Iraq

An Eerie Calm: Iraqi Christians Anxiously Ponder Their Future

Assyrian Christian militia member speaks with a shepherd in the Nineveh plains of Iraqi Kurdistan. Photo via Jodi Hilton/RNS.

Basima al-Safar retouches a picture of Jesus on an easel outside her house overlooking the flat Nineveh plains, 30 miles north of Mosul.

The murals she paints tell the story of her people, Christians in Iraq. But with Islamic State militants nearby, she is worried that life in Alqosh and towns like it could soon come to an end.

The Assyrian Christian town of around 6,000 people sits on a hill below the seventh-century Rabban Hormizd Monastery, temporarily closed because of the security situation. Residents of Alqosh fled this summer ahead of Islamic State militants. Around 70 percent of the town’s residents have since returned. Still, a sense of unease hangs in the air.

Below the monastery in the boarded up bazaar a lone shopkeeper waits for customers. At the edge of town local Christian fighters staff lookout posts, checking for danger. With Islamic State fighters just 10 miles away, these men and most residents of the town are scared that they may have to flee again.

Why Do Westerners Join ISIS?

ISIS flag, Trybex / Shutterstock.com

ISIS flag, Trybex / Shutterstock.com

Whether ISIS is "Islamic," or a "state," it is definitely terrifying. As it terrorizes the Levant — killing Muslims, Christians, Jews, Yazidis, and other religious/cultural minorities in Syria and Iraq — and takes the lives of Western journalists, it strikes fear in the hearts of many.

Swirling around the alarming analysis are the rumors and realities of individuals from Europe and the U.S. joining the ranks of ISIS and fighting for their "cause."

The intelligence organization Soufan Group recently released a report stating that fighters from at least 81 countries have traveled to Syria since its three-year conflict began. Hundreds of recruits come from nations like France, Germany, the UK, and the U.S.

Of all the fearful intimations of this conflict, this feature seems to be the most frightening to many in the West. Could it be that my neighbor is a secret jihadi? Are redheads (a "pure" European stock) more prone to terrorism? Are mosques their hideouts? Regardless of the judiciousness of these questions, underlying them all is the question "why?" Why would someone leave the West to fight for ISIS in Syria and Iraq?

According to the Soufan report, those that leave for the Middle East to fight are typically 18-29 year-old men (some as young as 15) and some Western women who join with their spouses, or come alone to become "jihadi brides." These men and women are Islamic, often second or third generation immigrants, though very few have prior connections with Syria.

Why do they join? Is it religious devotion? Psychological imbalance? Tendency toward radical movements and anarchy? All of these motivations may play a part, but my argument is that these men and women who leave their Western homes for the dunes of terror are lonely.

These Western jihadis are isolated — that is why they join ISIS.

How Christians Reject Jesus: On Violence and ISIS

ISIS flag in target scope, Crystal Eye Studio / Shutterstock.com

ISIS flag in target scope, Crystal Eye Studio / Shutterstock.com

Here at Sojourners we have written a lot about nonviolence. We take seriously the words of Jesus that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We believe that violence begets violence, or as Jesus put it, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Personally, I take seriously the words of René Girard, the founder of mimetic theory, that we are now “confronted with a perfectly straightforward and even scientifically calculable choice between total destruction and the total renunciation of violence.”

Many Christians look to the Bible to justify divinely sanctioned violence against our enemies. Excuse me for stating the obvious, but Christians are not Biblians. We are Christians. As Christians, we should be putting Jesus first. Not Deuteronomy. Not Joshua. Not Judges. Not David. Not Solomon. Not Peter. Not Paul. Not the Bible.

Jesus first.

And Jesus calls us to nonviolence. As one of the early Christians stated, the way of Jesus, the way of nonviolent love that embraces our enemies, is the way of the cross and the world thinks that way is foolish.

We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Why I’m More Worried About Ebola Than ISIS

©EC/ECHO/Cyprien Fabre

Kailahun, Sierra Leone. Center of Ebola outbreak. ©EC/ECHO/Cyprien Fabre

The headlines and talk shows are dominated by the response ISIS. To be clear, this group readily uses fanatical and brutal actions to achieve its radically exclusive vision. The images they skillfully project are like violent, X-rated video games made real. No wonder that many react to this horror with chills going down their spines. But there is something that worries me more: the ongoing Ebola crisis.

