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The Blood Crying Out from the Ground

Anyone who reads the Catholic press will be familiar with the terrors taking place right now in Iraq. But we’ll let Pope Francis paint the picture for us. In his August 10 Angelus address, the Holy Father said, “The news reports coming from Iraq leave us in dismay and disbelief: thousands of people, including many Christians, driven from their homes in brutal manner: children dying of thirst and hunger in their flight; women taken and carried off; people massacred; violence of every kind; destruction of historical, cultural and religious patrimonies.”

According to Catholic Relief Services, violence has displaced more than 1.2 million Iraqis since January 2014. The Catholic Near East Welfare Association, an agency of the Holy See, reports that fewer than 150,000 Christians remain in Iraq, down from a high of more than one million before 1991. The capture of the city of Karakosh, long known as the Christian capital of Iraq, by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has forced more than 100,000 Christians to flee on foot as the Muslim extremists desecrate churches, burning icons and religious manuscripts and taking down crosses from the rooftops to fly their flags. The Christians who haven’t fled have been given a choice: convert to Islam, pay an exorbitant tax, or face “death by the sword.”

In one Iraqi city, a historical nadir has been reached: According to the Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako, “For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians.” Greg Erlandson, president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, explains what this means: “For the first time in perhaps 1,700 years, the Mass is no longer celebrated in Mosul because the Catholic community has been forced to flee rather than choose between death and conversion to Islam” (OSV Newsweekly, Aug. 31). This July, ISIS destroyed the tomb of Jonah, the burial place of the Old Testament prophet, a historical and religious landmark revered by Christians, Jews, and Muslims that was located inside a Sunni mosque in Mosul. ISIS declared that the site, which had been renovated in the 1990s under Saddam Hussein, had become “a place for apostasy, not prayer” (Associated Press, July 24).

Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter writes that “ISIS seems like a Hollywood producer’s idea of evil. When your cruelty is such that al-Qaeda thinks you are giving Islamicist extremism a bad name, you know you have something radically evil” (Aug. 20). The extreme barbarism to which ISIS has resorted has shocked observers. This August, the brazen beheading of American journalist James Foley — filmed by ISIS and spread across the globe via social media — was condemned by President Obama, who said that a group like ISIS “has no place in the twenty-first century.” (Which prompts one to wonder whether it might have had a place in another century. Perhaps the eleventh, Mr. President?) Foley, a Catholic who had also been held captive a couple years earlier in Libya, wrote that he was sustained through that ordeal by praying the rosary. As for facing the sword of his Muslim captors this time around (at least one of whom spoke with a British accent), his brother said “without a doubt” Foley would have volunteered to be the first to be executed (CBS News, Aug. 22). Foley was reportedly water-boarded before being decapitated. Pope Francis personally phoned Foley’s parents to “console them for their loss and assure them of his prayers,” said Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi (Catholic News Service, Aug. 22). The latest report is that a second captive American journalist, Steven Sotloff, who held dual citizenship in Israel, has also been decapitated on-camera by ISIS.

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