After a 1,400-year-old Iraqi Christian monastery was recently destroyed by the Islamic State (ISIS) most of the world condemned the demolition — except for spokesman for the U.S. military’s Operation Inherent Resolve, Col. Steve Warren.
“Thousands [of Iraqi Christians] have been killed, hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee,” noted CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in an interview with Col. Warren last week. “There is legitimate fear – you’re there in Baghdad – that the long history of Christians living peacefully, productively in Iraq, is coming to an end. How worried should we be about the Christian community in Iraq?”
The response: “Wolf, ISIL doesn’t care if you’re a Christian … We’ve seen no specific evidence of a specific targeting towards Christians.”
Wrong: Roughly two-thirds of Iraq’s 1.5 million Christian citizens have been killed or forced to flee the country by ISIS and its jihadi predecessors over the past decade—and this has everything to do with their religious identity.
In Iraq and everywhere else it has conquered, ISIS has, at a minimum, rigorously enforced on pain of death Islam’s dhimmi laws, which require Christians to pay extortion money (jizya) and agree to live by a set of degrading rules.
Often, ISIS fighters skip these formalities and simply torture to death Christians who refuse to convert to Islam, sometimes releasing the footage online for propaganda purposes. Most notable are two videotaped mass executions of 21 Egyptians and 30 Ethiopians in Libya last spring, but there have been many lesser-known cases. When a group of Iraqi Christian children refused to renounce Christ in 2014, saying “No, we love Jesus,” ISIS decapitated and mangled their bodies. Last summer in Aleppo, Syria, ISIS tortured, mutilated, publicly raped, beheaded and crucified 12 Christians for refusing to convert. Escaped eyewitnesses have reported ISIS places Iraqi and Syrian Christians in cages or coffins and sets them on fire.
ISIS has frequently kidnapped Christians and demanded ransom payments for their release, often forcing female captives into sexual slavery. A 12-year-old girl, raped by an Islamic State fighter, was told that “what he was about to do was not a sin” because she “practiced a religion other than Islam.” ISIS has even sent operatives disguised as refugees into U.N. refugee camps in Jordan to kidnap young Christian girls to sell or use as slaves.
The Islamic State is committed to expunging all physical traces of Christianity in areas it conquers, demolishing dozens of ancient churches—in Syria alone, up to 400 churches have been destroyed since the war—not to mention countless crucifixes, statues, graves, and other relics. It ordered the University of Mosul to burn all books written by Christians and decreed that all schools in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain that bore Christian names (some since the 1700s) be changed.
As for the occasion of Warren’s comments—ISIS’ destruction of a 1,400 year-old monastery—this is nothing new. Last summer ISIS set fire to a 1,800 year-old church in Mosul and bulldozed a 1,600 year-old monastery in Homs for “worshipping a God other than Allah.”
In short, Christians are certainly experiencing “specific targeting” by the Islamic State. While ISIS has also killed Muslims who get in its way, only non-Muslims—chief among them Christians—are being enslaved, raped, and forced on pain of death to convert to Islam. Although Islamic law, or Sharia, legitimizes the killing, enslavement, and rape of non-Muslims, it prohibits treating fellow Muslims accordingly.
Few informed observers dispute that the Iraqi Christian community is gravely and specifically threatened by ISIS. According to the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial, ISIS persecution of Christians “fits the definition of ethnic cleansing.” Even David Saperstein, the United States ambassador at large for religious freedom, acknowledges that it is “primarily Christians” being persecuted in Iraq for their faith.
For the official spokesman of the U.S. military’s fight against ISIS to make such clueless and callous remarks to the contrary is deeply disconcerting. But perhaps Col. Warren is not to blame—perhaps he’s just a military man doing his best to comply with demands from politicians upstairs that he say nothing to acknowledge the suffering of Mideast Christians.