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    detail of a church altar

    The Last of the First Christians

    By Andreas Knapp

    November 3, 2017

      Knapp writes, "Has anyone even noticed that, despite the numerous brutal murders of Christian priests in Iraq and Syria, no imam has ever been shot, beheaded, or crucified in the name of Christianity? Or that no Christians have ever blown themselves up in a mosque in retaliation for the many attacks on Christian churches?" Such heinous barbarism is a far cry from defending oneself, one's family, or one's community from ISIS atrocities. If Iraqi and Syrian Christians are now debating whether to return to their homes, it can't be overlooked that the only reason they can even consider this option is because others have done the necessary work of routing ISIS.

    • Waleed Matooka, Qaraqosh, Iraq

      When a man lives by the grace of Lord Jesus Christ, he will challenge the odds and be creative in his way to strive for the better under the protection of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is my story: I am from the Iraqi town of Qaraqosh in the Nineveh Plain. I recently returned to Qaraqosh from displacement in the city of Aqrah and live in my father's house, because ISIS burned my house completely. ISIS kidnapped my father when they entered the town of Qaraqosh three years ago. He is missing and his fate is not known. My family consists of four young children who together with their mother and I have challenged the odds and returned to their hometown despite knowing that the situation is still difficult due to the lack of food and public services. However, our return has become a unique and encouraging example for many of our displaced families to return to their hometown from everywhere. My brother Amer and his family also returned to Qaraqosh after 3 years of displacement. They now live with us in our father's house, because his house is also completely burnt. Amer is a shoemaker; but unfortunately, he does not have the possibility of renting a place in the market because he does not have the necessary means and equipment to restart his work and his life in Qaraqosh. We originally are the people of Qaraqosh and are now determined to stay and return to living there despite the needs and suffering of lack of basic services. However, our Lord Jesus Christ will complete our path step by step towards perfection and reach the end of the journey. These are our families who have left everything for their faith and for keeping their faith three years ago, now returning to the ruins of their homes and the scarcity of life. There is no real response from anyone but you, O Jesus, our Lord, who wanted us to follow the path of Golgotha and to be likened to you with bearing at least some of your difficulties and suffering. May this be a source of good for what you have planted in us, and we will plant it in the hearts of our children in our coming days of life. For this, we pray. Amen.

    The ancient Christian communities within Iraq and Syria, decimated by the Islamic State, are on the brink of extinction. Now, with ISIS driven from Mosul, the future of Christianity in the region will likely be decided this autumn, as displaced Christians decide whether to risk returning to their destroyed homes and Muslim neighbors, or leave for good. Andreas Knapp, author of The Last Christians, has been working among the uprooted survivors and recording their stories.

    a young girl sleeping on a mattress in a church

    An internally displaced child sleeps in St. Joseph’s Church, Erbil, Iraq. Photograph by Allen Kakony.

    It’s been several years since I quit my job as director of Freiburg Seminary to live and work among the poor in Leipzig, Germany, along with three other members of the Little Brothers of Jesus, a religious order inspired by Charles de Foucauld. At an open house for our neighbors, many of them refugees from the Middle East, a thickset man of about forty comes up to me. Beside him is a boy with jet-black hair who looks about eleven. Yousif – as the broad-shouldered stranger turns out to be called – addresses me. I don’t understand him, but the boy already speaks excellent German and translates for him, “We are from Iraq, from Mosul. Please help us!”

    The tasks awaiting me flash before my eyes: my duties in the parish and as a chaplain at a prison and a college. I feel like saying, “Sorry, I’d love to, but I haven’t got time.” But I can’t do it. The next day, I call to arrange a visit. My life hasn’t been the same since.

    A few days later, I ring the doorbell of an eleven-story apartment block. Yousif lives on the third floor with his wife, Tara, and their two children, Amanuel and Shaba. They invite me into their living room. Yousif’s request for help, I learn, concerns his children. There are problems at school. Amanuel, a slightly built boy, confides to me that he is regularly bullied by his Muslim schoolmates because of the small cross he has always worn around his neck, even when things got dangerous for Christians in Mosul. Spotting it, an older Muslim boy had begun calling him names, then pretended to point a machine gun at him: “Ratatatata! Shoot the Christians!”

