ISIS wasn’t on my radar screen until the day in June 2014 when the violent Islamist group entered Mosul, Iraq. I’d been closely following the devastation caused by Islamist groups in Syria, but I never dreamed it would overflow into Iraq, driving thousands of Christians out of Mosul and eventually many more out of the Nineveh Plains.
Journalist Mindy Belz had a better grasp of these events than most Americans. She had made repeated trips to the region, starting in 2002 when she crossed the Tigris River from Syria into Kurdistan, in Iraq. At that time, George W. Bush’s war against Saddam Hussein’s regime was about to begin, sowing the seeds for events that would occur in Syria in 2011 and in Iraq in 2014.
In her book They Say We Are Infidels, Belz traces the paths of Iraqi Christians from 2002 to the present, focusing primarily on the traditional Christian communities in Iraq rather than Muslim converts to Christianity.
During the 2003 Iraq conflict, Christians hoped the removal of Saddam Hussein would bring greater freedom to worship and a Christian voice in national politics. That same year, Belz met Insaf Safou, a Christian woman who had fled Iraq nine years earlier under threat from Saddam’s regime. The two traveled the country together, Insaf bringing aid and encouragement to weary Christians and Belz reporting on the war in Iraq. Over the next 12 years, they made several journeys together. Insaf reconnected with family and friends, while Belz gained insight into what was happening to Iraqi Christians.
As described in her book, Belz at first discovers a community of believers who are committed to maintaining a Christian presence in their centuries-old home. However, as the years pass and terrorist factions wreak havoc on historic monasteries, churches, schools and businesses, Belz sees more and more Christians make the difficult decision to leave their homeland.
By 2015, even Insaf, who had high hopes for her country, begins to believe that the best course for many Iraqi Christians is emigration. As Iraqi Christian Elias Shamuel tells her in the book, “Religiously I am gone. Ethnically I am cleansed. Culturally I am wiped out.”
Still, in the course of her travels, Belz encounters some who are determined to stay. Dominican friar Father Najeeb Michael rescued 55,000 rare books and manuscripts, including ancient Scriptures and church writings, from the library of the Clock Church in Mosul in the days prior to the ISIS invasion. After leaving for Erbil, he organized housing for both Christians and Yazidis, continuing to act as their spiritual leader.
Pastor Yousif Matty is another who refuses to leave. He is deeply invested in providing education in Kurdistan. “Out is not really a solution,” he says. “This is not the first time for the Mesopotamian people that Christianity has been oppressed. The movement with ISIS is not going to be the last problem. We have purpose and reason to stay.”
They Say We Are Infidels clearly relates the historical events and complexities guiding the lives of Iraqi Christians today, serving as an important documentation of recent Christian history in the Middle East.* Belz’s thorough reporting and depth of understanding are invaluable in helping believers know how best to help and pray for Iraqi Christians.
Dory P. has worked with VOM for nine years. Dory tells the stories of the persecuted through VOM's newsletter, and her husband serves in VOM's international department. Between Dory, her husband, their 5-year-old son and their 2-year-old daughter, the family shares seven passports, though they know their ultimate citizenship is in heaven.
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