Several hundred people gathered in front of the White House on Saturday, chanting, “Obama, Obama, where are you? Iraqi Christians call for you!”
Iraqi Christians held demonstrations in a number of cities on Saturday, including Washington, Paris, The Hague, Cologne, and London, in order to bring attention to the current assault on Christians by the Islamic State (IS)– formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) jihadists. One week ago, Christians were forced out of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and many Christian monasteries, shrines and churches have since been destroyed.
His Grace Mar Paulus Benjamin, a bishop in the Assyrian Church of the East, made the 12-hour bus ride from Chicago with parishioners to attend the demonstration in Washington. I spoke with him in front of the White House: “Iraq’s Christians are being ignored by the United States, the United Nations, and the human rights organizations,” the Bishop said. “For us, America is a symbol of freedom and protection of human rights. I think of America in World War II, when America came to the rescue of Europe. Then, the enemy was the Nazis. Today it is ISIS. The names are different, but the religious cleansing is the same.”
After I spoke with the Bishop I was approached by a man who quietly said to me, “You know, we are Muslims here as well.” Yasir is a Muslim from Baghdad who left Iraq in 1966. “What I see today in the world is not the Islam I grew up with. I had many Christian friends growing up. I attended the Jesuit College in Baghdad. I am here today to show my support for my Christian friends.”
Yasir was not the only Muslim there. An imam was one of the speakers, along with church leaders, and protestors could be heard chanting, “We are Muslims and Christians united together against Da’ash,” using the Arabic term for IS.
All of the demonstrators I spoke with expressed frustration with the lack of action by the global community, and especially by the United States. This comes at a time when criticism of the Obama administration has been mounting for its failure to act against ISIS. According to an article in McClatchyDC, the administration had ample warning of the rise of IS and the threat to Iraq. Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, even publicly told the Senate Armed Services Committee back in February that the Islamic State ‘probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014.’
Further evidence of the administration’s foreknowledge of ISIS’s sweep through Iraq was revealed on July 24, when Deputy Assistant Secretary Brett McGurk testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing. McGurk arrived in Mosul three days before it fell to ISIL. In testimony that was uncharacteristically frank for this administration, McGurk acknowledged that both the U.S. and the Iraqis were well aware of the rising threat beforehand but were unable to muster the forces needed to counter it. To his credit, McGurk met with religious leaders while in Iraq, including Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako in Baghdad, and Archbishop Bashar Warda in Erbil. In his testimony, McGurk states, “We are also particularly concerned about the state of the Christian community in Iraq, including in Mosul where this ancient community is being expelled by ISIL on threat of execution. There are now reports of the community’s full scale departure, which saddens us deeply.” But whether this expression of concern will result in any kind of direct action that will help to protect Christians and allow them to return to their homes remains to be seen.
Katie Gorka is the president of the Council on Global Security. @katharinegorka