How did ISIS come about? Sure, there’s huge complexity. Yet, we know that ISIS never would have emerged without, first of all, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the ensuing, devastating war that left that nation in physical, political, and psychological shambles. Second, the sectarian, Shia-dominated regime, which emerged as the final U.S. ground troops left, further radicalized Sunni extremists. These factors were the breeding grounds for black-clothed fanatics ready to cut down any who differ with their identity, even if the majority of its victims are Muslims.

ISIS’s greatest recruiting tool is continued and renewed U.S. and Western military intervention in the Middle East. That, of course, is what their brutal actions are attempting to provoke. The moral callousness of this strategy inspires the fear which they desire and welcome.

However, ISIS can and will be contained. The neighboring regimes in the region are all deeply threatened by ISIS. In the end, they will be compelled to combat and resist ISIS the more these fanatics move out of the desert and toward others’ homelands. It will be bloody, but eventually other nation states and threatened sectarian groups, representing for the most part more mainstream and globally dominant expressions of Islam, will contain and defeat ISIS. The necessity and means of outside military assistance from the West and elsewhere is highly debatable, and at the end of the day, I don’t believe this will be the decisive factor.

War Is Not the Answer

That was a bumper sticker Sojourners published at the outset of the Iraq war more than a decade ago. American church leaders had not only opposed the war but offered an alternative: "An Alternative to War for Defeating Saddam Hussein, A Religious Initiative." We not only presented it to Colin Powell's personal council and Tony Blair, but also printed full-page ads in every major British newspaper the day before their Parliamentary debate and vote on the war. The U.K.'s Secretary of State for International Affairs, Clair Short, told me the only real alternative on the table in their Cabinet meetings was "The American church leaders' plan," which, she said, was seriously discussed.

Iraq: Humility is the Best Option

America is stunned by what is happening in Iraq right now, and happening so quickly. We may be facing the worst terrorist threat to international security so far -- despite all we have done and sacrificed. Both our political leaders and media pundits are admitting there are no good options for the U.S. now. But there is an option we could try for the first time: humility. Let me turn to two biblical texts that might provide some wisdom for both the religious and non-religious.

After a Summer of Crisis, Churches Can't Go Back to Business As Usual

josefkubes / Shutterstock.com

josefkubes / Shutterstock.com

When churches conclude their summer hiatus and resume full-scale ministries this week, much will have changed from a year ago — outside their doors.

Conditions might have changed inside, too. But it is the world outside that demands fresh attention in mission and ministry.

Ferguson, Mo., has happened, revealing disturbing trends in law enforcement and deep fault lines between white experience and black experience.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine happened, threatening a resumption of dangerous tensions between Moscow and Western democracies.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria happened, raising the dreaded specter of a take-no-prisoners war on modernity, reason, progress, women and other faiths.

The 113th Congress happened, mired in systemic dysfunction, with one party determined to cripple a black president and to channel more wealth to the wealthy.

The Koch brothers and their megabuck cronies happened, changing the face of electoral politics with unprecedented infusions of cash and ideological vitriol.

The two-tier economy happened, with one tier doing extraordinarily well and a much, much larger tier falling further behind, leaving despair among all age groups.

Border wars between terrified migrants and swaggering white men bearing arms against children happened, threatening America’s true core value as a welcoming nation promising freedom.

These outside-the-walls developments have little to do with the usual church fussing — except to say that it’s time for church people to stop their usual fussing.

Weekly Wrap 8.29.14: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. Photo Essay: On the Ground in Israel and Gaza
Two photographers spent the beginning of August chronicling the latest outbreak of violence for New York Times Magazine. The images tell the story of war.

2. WATCH: Jon Stewart Speaking Truth About Race
"Do you not understand that life in this country is inherently different for white people and black people? … Race is there and it is a constant. You're tired of hearing about it? Imagine how ****ing exhausting it is living it."

