Despite centuries of persecution, violence rarely has the last word.
Weeks before its first horrendous beheading of an American journalist, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria gave Christians in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, a stark one week choice: Convert or face execution. Christian houses were marked with a black “N” — for Nazarene, a reference to Jesus.
Those who fled were, as a refugee named Raad Ghanem put it, “stripped of everything. Money, wallets, jewelry, ID, passports, watches, everything.” For the first time in 16 centuries, there are no Catholic masses in Mosul on worship day.
This persecution has reached well beyond Mosul. As recently as 2003, roughly 1.4 million Christians lived in Iraq. After more than 60 church bombings and ISIL’s recent campaign to exterminate religious minorities, the numbers have dwindled. Syrian Christians are under equally serious assault, as are Coptic Christians in Egypt.
But history offers a glimmer of hope in the midst of this darkness. It is not just that refugees from persecution often find a home in new countries where their beliefs can flourish, as Catholics and Jews did in 19th century America, and Protestants did before that. The more profound truth is that violence rarely has the final word, even in the country from which a religious minority has been excluded.
The Roman Empire sought to snuff out Christianity on several occasions, most famously during the reign of Nero.
Even when they were not actively persecuted, Christians often were forbidden from owning property and subjected to social stigma. Yet Christianity survived and eventually thrived. Ironically, Christianity’s own commitment to human rights — such as the dignity of women — was a key feature of its success.
According to sociologist Rodney Stark, Roman Emperor Valentinian was so worried about Christianity’s attractiveness to women that he issued an order in A.D. 370forbidding Christian missionaries from making visits to the houses of pagan women.
In the modern era, China clamped down on Christians during the infamous Cultural Revolution. The Chinese leadership was ruthlessly efficient, and for years few known Christians could be found in China. Yet as soon as cracks opened in the oppression, Christianity began to spread. Two of the 21 best known leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests are now ordained priests, and the number of Chinese Christians is now thought to be roughly 60 million.
Beliefs that no longer seem to make sense of the world may fade. This is why we don’t worship Baal, as the ancient Phoenicians did, or offer libation to Greek gods and goddesses. But any religion or system of thought that speaks to our deepest needs cannot be kept at bay forever, no matter how virulent the oppression. It will always spring back as soon as it is given an opening.
Christians are not perfect. Christians have sometimes been responsible for repression themselves, as in the Crusades and the Inquisition in the Middle Ages. But so long as Christianity continues to enable men and women to navigate the complexity of their lives, it will withstand even the most awful oppression.
The resilience of Christian beliefs obviously should not be an excuse for complacency as ISIL continues its rampage. Millions of Iraqis and Syrians live in constant fear. ISIL’s disdain for human rights cries out for a response. The U.S. and other countries need to do whatever they can to help restore order in this time of chaos.
But we can take comfort knowing that repression in Mosul and elsewhere will not be the end of the story. Although something precious is lost if an ancient tradition is severed, even temporarily, Christianity will one day return to Iraq. It always does.
David Skeel, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is author of True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World.