    Christian refugees are suspected by both sides.Such tensions among refugees are not uncommon. The majority of the more than one million refugees who have entered Germany since 2015 are Muslims. Many of them have also been ideologically poisoned by decades of propaganda claiming that Christians are “impure,” that the West is morally corrupt, and that only Muslims can be citizens in the full sense of the word.

    Christian refugees are suspected by both sides, as I learn after I arrange for Amanuel to transfer to a Christian school. Here things go better – until he feels suspected by his classmates of being a jihadist. After a terror attack in Paris, the children are afraid that radical Muslims might launch an attack in Germany too. One boy reads out a newspaper headline, “Jihadist Came to France as Refugee,” and some of them turn to look at Amanuel.

    I ask Yousif – with Amanuel’s help – to tell me something of their story. In Mosul, he and Tara had been very involved in the Syrian Orthodox Church. But after 2003, everything changed. In response to the American-led invasion of Iraq, Muslim clerics called for a holy war. Large numbers of fundamentalist jihadists from all over the Islamic world came together to wage war on the “unbelievers.” Christians in Iraq became fair game for the Islamists.

    Under Islamic law, Christians must pay for the privilege of being allowed to practice their religion. In the eyes of many Muslims, Western nations are “Christian” states. In the event of an attack by those states, Christians in the Middle East are suspected of being collaborators and allies of the invaders. The Christians’ precarious situation was worsened by a speech by then-president George W. Bush, in which he called his war a “crusade,” thereby stirring up deep-seated Muslim resentment against the West. The Iraqi Christians, who had never been involved in a crusade in their two-thousand-year history, were seen as guilty by association and subjected to a regime of terror. They became scapegoats on whom revenge could be exacted for the aggression of the “Christian occupiers.” For example, protection money was extorted from Christians by invoking the ancient Islamic practice of levying a special tax, referred to as jizya in the Quran, on non-Muslims. Under Islamic (shari’a) law, Christians must pay jizya for the privilege of being allowed – albeit to a very limited extent – to practice their religion.

    According to Yousif, the sums demanded increased year by year. You paid up because you knew what the alternative would be: destruction of your property, and murder. Even Christian churches became targets of the terror perpetrated in the name of Islam. Yet many Christians still wouldn’t contemplate leaving Mosul, cherishing the faint hope that the nightmare would come to an end one day. Among these were Yousif and Tara.

    Instead, things got even worse. One day, an anonymous caller threatened to cut off Yousif’s left arm. He knew immediately what the caller was getting at, as he has a large cross tattooed on his brawny left forearm. “You just try!” Yousif retorted impulsively, and hung up.

    It was plain to him that he was living danger­ously now, and that his young family was at risk too. A few days later, the phone rang again: “If you’re not gone in three days, you will go to hell!” Yousif knew he had to act fast, and left Mosul with his wife and their two children. They made for Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. There he was safe, but unable to find work. After much agonizing, he made up his mind to flee to Europe, preferably to Germany or Sweden.

    This journey had to be undertaken alone. Though it broke Yousif’s heart to leave his wife and children, such a venture was far too hazardous for them, the only route being via the dark machinations of a people-smuggling gang. The price demanded was seventeen thousand US dollars. Yousif sold everything he possibly could and borrowed the rest from friends and relatives. Even now, he tells me, he still owes five thousand.

    Yousif was stowed in a hidden compartment of a semitrailer. Seven days later, he heard the truck stop, and the trapdoor was unscrewed and opened. Yousif crawled out, stiff and hardly able to walk. He was in an empty parking lot, lit feebly by a couple of streetlights. It was bitterly cold and there wasn’t a sound to be heard apart from the rumble of the engine.

    The driver pointed in the direction of the local train station. There Yousif was to wait for a man who would return his passport. Spotting a white license plate in unfamiliar lettering on a passing vehicle, he read: C – Chemnitz. He was in Germany.

    Picked up by police and sent to a home for asylum seekers, for the next six months Yousif lived in an agony of uncertainty: Would things remain calm in Erbil? Was there a chance that Tara and the children might be able to come to Germany soon? Would his parents – left behind in Mosul – be put under pressure or even murdered by the jihadists? Such thoughts and fears tortured him night and day. And he felt so helpless in this new country, whose language he didn’t understand and whose bureaucracy was a mystery to him. Finally, his asylum application was accepted and he was able to bring Tara, Amanuel, and Shaba over by legal means.

