Christians and other non-Muslim groups in Iraq are undergoing extreme hardship and daily threats by the Islamist militant group that identifies itself as Islamic State.
Of all the groups being targeted by the militants, the crisis for Iraqi Chaldean Christians has struck close to home in San Diego.
According to KPBS, an estimated 80,000 Iraqis have settled in San Diego. A majority of those who have settled here are Chaldeans.
According to the BBC, Chaldean Christians are members of an autonomous Catholic Church that contains a unique liturgy and tradition while still recognizing the Pope’s authority.
Chaldeans form the majority of Iraq’s estimated 700,000 Christians. Iraqi Christians and non-Muslim groups such as Yazidis are being targeted by Islamic State, which calls for their immediate conversion to Islam. If they choose not to convert, Christians and other non-Muslim groups face danger and possible death at the hands of the militants.
The crisis for Iraqi Christians has also hit home for Chaldean students at the University of San Diego. Junior Anthony Mansour, the president of the Chaldean American Student Association, CASA, expressed his growing concern over Islamic State’s persecution of Christians.
“This crisis has been viewed in our community as a genocide of Iraqi Christians,” Mansour said.
Islamic State, which recently changed its name from Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is often referred to as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). According to Canada’s CBC News, Islamic State is a group of Sunni jihadists led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In the last year, Islamic State has gained significant territory in eastern Syria and northern Iraq. This June, the group declared itself a caliphate, or Islamic state, and called upon Muslims worldwide to pledge allegiance to its cause.
Due to the constant threats and attacks by Islamic State beginning in June 2014, Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes. More than one million Iraqis have been displaced as Islamic State fighters push to convert non-Muslims to Islam.
Mansour reflected on the current dangers facing his fellow Chaldeans.
“Chaldeans have most simply been forced to either pay a damaging tax, convert to Islam, flee for their life, or be killed,” Mansour said. “Countless churches and schools have also been destroyed and bombed and in significance, a Chaldean church that had been around for over a thousand years has been captured by ISIS and converted into a mosque.”
Mansour said that USD’s Chaldean American Student Association hopes to aid refugees facing imminent dangers.
“[CASA] plans on hosting a few fundraisers to help support the refugees that were displaced from their villages in northern Iraq,” Mansour said.
According to CNN, Islamic State has also begun imposing Sharia law, the body of Islamic law meaning “way” or “path,” in the towns it controls. Boys and girls must be separated at school and women must wear the niqab, a veil worn over the face or a full veil in public. Sharia courts often utilize brutal justice, banning music and enforcing fasting during Ramadan.
According to British national newspaper The Guardian, Islamic State has been advancing toward the Turkish border in its goal to secure an access route for foreigners to join the caliphate across the Syrian and Iraqi borders. According to CNN, the group has been trying to cut Syria in two, from the east to the west, giving it access to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the Mediterranean coast.
Michael Lovette-Colyer, assistant vice president of University Ministry, said it is difficult to consider the dangers facing Iraqi Christians.
“We are often overwhelmed by the amount of violence we hear about in the Middle East, so much so that we sometimes tune it out and go about our busy lives,” Lovette-Colyer said. “The terrible suffering of the people in Iraq, Syria and other parts of that region ought to move all of us to prayer and action.”
Prompted by the numerous calls to action, United States forces began carrying out air strikes on Islamic State positions in August after the Islamic State took over several cities in northern Iraq.
According to the New York Times, President Barack Obama has recently recruited nine allies to aid in the defeat of the militants. The president said the effort would rely on American airstrikes against the leaders and positions of Islamic State, strengthen the Syrian rebel groups to reclaim lost ground and enlist friendly governments in the region to join the fight.
According to the New York Times, diplomats and officials from the United States, Britain, France, Australia, Canada, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark came together to devise a strategy that involves strengthening allies on the ground in Iraq and Syria, while bombing Sunni militants from the air.
In a recent speech, President Obama addressed the issue of Islamic State and announced America’s strategy for destroying the terrorist group, referring to them as a “cancer.” Obama said that so far the American airstrikes have been successful in the effort to bring down Islamic State.
“These strikes have protected American personnel and facilities, killed ISIL fighters, destroyed weapons, and given space for Iraqi and Kurdish forces to reclaim key territory,” Obama said. “These strikes have helped save the lives of thousands of innocent men, women and children.”
In response to America’s involvement, Islamic State has sent messages in defense of their actions and threatened the United States using American journalists as hostages.
Recently, two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, were beheaded by the militant group. Their deaths were recorded and posted to the public, along with other videos showing the group performing mass executions of Christians. In the videos, Islamic State leaders clearly state their desire for America to retreat from any further action interfering with their pursuits.
As part of a Muslim family, University of San Diego junior Hassan Khalil says the group does not represent Islam.
“ISIS is not a representation of Islam, or its teachings, in the slightest,” Khalil said.
According to the New York Times, the Chaldeans in America have been pushing for practical, realistic forms of American involvement such as the creation of a protected zones and safe-passage corridors for Christians still in Iraq. Chaldeans in America have also called for an increased number of refugee visas and approval by State Department and Homeland Security screeners for Christians trying to reach America.
University of San Diego senior Jessica Zahnd expressed her concerns about America’s involvement and her desire to see improvement rather than history repeating itself.
“I find it interesting how in history classes we take in school we are taught about the horrific incidents that occurred during such events like the Holocaust and other violent acts brought upon by religion,” Zahnd said. “It is the epitome of irony that we are currently making the same mistakes that people of our past have made as well.”
Zahnd emphasized her point by expressing the need for action.
“Do we really want to be remembered in 50 years as the generation who stood by and watched another tragic event unfold?” Zahnd said. “I would rather not become the person I looked down upon in history for doing the same.”
Through his work with University Ministry, Lovette-Colyer understands the significance of this crisis within the USD community and the responsibilities students have in becoming educated on the issue.
“Especially as those privileged to attend a Catholic university, we have a responsibility to learn about what is happening there and around the world, and to seek ways in which we can use our education to make the world more peaceful and just,” Lovette-Colyer said.
©Assyrian International News Agency.