Protecting Christians and Yazidis: Elusive religious freedom

Barbarisms in the name of religion demand a response.

bill.leonardBy Bill Leonard

When the storm troopers of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took Mosul, they marked the homes of Christians with a red Arabic “N” for “Nazarene,” targeting those families for “extermination or expropriation.” That’s what Jeremy Courtney, founder/director of Preemptive Love, an Iraqi-based aid organization, tweeted when the violently radical Sunni invaders struck.

Paul Rauschenbusch details the persecution of Christians, Yazidis and other religious/ethnic minorities facing ISIS onslaughts as described by Courtney whose agency assists Iraqi children and works for peace in the region. Pope Francis also responded, declaring: “Thousands of people, among them many Christians, [are] banished brutally from their houses, children dying of hunger and thirst as they flee, women kidnapped, people massacred, violence of all kinds. All of this deeply offends God and deeply offends humanity."

Christians aren’t the only faith community under siege. So are the Yazidis, a Kurdish-language religious communion, with an ancient, syncretistic belief system that sounds strangely like the groups identified in “the world into which Christianity came” lecture I’ll discuss in my Christian history course in two weeks. National Geographic describes Yazidism as “an ancient faith, with a rich oral tradition that mixes with Islam some elements of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion, and Mithraism, a mystery religion originating in the Eastern Mediterranean.”

Zoroastrianism? Mithraism? Who’d have guessed that those age-old eastern ideologies (that shaped Christianity more than we often admit) have been kept alive by some 500,000 devotees, most of whom live in the region of primal Nineveh! Monotheists, the Yazidis have known centuries of persecution especially from Muslims, who dismiss as infidelity their belief that seven beings or angel-like emanations make known the transcendent God, the chief of which is Tawusî Melek, a being the Sunni-oriented ISIS marauders identity as demonic.

The ISIS killer-fanatics demand that the “devil-worshipers” “convert or die.” They execute, sometimes decapitate, those who resist conversion, and have taken several hundred females hostage. These horrific barbarisms generated a mass exodus of Christians, Yazidis and other minorities, many seeking sanctuary on barren Mount Sinjar, where thousands remain without food, water or protection from desert elements. (Late reports indicate U.S. airstrikes and Kurdish troops are helping end the siege.)

What might we citizens of more religiously pluralistic societies do in response to these atrocities? First, we might simply remember. We who bask in the sunlight of religious liberty, but often debate its meaning and boundaries, are reminded that violent, life-threatening religious persecution continues unabated in many regions of our world, producing brutal slaughter blasphemously proffered in God’s name.

Matthew Barber, University of Chicago professor and scholar of Yazidism, says that Yazidis claim 72 genocidal aggressions instigated against them across the centuries. His assessment provides a poignant aide-mémoire for Yazidis and Christians alike: “Memory of persecution is a core component of their identity.” Christian memory of earlier persecutions — the 13th-century papal crusade against the Zoroastrian-influenced Cathari/Albigenses seems strangely parallel — mandates an outcry against any pseudo-religious violence that targets non-conformist religious minorities, whatever their beliefs, or lack thereof.

Second, might we raise our voices against all genocidal violence masquerading as religion? Since all faith communions are tainted, distinguishing bad religion from good can be complicated. Not this time. ISIS religio-barbarism is unabashedly evil and we need to identify it accordingly. In When Religion Becomes Evil, published following 9/11, my friend Charles Kimball writes insightfully “that every religious tradition has elements that tend toward such rigidity and exposing the dangers and fallacies of maintaining such rigidity are vital steps in bringing to light healthy alternatives. Authentic religious truth-claims are never as inflexible and exclusive as zealous adherents insist. Corrupt religious truth-claims always lack the liberating awareness that humans are limited as they search for … religious truth.”

Third, given recent American debates over the boundaries of religious freedom and a Supreme Court ruling that corporations can exercise that right, might we expect that such liberty-asserting agencies as Hobby Lobby and the University of Notre Dame should be at the forefront of efforts for religious pluralism across the globe, especially where its denial is life-threatening? Their considerable religio-political, financial and public influence could be vital resources for encouraging governmental, corporate and ecclesial responses to Iraq’s killing fields.

Finally, as we offer prayerful and financial support for protecting and liberating these Iraqi refugee-exiles, might we recommit ourselves to resisting all efforts to coerce faith, whether instituted by governments or privileged religious majorities? Faith coerced by the Uzi, the culture or the courts is no real faith. In this we Baptists have a great lineage, evident in British historian Edward Underhill’s observation that “a distinguishing … trait” of the early Baptists was their claim, “for the church and for the conscience, of freedom from all human control.”

So in small, symbolic solidarity with endangered Iraqi Christians and Yazidis, our family has posted a big red “N” (Nazarene) on our front doors. Should any of the KKK folks who recently rallied not far from here drive down Robinhood Road in Winston-Salem, I hope they’ll take notice. Bad “religions” haunt us all.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.