Genocide of Christians in the Path of ISIL: An Interview with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick
21 July 2016
Image: Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
On March 17, for only the second time in American history, the secretary of state officially designated an ongoing genocide. Secretary John Kerry declared that Christians, as well as Yazidis and Shi’a Muslims, are suffering genocide at the hands of the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also known as ISIL, ISIS and Islamic State). A few days earlier, a unanimous House of Representatives had resolved to also condemn as genocide the violence against these Christians and other minorities, and a unanimous Senate did the same on July 7.
The U.S. designation followed mounting appeals by the Catholic Church. Last July, Pope Francis had been the first to bring world attention to the fact that “our brothers and sisters are persecuted, tortured and killed for their faith in Jesus”. He called it “genocide,” emphasizing, “I insist on the word.” In mid-February, the Holy Father, in an historic joint statement with Russian Patriarch Kirill, had asserted that Islamist extremists are waging a religious persecution so severe that “whole families, villages and cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being completely exterminated.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and several lay groups had also denounced this genocide.
Nowhere does the term genocide obtain more than in Iraq and Syria, where Christian communities have been devastated through targeted killing, hostage-taking, rape, forcible conversion, deportation and the systematic destruction of their churches and monasteries. While overall casualties among Iraqis and Syrians of all religious backgrounds have reached staggering levels due to the region’s conflicts, genocide is the gravest of human rights crimes and demands specific attention. Judge Edward Damich, chair of the Federal Association’s Committee on the Defense of Faith, and I had the benefit of meeting Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop Emeritus of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., at Federal Association headquarters on March 7 to discuss this crisis.
The cardinal, a regular and long time traveler to the Middle East, had recently returned from Iraq, where he had spoken with Christian leaders and refugees. At age 85 and retired, he remains indefatigable. With a reputation as one of the American bishops most engaged with issues of world peace, he has been a strong advocate for social justice and refugees. He has been a peripatetic church ambassador for many years, often sent on missions around the world by Catholic Relief Services and the U.S. State Department. In the last few weeks, alone, the “Globe-trotting Cardinal” had participated in high level meetings in China, Rome and Morocco, in addition to Iraq.
The Basic Facts:
Two years ago, in the summer of 2014, ISIL stormed Nineveh and established its so-called caliphate, driving out, killing or capturing its entire Christian population, along with the Yazidis and other minority groups. Within ISIL-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria, all churches have been shut, desecrated or destroyed, all clergy have been assassinated or driven out, and no Christian community has been left intact.
Collectively numbering about 1.4 million before the U.S. invasion in 2003, Iraqi Christians now count only about 250,000, most of whom are in the Kurdistan region, with most of them deemed Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) living as refugees. Two-thirds of the Syrian Christian community, who numbered 2 million in 2011, are displaced. Both Syrian and Iraqi Christian survivors can be found as refugees in surrounding areas, in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, as well as in Kurdistan.
The Christian communities of Iraq and Syria are ancient ones with ties to the earliest Church. Some still pray in Aramaic, the language of Jesus of Nazareth and trace their religion to Thomas, one of the twelve, and to the Pentecost. Most of these Christians are Catholics or Orthodox but Protestants are also represented. The Eastern Catholic Churches – of the Chaldeans, the Syriacs, the Maronites, the Greek Melkites and the Armenians – are in communion with Rome. ISIL’s attacks are aimed at destroying all the Christian church communities. Pope Francis has called this situation “ecumenism of the blood.”
The Order of Malta’s Presence in the Middle East:
Since 2012, the Order of Malta has been active in helping Christian, Muslim and other communities in the Middle East, mainly through its worldwide relief agency, Malteser International. Currently, the Order is working with partners in northern Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and northern Iraq, providing medical and health care at refugee camps.
Here is the interview with Cardinal McCarrick, conventual chaplain ad honorem of the Federal Association, conducted by Ed Damich, KM and Nina Shea, DM.
Order of Malta: As a leader within the Church and as a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent governmental body, your reputation in working on behalf of the persecuted is well established. Are you engaged at this time with the Christian communities of Iraq and Syria with respect to the genocide issue? Could you tell us about your concerns in this regard?
Cardinal: It is natural for every Christian to be concerned about the horrible situation confronting these communities. They have been so barbarically treated in some of these areas and it affects so many of them. But we must be careful not to condemn all Muslims. We are talking here about ISIL.
ISIL has a vision of Islam that makes them feel they have the right to exterminate Christians, Yazidis and others. Many Christians and Yazidis and others are being killed. This has created a historical disaster. The world cannot stand by and just watch this barbaric murder unfold.
