Iraq’s Christians are just one victim of a bloody conflict

The call this weekend by bishops of the Church of England for the UK to grant asylum to the Christians driven out of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul by the jihadi fanatics of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, seems instinctively right. As the Right Reverend David Walker, Bishop of Manchester, observed: “this is, in part, our mess”.

“We have created the space in which Isis have moved in and have expelled Christians from northern Iraq and would like to expel them from the whole of that country,” he told the BBC.

After the Anglo-US invasion of Iraq in 2003, indigenous Assyrian Christians, often seen as complicit in the subsequent occupation and caught in the crossfire of the resulting ethno-sectarian war between Shia and Sunni Muslims, saw their numbers plummet from about 1m to around 300,000.

This was a tragedy foretold. Riah Abu el-Assal, a Palestinian and the then Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, says that one month before the invasion he personally warned Tony Blair, UK prime minister of the time, that “you will be responsible for emptying Iraq, the homeland of Abraham, of Christians”, after almost 2,000 years. And so it came to pass.

France, moreover, which opposed the invasion of Iraq and has no national debt to honour there, last week announced it was ready to offer asylum to Iraqi Christians.

The emptying of Mosul of its last Christians – an estimated 35,000 people who have mostly taken refuge in self-governing Kurdistan nearby – has set off waves of panic and solidarity among Christians and other minorities across the Levant.

In Beirut, some TV stations and their news anchors have in sympathy started to wear t-shirts showing the letter N for Nazarenes, the letter daubed by Isis on Christian homes in Mosul in their Nazi-like purge – offering Christians the “choice” of conversion to Islam, paying special taxes in gold, or death.

In an interview with a Beirut newspaper over the weekend as Isis forces attacked the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Walid Jumblatt, the paramount leader of the Druze sect, warned that minorities across the region “are on the edge of extinction”.

But while offering asylum to Iraqi Christians is obviously – as Blair would no doubt put it – “the right thing to do”, there are lots of shades of grey in all this.

There has long been a debate – at least since the 1975-90 civil war in Lebanon – between Arab Christian prelates about whether to counsel flight to their diminishing flocks. Measures that help empty the eastern Mediterranean of Christians may also help change irredeemably the character and future of the birthplace of Christianity.

To some in the Muslim majority, moreover, such measures often remind them of two things: a long history of western blundering and meddling in their affairs, including alliances between Christian religious hierarchies and local tyrants; and the Ottoman era “capitulations”, a regime under which France, Britain, Russia and other European powers claimed the right to protect their co-religionists under their own laws.

Would Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s anti-immigrant Front National party, have barged to the head of the queue and organised a rally in support of Iraq’s Christians if they had been Sunni refugees?

The vast majority of the refugees from the present upheavals across the Levant are Sunni – by far the major part of the 10m displaced by the Syrian civil war alone. Their fate is “in part, our mess” too.

Just as in 1991 after the first Gulf War, the allies stood aside after encouraging the Shia in southern Iraq and the Kurds in the north to rise against a defeated Saddam Hussein, in Syria the west and its Arab allies have egged on the (mostly Sunni) rebels against Bashar al-Assad’s tyranny, but stood with their arms folded as he proceeded to crush them, and watched totalitarian jihadis such as Isis step into the vacuum. And Christians are by no means their only victims.

In Iraq, as in Syria, their first targets are Sunni rivals, then the viscerally hated and idolatrous Shia – and anybody else who crosses their path. This weekend, for example, Isis fought its way into Sinjar, near Mosul, the historic sanctuary of the much-abused Yazidi minority.

The Yazidis, mostly Kurdish-speaking, were seven years ago victims of the single worst atrocity at the height of the ethno-sectarian carnage unleashed by the US-led invasion, in which more than 500 people (there is an Iraqi Red Crescent estimate of nearly 800) died in a firestorm of jihadi bombings by the precursor of Isis.

But the Yazidis – with their syncretic blend of beliefs unpalatable to Sunni supremacists who regard them as polytheists and devil-worshippers – have no advocates in the west. I doubt they expect to see Marine Le Pen marching in Paris for them.

It is not that there are any easy answers to a regional situation that is daily spiraling into new depths of violence and insanity. In the short-term, there needs to be much more western help to offer aid and protection to refugees, especially via the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, where so many of the recently displaced have sought sanctuary – and where the poorly equipped if cohesive peshmerga forces now under Isis assault desperately need help and heavy weapons.

But, as a recent FT editorial argued, any real turnround will require mainstream Sunnis to reassert leadership and crush extremism within their own camp.

In order to break this demonic sectarian spiral, there obviously needs to be a pan-communal effort to rebuild these states in ways that provide equal citizenship and secure diversity, reflected in confederal institutions, devolved power to regions and two-chamber parliaments with an upper house that defends minority rights. The west can theoretically help with all that.

But as things stand, its most solid partner in the Sunni Arab world is Saudi Arabia, a fundamentalist regime whose Wahhabi absolutism is in the DNA of groups such as Isis, even if Riyadh sees such groups as a threat. And the Saudis will not be offering asylum to Christians; they do not even allow Christian worship.