Democracy Lab

Mosul's Christians Say Goodbye

The jihadist takeover of northern Iraq is a disaster for Iraqis. But the destruction of an ancient Christian culture is a disaster for the world.

I've been reading the headlines from northern Iraq over the past two weeks with an intensifying sense of dread. It's a feeling very much like the one I have whenever I read about the disappearance of some huge ice sheet in the Antarctic or the extinction of yet another rare species of animal. It's the feeling that one more valuable ingredient of life on Earth is about to vanish, in all likelihood, forever.

The takeover of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, by the jihadist troops of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is a catastrophe for the people of Iraq, who now face a revival of full-blown sectarian warfare, and a strategic and psychological nightmare for the United States, which sacrificed vast amounts of blood and treasure to topple Saddam Hussein and build a viable government -- the latter, it would seem, in vain.

But over the past few days I've found myself mourning a more specific disaster: the flight and dispersal of the last remnants of Iraq's once-proud community of Christians. Emil Shimoun Nona, the archbishop of the Chaldean Catholics of Mosul, has told news agencies that the few Christians remaining in the city prior to the ISIS invasion have abandoned the city. Since the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003, he estimates, Mosul's Christian population dwindled from 35,000 to some 3,000. "Now there is no one left," he said. Most of them have joined the estimated 500,000 refugees who have fled the ISIS advance; many of the Christians, including the archbishop, have opted for the relative security of Iraqi Kurdistan. (The photo above shows girls praying in the Church of the Virgin Mary in Bartala, a town to the east of Mosul.)

The exodus has been triggered, above all, by the jihadists' reputation for bloodlust -- a reputation that ISIS has consciously furthered through its own propaganda. A few days ago, the jihadists used social media to distribute photos supporting their claim that they had killed 1,700 Shiite prisoners taken during their rapid offensive. No sooner had ISIS entered Mosul than some of their fighters set fire to an Armenian church. This all seems consistent with the group's grim record during the civil war in Syria, where, among other things, it has revived medieval Islamic restrictions on Christian populations. (It's their fear of Islamist rebels that has tended to align the Syrian Christian community with the secular regime of Bashar al-Assad.)

In 2003, it was estimated that some 1.5 million Iraqis were Christians, about 5 percent of the population. Since then, the overwhelming majority has reacted to widening sectarian conflict and a series of terrorist attacks by leaving the country. (Archbishop Nona's predecessor, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was kidnapped and killed outside his Mosul church back in 2008.) Almost all of the various Iraqi Christian communities -- the Chaldeans (who are part of the Roman Catholic Church), the Armenians, the Syriac Orthodox, the Greek Orthodox -- have benefited from large émigré contingents around the world who have welcomed refugees from Iraq.

I'm glad that these believers have saved themselves and their faith, but their emigration comes at a cost -- as they themselves are only too aware. For the past 2,000 years, Iraq has been home to a distinct and vibrant culture of Eastern Christianity. Now that storied history appears to be coming to an end. Even if the ISIS forces are ultimately driven back, it's hard to imagine that the Mosul Christians who have fled will see a future for themselves in an Iraq dominated by the current Shiite dictatorship of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which enjoys strong support from Iran.

It's worth adding, perhaps, that Christians aren't the only ones in this predicament. Iraq is also home to a number of other religious minorities endangered by the country's polarization into two warring camps of Islam. The Yazidis follow a belief system that has a lot in common with the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism; about a half a million of them live in northern Iraq. The Mandaeans, numbering only 30,000 or so, are perhaps the world's last remaining adherents of Gnosticism, one of the offshoots of early Christianity. By tradition many Mandaeans are goldsmiths -- a trade that has made them prominent targets for abduction in the post-invasion anarchy of Iraq. Losing these unique cultures makes the world a poorer place.

In the fall of 2003, when I was on assignment in Iraq, I had a chance to travel to Mosul. It was a fateful moment for the U.S.-led occupation, then just a few months old. I interviewed Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the American forces in the city and its surrounding region. The insurgency that had already flared into life in other parts of the country was only just reaching Mosul; while I was there, several American soldiers were attacked by an angry mob and killed -- a harbinger of long years of violence to come.

