Writing on Religion: Religious persecution, perhaps genocide, in Iraq


Mark E. Rondeau

I would prefer to write in this column about harmony between religions and between religious denominations within religions, whether locally or globally. Unfortunately, however, the biggest news this week has to do with religious persecution in Iraq, both against Christians and against another minority group called the Yazidis.

Yazidis belong to ancient religion seen by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group as heretical. The group also sees Shiite Muslims as apostates, and has demanded Christians either convert to Islam or pay a special tax, according to the Associated Press.

In the wake of ISIS, large groups of people expelled from their homes or fleeing violence has exacerbated Iraq’s already-dire humanitarian crisis, with some 200,000 Iraqis joining the 1.5 million people already displaced from violence this year, according to the AP.

The U.S. has begun both humanitarian aid and launched airstrikes, both to protect Americans in the city of Irbil and to prevent genocide of religious minorities.

According to the AP, "Expanding from their stronghold of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, the militants have captured a string of surrounding towns and even the country’s largest hydroelectric dam and reservoir in recent weeks, solidifying their hold. Ethnic and religious minorities in particular have fled in fear as their towns fall.

"U.S. cargo planes on Thursday dropped relief supplies to tens of thousands of Yazidis -- half of them children, according to the U.N. -- who have been trapped on a remote desert mountain for days without food and water after militants took their town of Sinjar near the Syrian border, according to witnesses in Sinjar, who asked not to be identified for security reasons."

The AP report quotes a man displaced by from the mainly Christian town of Hamdaniya by mortar fire on Wednesday. "We want a solution," the man said, giving only his first name. "We don’t to flee our homes and jobs like this -- what is our future?"

In other reports:

* The spokesman for Iraq’s human rights ministry says hundreds of women from the Yazidi religious minority have been taken captive by militants from the Islamic State group. Kamil Amin says the women are below the age of 35 and some are being held in schools in Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. He said the ministry learned of the captives from their families. (AP report on Friday)

* According to an article by Gil Shefler of Religion News Service, "Senior leaders in Iraq’s minority Yazidi community say their wives and daughters, forcibly held by Islamic militants, are being given a choice: Convert to Islam and marry jihadists -- or else."

Later in the article, "Even in a long history marred by persecution, this week’s tragic events stood out. Prince Tahseen Said, the 81-year-old leader of the community, who has lived through many exiles and massacres, has called it the worst violence against Yazidis in his lifetime and beseeched the international community to intervene.

"Yazidis are a Kurdish-speaking people who follow an ancient religion blending elements of Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity, and local folk beliefs. Several hundred thousand followers live in Sinjar and Sheikhan, two regions just west and east of Mosul. Smaller communities of Yazidis live in Syria, Armenia and Germany."

The Yazidis have distinctive conical temples (see photo on this page), they worship a peacock-like deity called Melek Taus and hold elaborate ceremonies that involve fire and water.

"Yezidism is a syncretic religion that takes from a variety of different traditions, some Zoroastrianism, Islamic, and a little bit of animism," said Austin Long, professor of international affairs at Columbia University in New York, quoted in the article. "It’s a mixed religion with a long-standing history in Iraq. Most are Kurds, ethnically."

(Also, see article on page 3B.)

* The Catholic Near East Welfare Association has published a report on persecution in northern Iraq, written by Christina Patto, vice president of the Assyrian Aid Society of Iraq. It’s a sad and disjointed account of murder, rape, children dying of thirst, 1,500 Yazidi men being shot in front of their families and more.

"More than (70) girl(s) and women (including Christians) were taken, raped and being captured and sold. More than (100) families are captured in Tel afar airport," Patto writes. "There is about (50) Christian families in Sinjar. The terrorists were able to control the Syriac church there and cover the Cross with their black banner. Till now we do not know anything about those Christian families."

Near the end, Patto understandably notes, "pls excuse my chaotic writing and expression, we are all in a bad situation."

* From the Vatican, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, declared "These are acts against humanity."

Sandri lamented that "more than 100,000 Christians...had to leave their homes, churches and villages" in the plain of Nineveh in Iraq in the night and "now wander to the city of Irbil in impossible conditions," trying to survive.

Such persecution makes the issue of whether rich corporation owners should have to pay for insurance coverage that might provide the coporation’s employees types of birth control the owners don’t like (as was the point in the Hobby Lobby case) seem rather ridiculous as a test of religious liberty. At least to me.

However, I do not buy into the common bias that religion is the foremost cause of war in history, though I do agree with the Rev. Richard Rohr that religion does tend to help produce either the best or the worst type of people. I did not support either Iraq war and was quite vocal against the last one. I do, however, support armed intervention to protect Americans in Iraq and to prevent genocide of religious minorities by ISIS.

Christians date back in the Middle East to apostolic times, as one might expect, given that this is where Jesus was born and conducted his public ministry. Increasingly, with the rise of fundamentalist political Islam in the region, they are all being driven out -- or murdered. The situation is clearly even more dire for the poor Yazidis. Shia Muslims and Turkmen are also being persecuted.

Organizations trying to help the refugees include Catholic Relief Services.

To find out more, visit http://emergencies.crs.org/iraq-crs-caritas-reach-displaced-families/

Mark E. Rondeau is the Banner’s religion editor. Email: mrondeau@benningtonbanner.com. Twitter: @banner_religion


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