Order of Malta: Why were the Christians such vulnerable targets?
Cardinal: When ISIL came into Iraq and Syria, their presumption was to destroy these people and theoretically purify the land for Islam. The Christians have been living there before Islam, going back to at least the third century. But, ISIL believes the minorities need to be eliminated. ISIL needed Sinjar (the Yazidi area) to hit Mosul and the Nineveh Plain where many of Iraq’s Christians lived.
Some of us saw this coming. It was not good to put all the Christians in one area. It was an unfortunate decision to put all of Iraq’s Christians in Nineveh, but it was an impossible situation for over a decade when Christians from Baghdad and Basra fled there from different attacks against them.
Iraq had been a center of Middle Eastern Christianity. It had a structure – not a wholesome structure – but one that provided protections for minorities. In the old days, the patriarchs of the Syrian and Iraqi Christian Churches would say that their communities were not persecuted as minorities. This structure was destroyed by the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the law disappeared. There was no longer any protection for the Christians. Evil looks for innocence.
Order of Malta: In the recent debate surrounding the decision of which groups should be included in the U.S. government’s genocide designation, some argued that Christians should not be included because ISIL gives them, as “People of the Book,” the option of paying jizya, an Islamic tax, instead of worse treatment. You have met with the Christian refugees over several years. Do they get a jizya option to avoid murder and forcible conversion at the hands of ISIL?
Cardinal: The Christians had no money to pay any such tax because ISIL stole it from them. It stole their children and sold them. ISIL is not to be trusted. These are all big lies. Nothing in its program is there for humanitarian reasons. ISIL debases Muslim traditions.
Order of Malta: Your Eminence, you have long been involved in Middle Eastern interfaith dialogue. Have you been engaged in such efforts regarding the crisis facing these Christian minorities?
Cardinal: Two weeks ago I served as an advisor to a meeting convened by Morocco’s King Mohammed VI in Marrakesh that was solely focused on the plight of religious minorities in Muslim majority countries. Some 250 major Muslim leaders participated from 120 countries, Morocco to Bangladesh. The meeting produced the most important statement since the Amman message in 2004 [defining who is a Muslim]. The Marrakesh declaration [entitled, “The Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities: Legal Framework and Call to Action”] affirmed the understanding of Islam based on the example of Prophet Mohamed making peace with the Christians and Jews and not on the understanding that Christians and Jews must be destroyed.
The delegates strove to understand true Muslim teaching. The declaration reflects that and speaks, not to specific circumstances such as allowing Bibles in Saudi Arabia, but to major principles dealing with what is true Islam and affirming rights to citizenship for minorities, calling for such things as a “courageous review” of educational curriculum, and denouncing as “unconscionable” the use of religion for aggression. This declaration speaks to many problems, such as Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. I was one of 30 or so non-Muslims and one of 10 Catholics invited to serve and comment on the document. I was overjoyed and we all applauded when we saw how strong it was.
It could be a most useful document for Christians and Jews and all non-Muslim minorities. The Vatican press called it a fine document. I hope Islam as a whole will see it as setting forth what Islam is about. The King deserves a lot of credit for it is a courageous document. ISIL will put a mark on those who signed.
Order of Malta: You have long been involved in refugee concerns through your involvement with Catholic Relief Services. Please describe the efforts that the Church has made to alleviate the suffering of our Iraqi and Syrian Christian brothers and sisters in this dark time. What are some of the ways that the Church is attempting to address this persecution?
Cardinal: The Church is working to help the refugees who don’t have access to the UN camps, whether Christians and Yazidis from Nineveh now in Iraqi Kurdistan, or Shi’a Muslims from Anbar now displaced in Najaf and in southern Iraq. All are destitute after ISIL stole everything from them. For almost two years, Catholic Relief Services has been working to give them a life, as much possible – distributing food, building better housing, etc. I was in Iraq a week ago and visited both Erbil and Baghdad. I met an Italian Rogationist priest in Erbil who is responsible for a little village of Christians who escaped ISIL. He hadn’t taken down the Christmas crib scene yet. He said it gives them hope for the future.
Order of Malta: What about education? The Christian refugee children do not have access to either government schools or the schools operated in the large UN refugee camps. Is the Church providing education for them?
Cardinal: The Church has been working to set up schools for them but there is still a large need, not only in Iraq but also for the Christian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. When I was in Erbil, I heard Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Warda speak at the new university, the Catholic University of Erbil, which opened in December 2015.