But I soon discovered that there was a lot more to Mosul than the headlines. The citizens of Mosul I met welcomed me with a spontaneous hospitality that I hadn't really experienced in the Iraqi capital. This may have had something to do with the fact that Baghdad, the heart of Saddam Hussein's brutal Baathist state, retained little palpable sense of its rich historical past. Baghdad had an almost Soviet soullessness -- the vast tracts of ugly prefab housing wouldn't have looked out of place in Warsaw or Beijing. Mosul, by contrast, still retained its character as an Ottoman trade route city, a place both scruffy and intimate. And it was enlivened by a proud sense of its own diversity: You never knew whether the next person you were going to meet was a Sunni or a Shiite, a Kurd or a Christian.

The Christians were especially fascinating -- above all, because it was hard to escape the sense that you were witnessing the practice of traditions you weren't going to find anywhere else. Some of Mosul's Christians answer to Rome; some follow various Orthodox patriarchs; and some, like the members of the Ancient Church of the East, are beholden to no authority but their own. There are Christians in and around Mosul who still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ.

I found myself admiring the interior of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Mar Toma (St. Thomas), brilliantly lit by long strings of light bulbs. The parishioners were especially proud of their big display Bible in the ancient tongue of Syriac, whose elaborate calligraphy adorned surfaces in many parts of the building. (The church is also home to a set of rare manuscripts in Syriac and Garshuni, a dialect of Arabic used by medieval Christians.) No one actually knows how old the church is, but it dates back at least to the 8th century. I also paid a visit to St. Paul's Cathedral, the seat of the Chaldean Christians' archbishop, a stolid stone building that looked as though it could withstand any attack. A year later it was bombed by jihadi insurgents, badly damaging the structure.

For what it's worth, the city's long history of peaceful coexistence doesn't seem to be completely dead. Archbishop Nona has told of Muslims in Mosul banding together to guard the city's churches from looting, and other reports from Mosul suggest that the Islamists are trying to assuage the fears of religious minorities in the city.

But the Christians of northern Iraq can hardly be blamed if they're unwilling to bank on these faint glimmers of hope -- the jihadists' record speaks too eloquently against them. Back in 2003, there was little inkling of the disaster that was about to befall Iraq's Christians. Today, there seems to be little that can be done to reverse it.

KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

False Positive

Why Hillary Clinton's greatest foreign policy "success" isn't the win her new book claims.

I've just been reading about the story of Maru Seng, a 45-year-old man who, one day in October of last year, was captured by Myanmar government troops. They accused him of being a rebel. They tied his hands and legs together, then bound his legs to a chair; they left him in that position all through the night without any food, water, or visits to the toilet. The next morning he seized an opportunity to escape -- whereupon one of his guards shot him in the head.

Amazingly, he survived. But when he regained consciousness, his captors continued torturing him. They tied a bamboo stick to his shins, and two soldiers jumped up and down on it. Then they tied him up with a wire and hung him from a beam in the ceiling of the house where he was being held:

They tied my neck, my hands behind back, arms, and feet. It was tighter than before. It hurt so much, it was so tight and it felt like my whole body would explode.

Eventually they let Maru Seng go, warning him not to leave the area. But he fled anyway -- which is why he was ultimately able to tell his story to the members of a human rights group called Fortify Rights, which has just published a detailed report on the abuses committed by Myanmar's armed forces in their three-year war against separatist rebels from the Kachin ethnic group.

You could be forgiven for not knowing about the civil war in Kachin State; after all, it's been taking place in one of the most remote parts of Southeast Asia, a place that few outsiders will ever see. Yet the harrowing account above comes from a country that the Obama administration is touting as the major success of its foreign policy. During his recent speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, President Obama boasted about Washington's "diplomatic initiative" and "American leadership" had contributed to "political reforms" that opened up "a once-closed society." (As if eager to emphasize the magnitude of this success, he cited the population of the country in question: "40 million." Myanmar's population is actually closer to 56 million -- but hey, what's a few million among friends?)

