Fresh off of the previous Lord of the World post here at Life At 25 about the novel from 1907 that details with a stunning amount of accuracy the kind of world we might live in today, as well as telling the story of a great and terrible persecution of Christians until the end of all things, we have a very real story of serious persecution of Christians in the Middle East, If you don’t know what this Arabic character is, it is the letter nūn, and it was written on the homes of Christians in Mosul and surrounding communities in Iraq when the forces of ISIS/ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) took control of that area. ISIL has declared the establishment of a new caliphate, over which their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is Caliph. That may seem like silly bluster to our modern ears, but caliphates have not only existed before, but when followed through upon, Islamic caliphates historically tend to be powerful and long-lasting, usually because the Christian world has either been too preoccupied or too divided to deal with the expansionist tendencies of Islamic caliphates. One way that we can know that this new caliphate means business is that the letter nūn was specifically placed on the doors of Christians (to signify “Nazarene”), not unlike what was done to Jews in Nazi Germany. According to the traditional practices of caliphates, the Christians were reportedly given three choices: Convert to Islam, pay the Jizya tax (a traditional tax applied to non-Muslim “people of the Book”) in order to avoid a forced conversion, or leave with nothing but the clothes on their backs. At least one source that I’ve read claims that the Jizya that ISIL is charging Christians is the equivalent of around $250, which most of us could come up with, but is a lofty amount of money for many people in that part of the world.
The Catholic Patriarch of the Chaldeans has warned that the Church in Iraq faces nothing short of catastrophe, while the Washington Times reports that the Christians of Mosul don’t put much stock in the promises of peace if they pay the tax. Many of them apparently believe that this tax is being levied less for reasons of Islamic tradition and more for reasons of extortion. There seems to be no desire on the part of any outside powers to stop ISIL from establishing their caliphate in the areas under their control. We should have some concern based on the history of our faith with the last successful caliphate, that of the Ottoman Empire, which ISIL claims to wish to model itself after. The Empire of the Ottoman Caliphate called itself “the Eternal State,” while the new caliphate is simply using the name “the Islamic State.” Many historians often point to the cultural achievements of the Ottoman Empire, but the reality is that Christians were treated as dhimmi in accordance with Islamic law for much of that Empire’s history. That meant that Christians had the right to worship (so long as they paid the jizya), but their other freedoms were limited. These restrictions were in place until the 19th Century, when the “Eternal State” abolished them not because of some moral awakening, but because the Ottoman Empire desperately needed the support of Western powers in the Crimean War. This history is important, because if a caliphate is what is being built in Iraq and Syria, conditions may improve for the Christians there over a very long period of time (as they did under Ottoman rule), but not before a great amount of suffering.
Caliphates have generally been built and survive by conquest, and that is how ISIL appear to be building the caliphate that they are now claiming exists. The power of the Ottoman Caliphate eventually did recede, but not before Muslim armies literally made it as far as the very gates of Vienna. The Battle of Lepanto in 1571 is seen as the decisive battle that insured that there would be no further Muslim expansion into the West at that time. It is seen as so important to the survival of Christendom that we still commemorate the victory every year on the liturgical calendar on October 7th with the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, because the Holy Rosary had been prayed on the eve of the battle.
I’ve been told in the past by Muslim friends and acquaintances (regular readers may recall that I have discussed my “up close and personal” encounter with Islam here) who are more attune to Western culture that the average Muslim on the Street in the Near East that many of those Muslims (who have never seen the West) can see Western television shows, movies, clothing, or even video games in some places, and they are still operating under the notion that the West is Christian. A former professor of mine once commented that Dallas was the most popular program on Saudi television. Even censored Western movies and shows leave an impression of Western culture that would be negative to a good Muslim, and should be negative to a good Christian as well. People in the Muslim world are often left with the impression of a Western culture that is gratuitously violent, vulgar, disrespects religion, is immodest, overly obsessed with sex, and deeply materialistic. “Gosh, Oatney,” you might say, “that doesn’t seem too far off the mark, really.” Perhaps not, but keep in mind that many people in Muslim countries equate the West with Christianity. When we understand this, we can then better see how a devout Muslim in a place like Syria, the Arabian Peninsula, Jordan, or Iraq might say to themselves “it is fun to learn who shot J.R., but if this is what Christianity brings to a country or a society, we want no part of that.”
Can we blame Muslims in the Near East for thinking this? If that were my impression of Christian civilization, I’m not sure I’d be too friendly to it, either. Of course, many Western countries abandoned their Christian heritage in every way but on paper a long time ago, and our own country seems to be on a collision course with that same cultural destination. Part of the reason for this (in this writer’s humble opinion) is that the Christians of the West, most especially the Christians of our own country, have gotten entirely too comfortable in our own skin. We are justifiably angry over things like the HHS contraceptive mandate and the increasing exclusion of Christian thought from public life. The marginalization of the Church upsets us. No one is marking our doors and telling us to convert, pay up, or get out of town, and that hasn’t ever been done on a large scale in this country. We do not know what it is like to be persecuted for the sake of Christ, really persecuted for the sake of the Holy Name of Jesus. Our brothers and sisters in Iraq, Palestine, and Jordan, meanwhile, are losing their property and their livelihoods for the sake of the faith, or their very lives at worst.
We should not only pray for our persecuted brethren, but pray that the Holy Spirit might send us some means of having solidarity with them so that we can truly better comprehend their plight and understand and respond accordingly. As one Iraqi abbot rightly said: “Nice words and sympathy statements are not enough. There should be deeds and practices.”