It is important to help this effort since it is both a beacon of light for the surviving Christian community and a bridge to the Kurdish Muslims who are the host of nearly 200,000 Christian refugees. It is necessary for it to make contact with universities in the United States. It would be good if Malta could help with this and to learn how it might be otherwise helpful to this university since Malta shares the goal of education. Financial help is always necessary, of course, but other things are needed too. Student exchanges and making American professors available are some examples. The students want to learn English and many are fluent. To my shame, I’ve never learned Arabic though I’ve always wanted to. I hope to pursue this when I’m 86.
Order of Malta: Will a military offensive against Mosul help the Christians who have been driven from there and the surrounding Nineveh province by ISIL? Won’t the 1-to-2 million Sunnis who now live in Mosul flood out into the empty Christian towns of Nineveh and become entrenched there and prevent the Christians from returning to their former homes?
Cardinal: Military force to extirpate ISIL is probably needed at this point. There’s also the danger that Kurdistan will be inundated by a million or more refugees. There will be hundreds of thousands of deaths. All the proposed solutions have their own concerns.
Order of Malta: The clergy who operate the refugee camps for Christians in Erbil say that many of the Christians there want to leave, to resettle in the West. The displaced Iraqi Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan are not legally refugees since they have not crossed the borders of their own country and thus they are not eligible for UN referral for resettlement. Should the United States accept them for resettlement? What are your views about their leaving?
Cardinal: Well, moving them out is not an easy question. These Iraqi Christians are not some Johnnies-come-lately. Their Christian communities have been in the region for 2,000 years. Yet….last week, I met one Christian woman in a camp outside Erbil. I spoke to her about why she left her home in Nineveh. She told me, ISIL showed up at her family’s house one day and captured her husband. She saw them crucify him to the door of their home. I visited a Church shelter in Jordan and spoke to a man, the father of three young boys, ages 10, 6 and 4. He was in Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad [in October 2010] when it was attacked during Mass. The priest and most of the congregation were killed. His family managed to escape. Then ISIL came to their house and demanded that they convert to Islam or be killed. They left and became refugees. He is a carpenter but, like the others, cannot find work in Jordan. He wants to leave. He told me that he will never take his family back to Iraq, “not if they would give me a house of gold.” The Church wants the Christians to stay. Local Christian leaders fear that they will lose their congregations and culture. The Church fears that Christians will disappear from the Middle East. But the Church is reasonable. Such fear and horrible memories. The horror is so bad, and the psychological damage is so severe.
Order of Malta: The U.S. State Department has taken a lead in supporting peace talks for Syria. The Christians do not have their own representative at these talks, even though they may result in redrawn borders, constitution drafting, reparations and land settlements – developments that would have a large bearing on the future of Syrian Christians. Should there be a voice for Christians at these talks and if so who could represent these diverse communities?
Cardinal: The Christians should be represented at the peace talks. I hope there will be real Muslim voices represented there as well. It would be a mistake to exclude religious views. Religion is of primary importance to this country. Religious leaders are the heart and soul of Syria. We have made so many mistakes in this area and it has caused terrible destruction. The papal nuncio in Damascus is very fair and holds a universal view. He should be at the talks. Malta deals with diplomatic problems in many of these countries. I think it would be a good idea if Malta and American public opinion, generally, could encourage that the views of Christians and other religious groups be considered at cease fire and peace talks for Syria.
Order of Malta: Before you leave for your next meeting, can you briefly tell us of your other endeavors in the Middle East?
Cardinal: Well, I helped negotiate the release of the American hikers who were taken hostage in Iran between 2009 and 2011. But I began my work in the Middle East in the Holy Land. When I was involved in the Croatia conflict, I travelled there 12 times. But in helping to work out Israel-Palestinian issues, I have travelled to the Holy Land between three or four times a year. Catholic Relief Services, where I’m a board director, is very active in Palestine.
I was involved in the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East or NILI, a group of Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders committed to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and active U.S. leadership in the peace process. NILI tries to get the religious leadership in the United States to speak up for a two state solution and the non-expansion of Israeli settlements. We were able to bring together the Council for Inter Religious Institutions in the Holy Land. This included the leadership of Protestants, Evangelicals, Jews, including the Chief Rabbis, all of the Christian patriarchs and the Islamic Society of North America or ISNA, which has ties to most mosques in the United States. I worked through the State Department, as well. Through NILI, I made Muslim contacts and helped them on problems stemming from Islamophobia.
We need to talk to each other and to love each other.
Nina Shea, the author, is a Dame of the Order of Malta with the Federal Association. She has been an international human rights lawyer for over 30 years. She directs the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.
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