Over the weekend social media sites exploded with outrage over reports that the Islamic militant group ISIS was beheading Christian children in Iraq. The news is horrific and disturbing — but is it true?

The source of the claim comes from Mark Arabo in an interview with CNN. Arabo says that ISIS is “systematically beheading children” and that “there is a park in Mosul in which heads of beheaded children are put on a stick.”

Arabo is businessman in San Diego, California who is described as a “spokesperson for the Iraqi Chaldean community in San Diego County.” Arabo has been instrumental in promoting House Resolution 663, a resolution that expresses an “urgent need to protect religious minorities from persecution.” While he is a passionate spokesman for Iraqi Chaldeans and obviously sincere in his convictions, there is reason to question whether his claim about beheaded children is true.

There is no doubt that ISIS is persecuting the Christians in Mosul and other areas of Iraq. But almost all have already fled the city and the few that remain are continuing to leave the area. There are, however, journalists from Iraq and Western news agencies still in the city. Why have none of them taken photographs of these atrocities, or even reported on their occurrence? Why have such stories not been reported by the Christians who have fled to the cities controlled by the Kurds?

If Arabo was able to get news of such atrocities in San Diego, why has no one else heard stories of this ongoing tragedy?

Fueling the speculation has been websites, like Catholic Online, that purport to have pictures of children beheaded by ISIS. (The images on the site are extremely graphic and disturbing. I’d advise not looking at them.) Catholic Online, which is not officially connected to the Catholic Church, has only one picture that could be of a beheaded child. But there is no way to know whether it is real or whether it occurred in Iraq. There is no source or context for the photos and the story is credited to “News Consortium.”

One of the pictures that Catholic Online includes — and that has become ubiquitous on social media — shows a baby with three rifles pointed at his head (see image above). While the image is outrageous, it was not a photo taken of ISIS in northern Iraq.

The photo originally appeared online April 11, 2014 on the Facebook page of a person from Yemen. Numerous people on that page attest that the clothes the child is wearing are obviously Yemeni. A few days later, though, the image started popping up on pro-Syrian Army websites claiming that it was an Armenian child who was taken by Syrian rebels. Whatever the original context for the photo, we know based on the date alone that it was not recently taken in Mosul or northern Iraq.

While it is possible that children are being beheaded by ISIS in Iraq, there is currently no credible evidence to support that claim. We should pray this report turn out to be just rumor and that whatever other crimes are being committed, that God is sparing the children of Iraq from “systematic beheading.”

As Christians, we have a duty to champion the truth. We should avoid spreading unsubstantiated claims and inflaming dread and panic by playing on people’s natural disgust of harm to children. ISIS is an organization that has committed heinous acts of violence and violated the human rights of many of our fellow believers. But we must not partake in the spreading of lies, even if it is against our enemies.


UPDATE #1: Many people in the comments and on TGC Twitter feed have mentioned the picture of the headless girl shown on Catholic Online. The story about the girl goes back to 2013. It’s claimed she is a Muslim Syrian girl named Fatima Meghlaj and that she was decapitated when Syrian forces shelled her home.

UPDATE #2: Several people have also mentioned the claim by Canon Andrew White that a child he baptised was “cut in half” by ISIS. I’ve interviewed Canon White before and find him to be a man who is truly committed and concerned about Iraqis. I find his comment rather cryptic, though, and think we should be careful about putting too much weight behind it. Perhaps he believes it is an isolated incident or that by “cut in half” he meant by gunfire or artillery shelling rather than by the sword.

Assuming Canon White’s claim is completely accurate, we still have to ask why other Christians in the area are not reporting the story. Why have no journalists yet been able to confirm these claims of “systematic beheadings?”

UPDATE #3: Someone on Facebook reminded me of a quote by C. S. Lewis that seems apropos:

“Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, `Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally, we shall insist on seeing everything – God and our friends and ourselves included – as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.” – C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity