Outrage has been growing over the last few months as the Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS) has continued to expand its ruthless control over parts of Syria and Iraq. Christians worldwide have been particularly concerned about the effect of this expansion on Christian communities in the region.
The Iraqi city of Mosul has had a Christian presence for 1,700 years but saw the community's numbers dwindle from 30,000 to just a few thousand in the last year. Now the last remaining Christians in Mosul have fled the city following an order from the Islamic State to convert, pay tribute or die. And within the last few days the largest predominantly Christian city in Iraq, Qaraqosh, and other Christian villages have fallen to the Islamic State.
Many are calling what is happening in Iraq a genocide.
Courtney is the founder and executive director of the group Preemptive Love, which is based in cities around Iraq, with the mission of "[eradicating] the backlog of Iraqi children waiting in line for lifesaving heart surgery" and pursuing "peace between communities at odds."
Jeremy arrived in Iraq seven and half years ago with his wife Jessica and their then-1-year-old daughter.
"We wanted to be a part of the relief after war," Courtney told me via phone from Atlanta, where he is speaking as part of a long-planned fundraising tour for Preemptive Love.
Courtney, a Christian, told me about the excitement and hope he has felt in Iraq, providing needed surgeries for children, even in the face of the severe obstacles there.
"We have friends on all sides and have heard Shia and Sunni grievances as well as Kurds and others," he said. "We really have deep relations on all sides of the conflict."
A couple of weeks ago Courtney and his family and friends were having their morning prayer when he received some unwelcome news.
"We were praying for everyone: the government, the Kurds, ISIS, everyone," he told me. "When I heard about how Mosul had been overrun, and that Christian houses were being marked by the symbol 'N,' I was overcome with emotion and just decided to try to do something on Twitter and grabbed a red marker."
— Jeremy Courtney (@JCourt) July 20, 2014
This #WeAreN hashtag became immensely popular among Christians who are concerned about the safety of Christians in the Middle East and around the world. But that was not Courtney's only goal.
"We had been talking about the plight of Christians and other minorities for weeks," he explained. "My hope was to get Christians to care about all the religious minorities, not just the plight of Christians. Our heart is for all of our community -- and others have fared worse than Christians."
World supports #WeAreN, but true solidarity stands for Yazidi, Turkmen, Shabak, & others targeted, which is hard when you don't ID w/ them.
— Jeremy Courtney (@JCourt) July 24, 2014
I asked Courtney for his opinion on what Christians might be able to do to help Christians on the ground in Iraq, and his answer surprised me and might surprise Christians and non-Christians alike:
We need a long-term plan, not just a short-term fix. There are agencies helping Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Shabak and others, and those services are necessary. But this isn't only about what Obama or Maliki must do now. The Christian church needs to reconsider its relationship with violence; that is part of what has landed us and others in this dire situation. We cannot carp about Christian persecution and not talk about violence and our use of violent solutions. We need a 40- to 50-year plan so that when the time comes to overthrow the next dictator, we are not as blind to our own complicity and stuck with short-term gains.
Over email I asked Courtney what scripture he turns to for inspiration during this difficult time, and he wrote back:
A lot of us fear looking to the Torah when discussing violence, but this beautiful verse from the Creation poem deeply challenges me as I think about violence and our violent responses to it:
"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."
If we are all created in God's image, then the violence ISIS commits against religious minorities, Sunnis, and Shia is not just a crime against humanity, it is actually an attack on the Creator of the Universe. But then the converse is also true -- if the men who have aligned themselves with ISIS are created in the image of God -- then violence done against them is somehow violence done against God.
We fixate on their evil and depravity, for good reason. But somehow God's image in them is something we are willing to complete discount as we seek solutions.
It's complicated, but this is what theology is for, otherwise it's completely useless.
For more information on Preemptive Love, please visit preemptivelove.org.