    At the same time, his home city of Mosul was occupied by Islamic State militias, forcing his parents, his brother, and all his relatives, along with the entire Christian community, to leave the city and flee to the Kurdish region to the north. His father, already in a wheelchair, died in the refugee camp.

    A Nonviolent Tradition

    As I get to know more Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria, I can’t help noticing how often they mention Bible verses about forgiveness, nonviolence, and loving one’s enemy. These people have lost family members to ­terrorists and were robbed of their homes and possessions – and yet, instead of uttering words of revenge or retaliation, they are quoting words of peace from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. One day I ask Yousif about it: “What’s the attitude of Christians in Iraq toward weapons and violence?”

    “We reject the use of arms. When my uncle was called up for military service, he was sent directly to the front in the war against Iran, but he always aimed into the distance, asking the Holy Virgin to send the bullet astray.”

    “Even in the current situation,” Yousif adds, “where Christians like us are being driven out of our towns and villages after eighteen or nineteen hundred years, armed resistance is still not an option for us.”

    I bore deeper into this attitude to life: “You have suffered so much. Why don’t you meet violence with violence?”

    Without hesitation, Yousif insists, “As Christians, we are not supposed to bear arms…. The church has always been clear that war is Satan’s work.”

    “Is there no such thing as Christian jihad?” I ask.

    Yousif rejects this emphatically: “Only Muslims have jihad. Our struggle consists of prayer and fasting. Christianity isn’t spread by the sword. For terrorists, it’s an honor to kill people. Shouldn’t it be an honor for us as Christians to show love to our persecutors?”

    Shouldn’t it be an honor for Christians to show love to our persecutors? This attitude, I discover, has deep roots in the Middle Eastern churches. In October 2015, for example, the Russian air force began a series of missions against the Islamic State in Syria. A representative of the Russian Orthodox Church welcomed the deployment as a “holy war.” Jacques Behnan Hindo, the Syrian archbishop of Hassaké-Nisibi, criticized this statement in the strongest terms: “As Christians, we cannot talk of a holy war – otherwise what difference would there be between radical Muslims and Christians? Instead, we must make it clear that war is always a sin.”

    Another bishop, Aprem Athnil, wrote a letter to ISIS leaders stating, “We categorically reject a culture of weapons,” and seeking to impress on ISIS that the Christian church is not in alliance with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. True, a so-called Christian militia is fighting alongside the PKK to defend or recapture the villages. But although the international press refers to this militia as “Christian,” Bishop Aprem protests that it was neither funded nor approved by the church and insists that there can be no armed force in the name of Christianity.

    “Muslim militias versus Christian militias” – such simplifications make the world much easier to explain, even if they are far from the whole truth. Clearly, a report on “Christian militias” grabs attention; a sustained tradition of nonviolence in Eastern Christianity is less interesting to write about. Has anyone even noticed that, despite the numerous brutal murders of Christian priests in Iraq and Syria, no imam has ever been shot, beheaded, or crucified in the name of Christianity? Or that no Christians have ever blown themselves up in a mosque in retaliation for the many attacks on Christian churches? The Islamic State bombs itself into the media, while the far more impressive testimony of nonviolence fails to make the copy desk.

    By contrast, it was only after a long process of self-purification that the Roman Catholic Church, for example, has recovered the early Christian teaching on the separation of church and state. This sometimes-bitter learning experience is something that the churches could bring to bear in modern-day interfaith dialogues with Muslims. After all, many Muslims are well aware that, in its current state, Islam suffers from an unhappy entanglement of religion with state power – one of the causes of a long history of excessive violence stretching into the present. In this regard, Middle Eastern churches, which for centuries have not wielded political power, have remained truer to Christianity’s nonviolent roots than European Christianity.

    Scattered Seeds

    Now these Eastern churches are being scattered around the globe. Some of them are perhaps doomed to die out, and if so, Jesus’ words may prove true: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).

    All the more, displaced Christians deserve our full solidarity. Since they have now been dispersed worldwide, we should make it our mission to seek them out and invite them into our communities. We can approach aid agencies in order to locate Middle Eastern Christians and offer them practical assistance with finding accommodation and work. In the case of individuals or families, inviting them to join our local churches would be an important gesture of fellowship. As some of the last people who still speak the language Jesus spoke, they can enrich our church services – by leading the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, for instance. If a sizeable group of Eastern Christians can be assembled in a town, we can help them set up a community by offering them our church facilities. That way we can support their efforts to practice the faith that caused them to be expelled in the first place, and to keep their language and traditions alive.

