Tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians were forced to flee Qaraqosh, a historic Christian town near Mosul, when it was attacked by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) last week. The group has since announced the creation of a formal Islamic state – a caliphate – in territory under its control, intensifying the threat to the vulnerable Christian minority.
The militants launched an assault on Qaraqosh last Wednesday (25 June), driving its predominantly Christian population of around 40,000 to seek refuge in Kurdish-controlled areas.
The town had previously been a relatively safe haven for Iraqi Christians, and many had gone there from Mosul when it was taken over by ISIS on 10 June.
Kurdish forces were able to repel ISIS from Qaraqosh, allowing some people to return to their homes, at least for the time-being. But their security is extremely precarious as ISIS continues to expand its territory. Since capturing Mosul and Tikrit, the militants have taken border crossings to Jordan and Syria.
What is the significance of the caliphate today?
In the orthodox Sunni Muslim view, the ideal form of the Muslim polity is a universal Islamic state (the caliphate, khilafa) ruling the whole Muslim community (umma) under sharia and led by a strong Muslim ruler (the caliph, khalifa) who is seen as Muhammad’s legitimate successor. The golden age of early Islam, of Muhammad and his successors, the “rightly guided” (rashidun) first four caliphs, is seen as a model to strive for at all times. In history, the unity of umma and state was often broken by the fragmentation of the Islamic state into competing smaller states, a trend strengthened under colonial rule, which introduced false borders to divide the Muslim umma. While many moderate Muslims accept the status quo as Allah’s will, a punishment for their sins to be born patiently until Allah again intervenes directly in the affairs of his community, contemporary Islamists have defined the classical idea of one transnational community governed by the one Muslim ruler, the caliph, who fully implements sharia, as the main duty of all Muslims. They therefore agitate for an Islamic state under sharia, a goal that is to be achieved by implementing it first in individual Muslim states that will then merge into one Islamic super-state. This will then be expanded to all non-Muslim states as the prelude to the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate that will dominate the whole world. To achieve this goal, all governing systems opposed to Islamist ideology, believed to be of human origin and replacements for Allah’s model for Islam, must be abolished and replaced. While some Islamists advocate a gradual approach, the radicals insist that violent jihad is the only Allah-commanded way of achieving the caliphate.
Barnabas Fund has been providing aid to Iraqi Christians forced to flee their homes.
On Sunday (29 June) – marking the first day of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting – ISIS declared the restoration of the caliphate, a united Islamic state under one ruler or caliph, in the cross-border territory it controls, from the northern Syrian province of Aleppo to the eastern Iraqi province of Diyala. The group said it will now be known simply as the Islamic State, indicating that it is no longer confined to Iraq and Syria.
The jihadists have already been operating a de facto Islamic state in places under their control. They published sharia rules for people living in Mosul and are now demanding that Christians who remain there pay the jizya, an Islamic tax that, while guaranteeing a level of protection from violence, is a humiliating sign of non-Muslim submission as second-class citizens.
The militants are demanding at least US$250 from each Christian, and many simply cannot afford to pay. Their alternatives are to convert to Islam or leave; otherwise they may be attacked or even killed. In one reported incident, a man was forced to watch as ISIS fighters raped his wife and daughter because the family could not pay.
Christians in Islamic State territory are clearly in extreme danger. On Saturday (28 June), two nuns, Miskintah and Utoor Joseph, and three young Christians, Hala Salim, Sarah Khoshaba and Aram Sabah, went missing, feared kidnapped. They disappeared on their return to Mosul, having taken orphaned girls to the city of Dohuk for their safety.
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Fund, said:
This is one of the darkest hours ever for Christians in Iraq. Our brothers and sisters are being repeatedly uprooted as the jihadists advance, imposing their brutal version of Islam. For those who cannot escape for whatever reason, the situation is even more dire. Please continue to help us meet the needs of Christians who are caught up in this escalating crisis.
If you would like to help Iraqi Christians, please send a donation to Iraq – Feeding Christian Families (project 20-246).
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