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Scattered in Limbo: The uprooting and dispersal of Middle East Christians

07 May 2015 – by Michael J.L. La Civita

Speech given at the Hudson Institute‘s conference, “The Islamic State’s Religious Cleansing and the Urgency of a Strategic Response” at The Peninsula in New York City.

Ladies and gentlemen, long before there was ISIS, civil war in Syria, an Arab Spring, Al Qaeda, the U.S. invasions of Iraq, civil war in Lebanon, and the Israeli-Arab conflict, Middle East Christians were on the move. Whether hiding from persecution by Jewish leaders, Roman emperors, Persian forces, Byzantine bishops, Muslim Arab invaders or Ottoman bureaucrats, the region’s Christians demonstrated agility, tenacity and the will to survive. As they moved from place to place — leaving behind their ancient centers of Antioch or Edessa — Middle East Christians preserved their identities, their cultures, their languages, their rites and their unique approaches to the one Christian faith. They reestablished their monasteries and convents, churches and schools from Beirut to Baghdad, prospering in the modern era even with the rise of ideological fanaticism and its destructive twin, intolerance.

But the sixth day of August 2014 will be forever seared into the psyches of all Middle East Christians. For on that day, maniacal extremists upended the lives of more than 100,000 Iraqi Christians, forcing them to flee their homes, leaving behind everything in a matter of minutes.

The human cost of the displacement of the Middle East’s Christians is tremendous. Although they may account for only about 5 percent of the region’s population — about 15.5 million people — Christians dominate the region’s middle classes, exercising prominence in the tourism industry, commercial and skilled labor sectors, and the civil service. And as they flee the extremists rapidly taking hold in the region, moderates from other communities follow, leaving behind those who cannot leave — the poor, the uneducated, the elderly and the infirmed — and those who stand to gain by fanning the flames of hate.

Safuan and his wife Dalia had everything: good jobs, two healthy sons, aged 5 and 8, and an active social life centered on the family and their parish community in the city of Mosul. Dalia was expecting her third child, and preparations were being made to welcome the baby. Then ISIS swept in, took Mosul as the capital of their “caliphate,” and the family fled to Qaraqosh, an hour away. Their precarious refuge soon collapsed, however, as ISIS swept into the region’s Christian heartland, the Nineveh Plain.

“We had only 30 minutes to flee Qaraqosh,” Safuan recalled. “We took what we could in our car and left — like all 100,000 other Christians — using the same dusty road. We were all afraid, stuck in traffic. The crying, screaming, dust and heat ... it was a nightmare.”

Meanwhile, ISIS was gaining ground as Iraqi Kurdish forces retreated to defend their capital, Erbil. The bullets flew.

The scariest thing was that we did not know who was shooting, “where those bullets were coming from,” said Ibtihaj Rifo, who fled the same night with her family from the Christian town of Bartalla. “We didn’t have a clear idea of our destination. We knew we had to head toward Kurdistan. That was the only place.”

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