    Andreas Knapp and two nuns with a group of displaced Christians in Kurdistan

    The author and two Little Sisters of Jesus visiting a family from Qaraqosh, Iraq, now living in Iraqi Kurdistan. Photograph courtesy of Andreas Knapp.

    Naturally, it will take time for some Christians from Iraq and Syria to be reconciled with Muslims after having been shamefully betrayed by their Muslim neighbors. All the more, I think with admiration of Rami, a Christian from Mosul whose younger brother was murdered by the jihadists and whose family was driven from their home: now he is giving his time to accompany a Muslim family on visits to the authorities as a volunteer interpreter.

    And there are Muslims doing the same. On another visit to Yousif and Tara’s house, a Muslim family stops by: a young woman in a headscarf, a tall man, and three small children. They sit on the sofas and Yousif introduces Hamoudi to me: “We were neighbors in Mosul – and very good friends.”

    Hamoudi tells me how ISIS terrorists captured Yazidi women and children and deported them to Mosul for their “own use,” imprisoning them in different houses. Hamoudi managed to rescue a fourteen-year-old girl and fled with her and his own family to Kurdistan. In my opinion, this man deserves some kind of honor, just as people who rescued Jews in the Third Reich were honored as the “Righteous among the Nations.” Because of his brave action, he is now living in exile and cannot return to Mosul.

    This story brings home to me yet again how many Muslims have been at the receiving end of Islamist terrorism. Muslims like Hamoudi who crave democracy and respect human rights have been forced to flee their homelands and seek asylum. I know a young Muslim mechanic who fled to Germany in peril of his life rather than work on a project designing car bombs.

    It saddens and angers me to think of such Muslims becoming victims of blind Islamophobia. At the same time, I am aware that I am not always discerning enough myself. So many Muslims come to Europe precisely because they don’t want a Salafist Islam and have suffered greatly from politicized religion. If we can succeed in integrating these people, we will have taken an important step toward increasing the chances that the currents within Islam that reject discrimination and violence in the name of religion will prevail.

    Yousif and Tara have found they have much to offer their German neighbors as well as receiving support from them. For nearly a year now, Peter has been coming to help Amanuel and Shaba with their homework. The sixteen-year-old high school student was placed with them via the Leipzig Refugee Council. Yousif tells me that Peter comes much more often than originally arranged. He evidently feels at ease with the family, sometimes popping over for supper and staying late. These visits are a completely new experience for Peter, whose parents separated when he was young. Having often felt pushed from pillar to post and not really at home anywhere, he encounters here the warm hospitality of a Middle Eastern family whose door is always open and for whom it’s never any trouble to set an extra place at the table.

    For Christian refugees, belief in God is not just an intellectual exercise but defines their whole life.

    Like most Leipzigers, Peter has grown up in an atheist environment and doesn’t believe in God. In Tara and Yousif, he has come to know a deeply religious family: the walls are decorated with Christian symbols and grace is said before meals. Above all, however, he has discovered that belief in God is not just an intellectual exercise for Yousif and his family, but something that defines their whole life. They have paid a high price for their Christian faith, losing their home and all their possessions for the sake of Jesus Christ.

    This all-engulfing devotion is not something the young Leipziger can relate to, but he understands something of its psychological importance. For these refugees, their faith is a support, buoying them up after all the losses they have suffered. Rather than becoming embittered, they trust that their lives are safe in the hands of a higher power.

    Peter has regular discussions with Yousif or Amanuel about the existence of God. For Yousif, too, this is a new experience, since he had never before met anyone who doesn’t believe in God. Their conversations are a mutually enriching exchange between believer and nonbeliever. From Christianity’s Middle Eastern birthplace, the refugees are bringing faith back to a Europe that has forgotten its roots.

    Watch a video about Andreas Knapp’s new book.

    Contributed By AndreasKnapp Andreas Knapp

    A poet, priest, and popular author in Germany, Andreas Knapp left a secure position as head of Freiburg Seminary to live and work among the poor as a member of the Little Brothers of the Gospel.

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