If you’re like me, the constant stream of news concerning the wars in the Middle East can have a dizzying, deadening effect on your psyche. We know things are bad in Iraq. We see pictures from war-torn Syria. A photo of a child in distress reaches down to the depths of our hearts and alerts us once again to the carnage of war.
Yet because most of us are unfamiliar with the geography, and because most of us have no family or friends in the area, we find it hard to feel the tragedy of what is unfolding in the shadow of ISIS. Only when a Western nation is attacked do we sit up and take notice. The march of radical Islam in the Middle East is background noise until there is a terrorist attack that upsets the routine in our own culture.
Mindy Belz, a renowned reporter for World magazine, has been traveling to Iraq for more than a decade now. She knows the people. She knows the places. And she wants you to know them, too. Her book, They Say We Are Infidels, does just what its subtitle promises: it takes us on the run with Christians fleeing radical jihadis.
As a female reporter, Belz has access to people and places that most reporters do not. “I had a window into an under-explored world,” she writes of the women she interviewed, “the opportunity to see a perspective sometimes lost in larger venues and more powerful halls. The concerns, hopes, fears, and opinions women voiced in those settings sometimes cut across ethnic and religious lines. They held a pulse of popular opinion no one was polling.”
From Hopeful Beginnings to Chaotic Darkness
Mindy’s first visits to Iraq took place during the early days of the war, when Saddam was on the run and Iraqi Christians were chasing hope. But the story gradually unfolds into the chaotic darkness of ISIS-established caliphate. Belz’s reporting follows the trajectory of the country as a whole, from its first steps toward democracy to its stumble into the grip of radical Islam.
The city of Mosul, now in the fight of its life, was a beacon of hope at the beginning of the war. In 2004, General David Petraeus and his troops could walk the streets freely, even at night. Mindy explains:
“The city was poised to model what the rest of a new Iraq could look like. The 101st had led the way on D-Day, turning the tide of World War II, and it looked as if the airborne division might also create its own beachhead in Iraq.”
This was not to be. The Bush and Obama administrations both failed to protect religious minorities or fully comprehend the sectarian violence that would rush into the void of Iraq.
“American leaders exchanged the lives of those targeted by sectarian militants for the supposed advantage of appearing nonsectarian. The reluctance of Western leaders to intervene seemed to stem in part from a tragic misunderstanding.”
Belz expresses frustration in American leadership for failing to see political parties who wanted to a theocratic government as a threat:
“American planners would be dogged by two errors in judgment: underestimating how dangerous the terrorists truly were and ignoring the subtle differences dividing Islamic jihadists.”
Christianity’s Mass Exodus
Ironically, Christians had it better under Saddam, who was “an equal opportunity oppressor.” He was terrible, of course, but Christians had at least some measure of freedom and protection. In the void created by the Iraq War, Christians became targets. Churches were bombed. Christian schools came under attack. Convents were struck by missiles.
And then followed the mass exodus of Christians. “Lacking protection and support, about two-thirds of the Christians living in Iraq in 2003 had disappeared by 2011,” Belz writes. The disappearance of Christians is a devastating blow to the heritage of the Nineveh Plains, which sent two delegates to the Council of Nicea in AD 325.
As Christians fled, ISIS attacked, systematically stripping the country of any evidence of Christianity. Churches were destroyed, occupied, or converted into mosques. Militants posted videos on social media showing the demolition of Jonah’s tomb—a site revered by Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
Death and Destruction
As the situation worsens, we feel the increasing risks of Mindy’s reporting, signified by her newfound discomfort in appearing without her head covering.
“Only a few years before, women in Mosul wore Western clothes. Now even Christian women did not take to the streets without head coverings.”
One cannot separate the personal from the professional. As Mindy hears of the deaths of her friends and coworkers, we feel her grief and horror. By the end of the book, the description of Christians and Yazidis who climbed Mount Sinjar is reminiscent of what we might read of WWII’s concentration camps.
“Once they scaled Mount Sinjar, those escaping the city were trapped without water, shelter from the sun, or provisions. With the rising of a direct late-summer sun, forty-five children died of thirst within the first hours of the next day. At least fifty elderly people perished that same day. ISIS fighters who chased them killed 1,500 men, all with wives and children watching. The dead were mostly Yazidis, but those trapped on the mountain included fifty Christian families who had escaped Sinjar as the terrorists took over the Syriac church and covered its cross with the black ISIS flag. . . .
“The number of captives killed on Mount Sinjar would quickly rise to 1,500, then to 2,600, and eventually to more than 7,000.”
“. . . dead bodies lying everywhere among the exposed rock and dust of Mount Sinjar. Parents threw children from the mountain rather than watch them die or be captured by ISIS. After everyone’s cell phones had died, he said, runners—mostly young men willing to risk being caught—delivered updates on new deaths.”
Feeling the Situation and Suffering
The situation may be hopeless, but Christians have hope. And courage. Mindy’s interview with a bishop stands out to me as a picture of Christian faithfulness in the midst of tragedy:
“Not giving in to the devastation, the sixty-seven-year-old bishop told me he had just returned from officiating at a wedding. His route took him through areas of rubble and cratered buildings. After two years of civil war, the debris was so pervasive that even when the bombs weren’t falling, the limestone and concrete dust was rising. Aleppo was one of the largest cities in the Middle East, its old center with its ancient souk and citadel among the best preserved anywhere, until the war. Day or night, the air now hung thick with war debris, the crumbled buildings exhaling their losses so unceasingly that satellite imagery captured the haze from space, thick like a cloud covering. Militants kidnapped two prominent clergymen in Aleppo, but Bishop Audo wasn’t changing his routines, except to wear regular clothes rather than vestments in the streets. He refused to hire his own security, even though he was a well-known church leader throughout the country, with a distinctive crop of white hair. As rector at St. Joseph’s, he continued to hold a daily Eucharist service, earlier than usual so that parishioners wouldn’t have to walk home in the dark. Twenty to thirty people were coming. Every day on his way to and from the church and on visits, he saw dead bodies in the streets. ‘I am not afraid. It’s a question of confidence. I am confident of God’s provision as I am doing my job, and I like to go in the streets to feel the situation and the suffering of the people,’ he said.”
“Feeling the situation and suffering of the people.” Those of us in the comfortable confines of American homes may not feel the situation and suffering of these people like Mindy, or Bishop Audo, or other Christian leaders do.
But thanks to Mindy Belz’s excellent reporting, we can admire the courage of Christians in the Middle East. We can pray for peace and justice to reign. We can support refugees fleeing these countries. And we can make sure that next time we see a headline on the news ticker, we remember our brothers and sisters in need.