Public relations entrepreneur and author Johnnie Moore has always had some idea that Christians were persecuted in the Middle East. But, like many Americans, Moore figured it was just another untenable norm of a region nearly defined by war and religious conflict.
When Moore traveled to northern Iraq just weeks before Mosul fell to ISIS forces in June 2014, what he found shocked him. Displaced Christians who had fled ISIS rather than convert to Islam were homeless, living on the steps of churches and on the kindness of a priest who formed a makeshift camp for them near the region's capital, Erbil.
“I was struck by their faith. They had regular lives with houses and cars and kids in college. They had the opportunity to convert and keep all of that and they chose to lose it all,” Moore said. “Every single one of them told me they felt forgotten.”
Moore didn’t forget. Returning from Iraq, he wrote a book published earlier this year called "Defying ISIS" and spearheaded an effort to move Christians out of Iraq. With the help of the Nazarene Fund, a donation effort dedicated to helping Arab Christians promoted by TV and radio personality Glenn Beck, Moore and his partners raised $12 million in aid. On Dec. 10, the Nazarene Fund relocated 149 Christians from northern Iraq to Slovakia. Moore says it’s the first of many rescue efforts the Nazarene Fund plans to make for vulnerable Christians.
As ISIS has advanced into Iraq and Syria, the world’s attention has understandably fixated on the plight of the millions of predominantly Muslim refugees fleeing violence. But Moore and his partners worry that Arab Christians and other religious minorities are being forgotten in the overwhelming need of refugees and others displaced by insurrection.
Some skeptics are concerned that the Nazarene Fund’s efforts are too focused on Christians and that they put a religious minority ahead of the needs of millions of Muslim refugees. In November, President Obama said that religion could not be a consideration when choosing what refugees to resettle to the United States.
“I’m happy for people who got rescued, but if this becomes the image of America, politically we’ve got a serious problem. And as Christians we have a problem,” Jesuit priest and National Catholic Review senior analyst Fr. Thomas Reese said. “We’re not being true to Christianity if we’re not helping and welcoming to all our brothers and sisters who are in need — not just Christians.”
But not to give the Christian and other religious minorities of the Middle East some sort of preferential aid could mean sentencing them to death and possibly putting an end to a Christian presence in the place of its birth, Moore said.
The CIA World Factbook estimates that Iraq's Christian population has dropped as much as 50 percent since 2003, when just over a million Christians were estimated to inhabit the country. Many have fled to the Kurdish region of Iraq. As of 2014, Christians were estimated to make up less than 1 percent of Iraq's 37 million residents. In Syria, CIA World Factbook estimates Christians made up 10 percent of Syria's population (about 2 million people), but with the civil war there, current numbers are unknown.
"They're a tiny minority," said Nina Shea, humanitarian lawyer, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom and one of Moore's partners. "If we don't stand up for them, what will happen to them?"
A religious conflict
Moore and the Nazarene Fund aren’t unsympathetic toward Muslims who face the same threat in ISIS as religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. Rather, he says, minorities like Christians and Yazidis — a minority steeped in oral tradition that integrates beliefs from the Quran, the Bible and an ancient Persian religion called Zoroastrianism — face a unique challenge in getting to safety because most aid organizations like the United Nations are set up to disregard religion — a noble goal in most cases.
Yet religion is the very reason ISIS wants to kill and has killed untold numbers of Christians and others who don’t subscribe to its version of Islam. In 2015, ISIS killed and beheaded dozens of kidnapped Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians in Libya as the world watched on YouTube.
In an inherently religious conflict like the war ISIS is waging, traditional aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees face a conundrum: Their missions clearly put a priority on helping the most “vulnerable or at-risk” populations, including people persecuted based on religion. Yet to avoid discrimination, they cannot show preference to one faith over another. As a private organization, the Nazarene Fund isn't bound by the same rules about religion.
“One of our lines we stick to is we help based on need, not creed,” said Nikki Gamer, Catholic Relief Services’ Europe, Middle East and Central Asia communications officer. “Anytime you single out a group to help, you’re leaving out so many other people.”
This philosophy is also often reflected in staffing for aid organizations.
“In our refugee resettlement program, most of our staff aren’t Catholic because we have to reflect the people we’re helping,” said Danielle Stamos, PR and marketing director for Catholic Community Services of Utah. “When you walk into our office, it’s like a little U.N.”
Actively trying to avoid religious discrimination makes perfect sense for aid organizations, Shea says, but those ideals aren’t always realistic on the grounds of a refugee camp, where minorities can be unpopular.
