their faith and establish communal institutions, but with restrictions and requirements that enshrined their submission to the Muslim state, including payment of a special tax, referred to in Arabic as the jizya. The dhimma status was granted to Christians and Jews, both peoples recognized as being "people of the book." Other religious minorities were deprived of any protection, and regarded as pagan heresies.
Despite the rights granted under the dhimma status, the Christians in the Arab world never had an easy existence, even under the best of circumstances. Under the Caliphate of the Ottoman Turks, the plight of the Christians actually worsened. Nearly a century ago, approximately 1.5 million Armenian Christians died during a massive ethnic cleansing campaign carried out by the Ottoman Empire during the early period of the First World War-the first genocide of the 20th century.
The period of European colonial rule that followed World War I, which included the creation of artificial, multi-ethnic and religious entities under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and subsequent independence of these nations after World War II, allowed a brief period in which Christians in the Arab world could coexist with the Muslim majority in a context where Arab nationalism temporarily transcended religious identity. That is no more. The radioactive half-life of the U.S. military intervention in Iraq has demolished the thin veneer of secular nationalism that defined the post-World War II Arab Middle East, and opened a Pandora's box of repressed 7th Century religious fanaticism that may well spell doom for the ancient Christian communities in much of the Arab world.
The recent onslaught of the armies of the Islamic State, under the brutal but militarily effective leadership of its self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, has led to the seizure of large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. The very heart of the Christian communities in Mesopotamia have now fallen under the control of the Islamic State. The caliphate has made clear its attitude towards the Christians: they are "crusaders," and therefore Islam's number one enemy. In Mosul and other towns with substantial Christian communities, the Islamic State quickly laid down its policy towards these beleaguered people; convert to Islam, pay the jizya tax or be put to death. Initially, they are also being allowed to flee with no more than the clothes on their backs. In short order, even that option will likely be denied them. The largest Christian town in Iraq, Qaraqosh, with a population of 50,000, has now fallen to the Islamic State. Their future is indeed dire.
Most movements that commit large-scale massacres typically keep their blood-soaked deeds secretive. With the Islamic State, the opposite is the case. The caliphate has placed on the Internet a score or more of videos displaying with boastful pride the mass shootings and beheadings of Shiites in Iraq and Alawites in Syria. If this is the manner in which the Islamic State deals with Muslims who don't follow the Sunni tradition, can there be any doubt as to the ultimate fate that will befall the Christians of the Arab world who fall under the control of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi and his fanatical followers?
A horrific fate awaits the Christians in the Arab world, particularly in Iraq and Syria. Yet, the world is silent. The progressive left wing has its own ideological agenda, to which the Christians of the Middle East are irrelevant. The two most powerful Christian-majority countries, the United States and Russia, are too distracted by a crisis both nations manufactured over another Christian-majority country, Ukraine, to intervene and prevent the unfolding slaughter.
The first genocide of the twenty-first century approaches, yet the world displays profound indifference. As we all bear witness to another mass extermination in human history, it is a scathing reminder that the capacity of the human race to forget the lessons of the past remains daunting.
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