The president isn't the only one crowning himself with Burmese laurels these days. In case you somehow missed it, Hillary Clinton is rolling out a new memoir -- this time covering her term as Obama's secretary of state. This is a big deal, since her book tour is looking a lot like a prelude to her expected presidential campaign. Reporters from the Washington Post, who have already seen the text of her book, tell us that she cites Myanmar's opening as one of her major achievements. We're told that Clinton "played a leading role" in the administration's much-touted reorientation of American foreign policy toward Asia, and that one of her big successes here was in "reestablishing diplomatic ties to the long-isolated country of Burma…." Another Washington Post story claims that Clinton’s "outreach to Burma led to political reforms and helped move one of China’s closest regional allies closer to Washington."

Well, there's certainly no disputing that the two countries have moved closer; the question is whether it’s been worth the price. Then-Secretary of State Clinton’s visit to Yangon in December 2011 was supposed to mark a new era of friendship between Burma and the United States -- and it certainly did that. Relations between the two countries have steadily deepened since then, perhaps reflecting their common concern about the rising regional power of China. Over the past three years, the Obama administration has suspended most of the political and economic sanctions that the United States once imposed on the country's harsh military dictatorship, measures that were intended to reward the Myanmar government for its steps to open up the political system. Since he came to power in March 2011, President Thein Sein freed political prisoners, loosened up restrictions on the media, and allowed Aung San Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy political party, the National League for Democracy, to participate in elections that ultimately gave them a presence in parliament. (The photo shows Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi sitting together at an event in Yangon in November 2012.)

Those were all significant steps. The problem, says Jennifer Quigley, is that the United States and other Western countries hoped to encourage additional steps in the same direction -- but that hasn't happened. Quigley’s organization, the U.S. Campaign for Burma, wanted to see Washington hold back on rewards to the Myanmar government in order to maintain leverage for greater change. "We didn't want to see economic sanctions lifted until we had seen more progress on human rights and ceasefire dialogue for the ethnic minorities," she says. "We've been frustrated that they've given away that leverage of sanctions for too little in return." She praises Obama for his decision to sign an order last month prolonging some remaining sanctions against individual members of the old regime. But it's clear from her tone that she and her colleagues believe that the United States has already given away the goods.

She and other activists have good reason to feel frustrated. After the initial euphoria of Thein Sein's early moves toward change, Myanmar has stagnated. Aung San Suu Kyi and her small group of pro-democracy colleagues sit in parliament, but they have little real power. Aung San Suu Kyi has launched a campaign to amend the current constitution, which was designed by the military to allow for a liberalization of national political life that would nonetheless leave it firmly in charge of the parliament and all the other national institutions that count. But so far the generals show no inclination to budge -- leaving the pro-democratic forces little chance of fielding a viable candidate in next year's presidential election. In a word: The military remains firmly in control. Democracy remains a theory.

Meanwhile, a brutal ethnic conflict between Buddhists (who make up the lion’s share of the country’s faiths) and the country’s 2 million Rohingya Muslims has made a mockery of the much-lauded "opening."

Dozens have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced, often under hideous conditions. Radical Burmese nationalists have seized upon widespread hatred of Muslims to launch openly discriminatory bills in parliament, and the military has shown little inclination to block the measures. Some outside experts are warning of the possibility of genocide. Happily, some Burmese activists are finally pushing back against the forces of intolerance. Even so, the picture remains grim.

And then there's that vicious war against the Kachin. Yes, it's true that the government is continuing its roundtable peace talks with representatives of the country's restive ethnic minorities (who, including the Kachin, make up about 40 percent of the population). But there's no hint of the sort of overarching political solution that the minority groups have been aiming for, and which would bring Myanmar the real and substantive peace that has eluded it ever since independence in 1948. It's hard to imagine how Myanmar can ever be considered a real democracy unless it can find a political arrangement -- some form of federalism, presumably -- that really includes all ethnicities. That's why Myanmar's pro-democracy activists have always pushed for reforms that would achieve this. Right now, though, such reforms aren’t anywhere in sight.

It's probably too early to declare Myanmar's opening a failure. Whatever you want to call it, though, it's still a long way from democracy. And it certainly is not an unmitigated success. If this is the biggest achievement Hillary Clinton can claim from her term as secretary as state, it doesn't reflect well on her legacy.

KHIN MAUNG WIN/AFP/Getty Images