Less than a year ago I stood in the ruined Old City of Mosul, standing next to the mosque where the Caliphate had been proclaimed by ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. There was a large hole in the roof, and the whole area around it had been bombed to rubble. Apart from the corpses of ISIS fighters which were still being removed from the area, the only other physical sign of their recent presence, apart from their graffiti on buildings, were piles of facial hair on the floor of many of the buildings; they had shaved off their beards in a vain attempt to avoid being identified.
The Caliphate – the “Islamic state” which at one point controlled large amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria – is almost defeated. However, while losing the battle for land, the extremist ideology and the thousands of men and women who swore allegiance to the Caliph are far from vanquished. Groups pledging allegiance to the ISIS cause are growing – notably in Africa and the Philippines – and videos of “ISIS brides” captured in Syria in recent weeks show how fanatically committed they are to the cause. Notably it is the women who are most vocal in their continued dedication to ISIS; the men absurdly claim to have been only cooks and domestic workers.
ISIS brides were not – contrary to the narrative widely reported in the Western press – the passive, controlled and brainwashed victims of their husbands. In fact, they have shown themselves to be just as devoted, and just as cruel, as their fighting husbands. Critically, this is the experience reported by their victims, who seem to have been largely forgotten in the emotional outrage over ISIS babies, stirred up by press and politicians.
Thousands of Yazidi women and children were captured by ISIS more than four years ago. They were used as sex slaves and some children were even advertised for sale in ISIS literature. Christian women were also held captive and treated the same way.
Western media and politicians congratulated themselves as Nadia Murad, the Yazidi former ISIS captive was rightfully awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, yet little or nothing was actually done to help free the women in captivity – or to help those who had escaped to safety in the West.
I first visited Iraq soon after ISIS swept across the Nineveh Plains and attacked the Yazidi villages around Sinjar in 2014. It was truly shocking to return for my sixth visit, just two months ago, and find Yazidi families still living in open abandoned buildings in Erbil, exactly as they had been in early 2015.
I spoke to some Yazidi women, all traumatised after losing relatives and friends to ISIS. I asked them what they wanted. All of them, without exception, wanted to leave Iraq. When asked where they wanted to go, their response was very simple: “Anywhere.”
Yet as the media weep tears of outrage at the conditions those who enslaved these women and children are experiencing, and as leaders make political capital, it is worth asking: how many persecuted Christians and Yazidis have been granted asylum in Britain and the United States?
The answer is a shockingly small number. According to figures released to the Barnabas Fund under the UK Freedom of Information Act, of the 7,060 Syrian refugees recommended for resettlement in the UK in 2017, only 25 were Christian and only seven were Yazidis. The US, despite the great promises of the Trump administration (which many Iraqi Christians believed), took in 50 per cent fewer Christians in 2018 than in 2017.
It is, to use the phrase of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a different context, “cheap grace” to talk about mercy and forgiveness while ignoring justice. So far, there has been little evidence of contrition on the part of those who enslaved, tortured and allowed their husbands to rape their female and child sex slaves.
British or US citizens who go to fight for an enemy are guilty of treason. Justice must be tempered with mercy, but the lack of attention and care for the victims of those who perpetrated these crimes is a scandal.
Those who suffered so much, and for so long, are without a voice, while the guilty are portrayed as victims. Failing to prosecute and punish those who committed not only crimes against humanity, but also genocide, would be to brutalise the true victims a second time. It will demonstrate before the world that the suffering of these women and children did not matter.
It is a false compassion to weep for criminals while failing their victims – those who, for example, were not freed when the coalition forces allowed ISIS to retreat from Raqqa, taking their captured Yazidi and Christian sex slaves with them.
In December 2016, several Iraqi bishops were denied visas to Britain. They were not seeking to emigrate, merely to attend the consecration of a new Syriac Orthodox church, in the presence of the Prince of Wales.
A few months later, in Erbil, I asked Archbishop Nicodemus Daoud, the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Mosul, why he thought Britain had denied him a visa. Without hesitation, and without a smile, he responded: “Because I’m not ISIS.”
When Christian, Yazidi and other victims of genocide are treated with the compassion and generous welcome they deserve, perhaps it will be time to ask how their torturers are to be mercifully punished.
Fr Benedict Kiely is the founder of Nasarean.org, which helps the persecuted Christians of the Middle East