Some news agencies and aid groups, including Catholic fraternal organization the Knights of Columbus, have widely publicized how unsafe the camps are to religious minorities. Some claim ISIS even sends disguised assassins into the camps specifically to cleanse them of Christians. While those allegations aren’t proven, such rumors alone are likely enough to make minority Christians wary of going to a refugee camp.
Father Drew Christiansen, co-director of the Program on the Church and the World at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center, says that aside from religious differences, Arab Christians also avoid camps because, as once-protected minorities, they are often seen as supporters of controversial leaders like Saddam Hussein or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (In a political move to appear magnanimous, Hussein even appointed a Catholic foreign minister to his cabinet — Tariq Aziz, who died in prison in 2015.)
“The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to a breakdown of the secular regime and the conventions of protection for minority religions,” Christiansen said via email. “Christians came under attack by Muslim militias as scapegoats for the ‘Christian’ western troops who had invaded the country.”
As a result, Reese and Shea say, many Christians simply don’t go to refugee camps, either because they’re afraid or because they’re defiant about staying.
“It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that putting refugees from both sides of a war in the same camp doesn’t work,” Reese said. “It's important to add that some of the church leaders (in the Middle East) are not big on having their flock get on boats and leave for Europe or the U.S. To them, that means ISIS has won.”
With nowhere to go and few to help them, Arab Christians live in limbo, waiting for conditions to improve so they can resettle elsewhere in the same country or, better yet, go home. But with ISIS expanding its terrorist attacks to Europe and the U.S., the prospect of even a minority Christian presence in Iraq and Syria grows dimmer by the day. The choice for them now, Moore says, is to take their faith to another country or face genocide at home.
“We are literally watching the total eradication of Christianity in the place of its birth. Having survived the worst conquerors in history, now many of them didn’t survive 2014,” Moore said. “I’m not against the Islamic community, but I have a particular concern for my own community. It’s a terrible fallacy to believe you can’t stick up for an endangered minority and simultaneously care about the majority.”
Moore and The Nazarene Fund aren’t the only ones trying to help Christians in the Middle East. In September, a bill working its way through the House of Representatives urges Congress to officially designate the persecution of all religious minorities as genocide.
“The German people suffered terribly in World War II and that’s like the refugees we’re seeing here,” Shea said. “But the Christians (in Iraq and Syria) are like the Jews in that they’re actually being targeted. ISIS wants to eradicate them and wants to destroy their culture.”
If Congress adopts the resolution, Shea said it would be a huge help to keep members of religious minorities alive, but also to give them a place in the land where their faith originated.
“It’s extremely important for it to be recognized because of justice, but also in terms of resettlement — if there are reparations to be made or future claims to land,” Shea said. “Also, in the future the borders (of Iraq and Syria) will change and there’s not going to be an area for Christians the way things are now.”
Christiansen and Reese say that while they’re glad minority Christians are getting help, the focus needs to be on accepting more refugees from Iraq and Syria in general rather than just getting a handful of Christians out. Americans must be compassionate toward all Christian and Muslim refugees, they say, because this refugee crisis is largely America’s fault.
“Most people don’t want to admit this, but we broke it. You can’t knock (the Nazarene Fund) for rescuing a few hundred people,” Reese said. “But this kind of effort should not be held up as the ideal, but the exception. It can’t be the model.”
To pick and choose who to help now, based on religion, after a years-long ground war in Iraq, is too little, too late, Christiansen said — an appeal he first made to the United Nations in 2004. on behalf of the Vatican when the U.S. invaded Iraq.
“Western nations ought, at least, to offer apologies for their failure to rescue Christians any number of times in the last 25 years,” Christiansen said via email. “By disrupting the secular regime in Iraq and then making possible the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, U.S. policy caused the loss of two of the refuges of Middle Eastern Christians.”
Reese worries that singling out people to help based on religion will only create deeper divisions in an already religiously fraught conflict.
“I’d love to give all the Christians there an airplane ticket. But that’s an admission of absolute failure, that there can be no reconciliation. As a Catholic, I can’t accept that,” Reese said. “That’s part of the reason Pope Francis declared this the year of mercy: We have to have hope for inter-faith peace and reconciliation here and all over the world.”
But to Moore and the people helping him in his endeavor to save Arab Christians, reconciliation can only happen if two sides exist to meet in the middle — not if one side wipes the other out.
“This is a terrible tragedy because it didn’t have to be this way. World underestimated this threat and there are people who have lost absolutely everything because of it,” Moore said. “We’re focusing on safe and legal ways for Christians to immigrate. Otherwise, they’re going to die a very different death and the centuries-long Christian legacy and history might be lost.”