Stop the IS’s Genocide of Christians in the Middle East

I did not want to go to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, during our pilgrimage in Israel last week. It seems enough to know (without the accompanying tragic images) that European Jews of the last century endured an amount of suffering that boggles the mind.

Although violence and misery were everywhere during the dark years of World War II, the museum focuses on what has rightly been called the “crime of crimes,” or genocide. A U.N. convention defines it as an attempt to destroy a group through extermination, torture and forced deportation. At Yad Vashem you get a sickening understanding of the process and its vicious, systematic ruthlessness. European Jewry was coldly, efficiently and mercilessly reduced in a few short years from 9.5 to 3.5 million – not only an incalculable loss of God’s children, but of a whole beautiful and rich culture and community. During that hour in the museum, each person lost seems to clutch at your heart.

Later that week, far to the north of Jerusalem, we saw something else which clutched at our hearts. From the top of a ruined and bullet-pocked building on the Golan Heights we saw an eerily deserted Syrian town – dusty, dry and rubbled, with a church rising from its center. And we could hear the sound of constant bombing like low rumbles of distant thunder. Hazy puffs of black smoke on the horizon accompanied the sound of destruction and death.

As during the worldwide convulsions of World War II, death rains down on Syria indiscriminately – 500,000 souls lost in five years by some estimates. This is horror enough. But on top of that tragedy is the conscious and systematic attempt by the Islamic State group to cleanse the Middle East of its ancient Christian communities and their suffering people. The Islamic State group is not bashful about what it intends to do. Its members tell us in their magazine Dabiq: “We will conquer Rome, break your crosses and enslave your women.” And it “will continue to wage war against the Christians … thereafter the slave markets will commence in Rome.” The Caliphate has set its heart on the destruction of Christianity, and the cleansing of the land of the Christian people.
Christians are not interlopers or new arrivals. They have had an unbroken presence in the Middle East for 2,000 years – longer than Islam. Obviously Christianity was born there, and was one of the region’s major religions from the fourth century until the adherents of a new religion, the Muslims, conquered the land in the seventh century. But ancient Christian communities remained and even flourished: Catholics, Copts and Eastern Orthodox. In the early 20th century, Christians made up 20 percent of the population. Today they make up only 5 percent, a number which is falling as persecution is driving a steady exodus. Victims in Iraq note that persecution turned to genocide as far back as 2003, and that the Islamic State group is only taking up where al-Qaida and the Army of the Sunni People left off.
To document all the atrocities one has to jump from Nigeria, to Egypt, to Iraq and to Syria. Boko Haram bombing Christian neighborhoods and a Catholic Church in 2010; an attack on a Coptic Church in Alexandria; the Islamic State group shelling in Quarqosh; the heartstopping beheading of Copts on a Libyan beach last year; and even the bombing of Russian Metrojet Flight 244, with the Islamic State group taking credit for “the deaths of Eastern crusaders.”
Of course, the definition of genocide does not stop at killing, but includes causing serious bodily or mental harm. Here the cruelty of the Islamic State group knows no bounds. It is estimated that up to 1,500 Yazidi and Christian girls have been kidnapped as sex slaves, bought and sold in open slave markets, and raped by several fighters each night. One of the chief traumas experienced by Christians in the Middle East is that of kidnapping of a loved one. The anguish of imagining an absent husband or daughter’s suffering and torment is incomprehensible.

Yad Vashem means “place and name” from a verse in the Book of Isaiah: “Even unto them will I give in my house … a place and name … an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” The last exhibit is a powerful, towering cone papered with photographs and names – Polish, German, French and Russian from every country on the continent and books filled with 2.2 million pages of testimony from survivors. The repository of videos, pictures and documents preserves the names of the victims and the memories of the survivors with great tenderness.

In the Middle East there is still time to bravely, and strongly oppose the humanitarian and cultural disaster that is unfolding. Let us hope and pray that our leaders act now, so that there needn’t be another long list of genocide victims to remember.


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