3. The Lie
"This spiritual lie has shaped our public life since the founding of our nation. We have yet to face it down, name it, and repent." Sojourners' Lisa Sharon Harper writes a guest column for Ed Stetzer's new series: "It's Time to Listen," which lifts up the voices of African-American evangelicals in light of the Michael Brown tragedy. 

4. MAP: Where Do the World Religions Live? 
Pew Research Center maps where the followers of major religions live. Fact: 1 country is home to 62 percent of unaffiliated people (and contains 19 percent of the world's total population). Guess that country.

5. That Time We Walked Out of a Church Service
"When I walked out of the church, I made a choice. I chose light over darkness. I chose truth over lies. I chose to honor my identity as beloved Kingdom woman over lukewarm, American believer."

6. WATCH: Kirk Cameron's Christian Nation Doesn't Exist
Watch the trailer to Kirk Cameron's latest film in which he apparently fill-on saves Christmas from those heathens bearing tidings of "Happy Holidays." Yes, it's a real thing.

7. MAP: How ISIS Spread Through Syria and Iraq
While the spread of ISIS seemed to surprise many in America, "the victories achieved in the past few weeks were built on months of maneuvering along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which define a region known as the cradle of civilization." The map visualizes that maneuvering. 

8. When the Holy Spirit Is Our Midwife
"… we are enlarged in the waiting; in every agonizing moment of waiting for the promise to be delivered, we are being expanded and transformed. And so we yell and fight through the pain because the Spirit in us, She’s also a warrior and She’s making us fierce, She’s making us brave."

9. Everyday Sexism in 9 Illustrations
"A new book from Taschen titled Man Meets Woman, features simple green and pink pictograms by Beijing-born, Berlin-based designer Yang Liu that examine modern gender roles. The 38-year-old uses minimalist imagery to illustrate a complex culture of gender stereotyping."

10. Treaty-ish: Obama's Proposed Climate Change Agreement Would Be Good for the Planet
"It may turn out that President Obama has simply outmaneuvered Republicans in Congress by entering an agreement that lacks the power of a treaty, but causes other countries to change their behavior—resulting in new forms of international cooperation that subsequent presidents and even Congresses will respect."

Pope to Iraqi President: ‘I Appeal to You with My Heart Full of Pain’

 Creative Commons image by Christoph Wagener

Pope Francis on June 21. Creative Commons image by Christoph Wagener

Pope Francis wrote to the president of Iraq, calling for an end to the “brutal suffering of Christians and other religious minorities” and urging political leaders to end the humanitarian crisis in the country.

Francis said in his letter to Iraqi President Fouad Massoum:

“I appeal to you with my heart full of pain while I follow the brutal suffering of Christians and other religious minorities who are forced to leave their homes, as their places of worship are destroyed.”

Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the pope’s official envoy to Iraq, delivered the pope’s message during his recent trip to that country. The two met at the Vatican on Thursday. The pope previously appealed to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to intervene to end the crisis.

Earlier this week, Francis revealed during a media conference with reporters that he was ready to travel to Iraq to try to find a solution to the ongoing violence.

James Foley’s Parents Draw on Faith After Journalist Son’s Execution

Video courtesy of USA Today.

They’ve done this before.

Once again, John and Diane Foley appeared on national television Wednesday to speak in clear and deliberate voices about their son, conflict journalist James Foley — only this time, it wasn’t to plead for his release from captors but to hail him as a hero who wanted to help people and to thank the public for the outpouring of support that has flooded in since officials confirmed a videotaped beheading of their son was authentic.

Standing in front of the family home in Rochester, N.H., John Foley told reporters in the kind of voice of strength he and his wife have displayed over the years, “We’ve been through this before. Let ‘er rip.”

In years past, the Foleys have taken to television to draw attention to the cause of their son, who was abducted in November 2012 in Syria and also held captive for 44 days in 2011 after being captured in Libya.

Account after account describes the Foleys as determined, faithful Roman Catholics. After their son disappeared in 2012, they launched the FreeJamesFoley.org website to serve as a clearinghouse for information that might lead to his release. In October 2013, they joined Today’s Matt Lauer to wish their still-captive son a happy 40th birthday and to keep his cause alive. Even when interviewers noted that Foley’s career took him to many volatile places, his father was quick to defend him.

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