It is sometimes forgotten that there were Christians in what we now call Iraq long before there were Muslims. By noon today, however, it is expected that there will be none left in the city of Mosul, where Isis has faced them with a deadly ultimatum: convert to Islam, pay a tax or die. See this BBC news report for background.
This item of news didn’t make the front page of today’s BBC web-site (it is buried deep inside), yet it represents a sickening attempt to violate the consciences of thousands of people and the very real possibility of mass murder. It highlights the difficulty we in the West have in dealing with the religious dimension of conflicts in the Middle East. Part of the problem is that many of us no longer take religion seriously enough to consider how it motivates people and are woefully ignorant both of its teachings and its history. Most of us can’t get inside the mentality of Isis and its particular understanding of Islam so tend to dismiss the kind of ultimatum posed to the Christians of Mosul as mere posturing. We believe in freedom of religion, we say, by which we mean the freedom to worship according to our own beliefs. There are a few limitations on such religious freedom. Human sacrifice, for example, is not permissible, but by and large, we follow the principle of ‘live and let live’. If you want to follow some cranky religion, you do so; just don’t expect me to follow suit. That is not how a member of Isis would see things. It is not how things are in Saudi Arabia. So what do we in the West do?
We know perfectly well that at an international level what ‘we’ do is determined by our respective governments and the political and economic interests of the moment. That is not always as cynical a proposition as it may sound (think energy supplies and European winters). What we do at a personal level, however, is just as important. We have to pray, and we have to protest. We simply cannot stand by mute and uncomplaining when our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq are being chased from their homes and threatened with death. Or can we?