I didn’t go looking for Christians in Iraq; I stumbled upon them when I went to cover a U.S.-led war. But the vitality of the Christian community there would draw me in, and their underreported plight would compel me to return again and again as they became my friends.
But to be a Christian in Iraq is to live in constant danger. Even a decade ago, kidnappings showed how vulnerable Christians had become.
Odisho Yousif choked on baked dust and felt gravel tear into his cheek. His chest throbbed where the man his captors called “Commander” had kicked him. Odisho’s breath came in sharp heaves as he looked up at the Commander towering over him, holding his identity card.
Like all Iraqi IDs, Odisho’s had a line indicating his religion, and his was marked Christian. The Commander, who never removed his black face mask, paced to and fro in the gray dawn, turning the tattered card over and over. “You are an agent with the Jews of Israel!” he exploded.
“No, no!” Odisho protested. “I am a Christian from Iraq.”
Odisho was pummeled once more by the Commander’s boot, and by a sense of the helplessness of his predicament.
The irony didn’t escape him. His job, after all, was to carry money—the funds raised by church members to pay ransom for Christians kidnapped by Islamic militants. As often as he had helped other victims, Odisho never dreamed he might become one himself.
The year was 2006—eight years before the Islamic fighters known as ISIS launched strikes into the center of Iraq’s Christian heartland. Everywhere militants were blowing up Christians—their churches, grocery stores, and homes. They threatened them with kidnapping. They vowed to take their children. The message to these “infidels”: You don’t belong in Iraq. Leave, pay the penalty to stay, or be ready to die.
Much of the world didn’t grasp the deadly dangers for Iraq’s Christians until 2014, when a group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, took Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, in a lightning-fast overnight strike. From that moment genocide unfolded—with rapes, shootings, and beheadings—as ISIS fighters forced thousands of Christians and other non-Muslims to flee.
Long before, Odisho was among thousands who could testify to a decade of such brutality. The ultimatum ISIS handed Mosul’s Christians in 2014—pay jizya, convert to Islam, or be killed—was too familiar to believers like him.
Paying ransom came as part of the commerce of war. Christians knew that it financed more bombings and more terror, yet they had no choice but to pay. Given Odisho’s connections and his ability to raise money and direct it to families who needed it, he naturally became the conduit of funds for kidnapping victims and bombing survivors.
“Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, . . . [even if they are] of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued,” reads the Quran, and the ancient church leaders historically paid the jizya mandated by Islamic law. Modern infidels were paying it just the same: paying special taxes to hold public events and to serve Communion wine. In other words, it was the price to live among Muslims in the Christians’ own homeland. In times of war, it was the price to survive.
The decimation of Christians and their communities in the Middle East looks at first like a problem “over there.” While sad, it appears too complicated, too tied up in the complex politics of the region, and too big to solve. For me a tragedy held at arm’s length over time has become personal. As a reporter covering international events, I’ve made multiple trips to the region over the past twenty years. While I’m supposed to remain an objective observer, many of these “infidels”—ordinary people committed to raising families and finding work, often after being forced from their homes and losing everything they own—are not merely sources or subjects. They have become friends.
For fifty-year-old Odisho, the second of July had begun like so many others. Temperatures rocketed past 110 degrees as he left Dohuk, the city in the far north where he lived, in the company of his driver, a distant relative. By morning he had collected four thousand dollars from churches in Mosul and the surrounding villages of Nineveh Plains; by afternoon, he was making his way along a stretch of good highway south to Baghdad.
Halfway along the five-hour route, the car broke down. As his driver went for help, Odisho, a wiry man with dark hair and tinted glasses, paced and smoked, kicking up dust with the toe of his black leather shoe.
Minutes later a black Opal drove up. Four men wearing black masks stepped out. Before Odisho had time to react, they pulled handguns from their belts and surrounded him. They shouted and wagged their weapons to hustle him into the backseat of their car, but Odisho resisted, backing away. One of the gunmen shot him in the leg. He tumbled into the car, his leg grazed by the bullet, bleeding. After rounding up Odisho’s driver, the abductors forced both men, facedown and crouched, into the back of the car. A gunman perched between them.
The car sped off into the desert. Odisho couldn’t see, but he guessed they were heading toward Baquba, a town forty miles north of Baghdad that seethed with violence. A month earlier outside Baquba, U.S. forces had killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The area remained a hotbed for terrorism.
“We have been watching you ever since you left Kirkuk,” one of the kidnappers said. But Odisho hadn’t traveled through that city. Perhaps his captors were gang members or simple thugs, Odisho thought, rather than trained al-Qaeda militants. He guessed they might be looking for money or prestige by turning hostages over to al-Qaeda.
Shoved onto the floorboard next to a gunman, Odisho felt shock and fear settle over him. I am a prize hostage, he realized. A prominent member of the Assyrian Patriotic Party with visible access to money. As he considered the impossible burden his kidnapping would impose on others, a heavy dread that turned his stomach spread through him. His body shook all over at the thought of the gunshot to his leg. He couldn’t see anything; he could only listen to the whine of wheels just beneath his head and feel the cool metal of the gun pressed to his temple.
The sound of asphalt turned to that of dirt and gravel. Around nightfall the car made a final turn and came to a stop. After being pulled from the car, Odisho stood and looked around. Dirt roadways etched a path lined with fuel tanks, old equipment, and some dilapidated army vehicles. A deserted military depot, Odisho thought as his kidnappers began to rearrange corrugated metal sheets and scrap into a shelter. In the distance Odisho saw the Hamrin Mountains in the east. As he had guessed, they were near Baquba.
Odisho lay on the bare ground but couldn’t sleep. As the air turned brisk, the sweat of the day cooled against his skin. He shivered uncontrollably. He stood up, paced, sat for a while, then got up and paced some more. When he thought of his two sons at home with his wife, he had to fight not to cry. His driver dozed, and the gunmen kept a lookout. Just before dawn the Commander arrived and began questioning Odisho.
After making accusations, the Commander stormed away with Odisho’s belongings, leaving him in the dust. Odisho collected himself but didn’t try to stand, and he waited. Hours passed as the Commander talked on a cell phone and argued in Arabic with the gunmen about what to do with the pair. Meanwhile, Odisho and the driver spoke to each other in low tones in Syriac. This ancient language, a dialect of the Aramaic spoken by Jesus Christ, was still spoken by Iraq’s Assyrian Christians.
By daylight the Commander told Odisho his ransom had been set at $300,000. It was impossibly higher than the usual demands. Odisho shook his head.
“Kill me,” he told the Commander. “It is better.”
Excerpt drawn from They Say We Are Infidels.