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Pope Francis speaks out against religious persecution in Iraq

Pope Francis recently spoke out against violence against Christians, women and children in Iraq.
Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images

On Sunday, August 10, John Hooper of The Guardian reported that Pope Francis spoke out against the way that militant Muslims in Iraq have been actively persecuting Christians and others for their religious beliefs ever since the Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS) began seizing territory and enforcing their version of Muslim sharia law. The latest reports from Iraq share horrifying stories of Christians being killed because of their beliefs and others being told that they will be killed unless they convert to Islam or pay fines.

According to Hooper, "Pope Francis used unusually strong language to condemn the actions of Islamists in their continuing campaign against minorities in Iraq on Sunday and called for an end to violence in the name of God. ... In his traditional Sunday blessing, Francis said the news from the country had left him 'in dismay and disbelief'.

"Without referring by name to the Islamic State (ISIS), whose jihadists are largely responsible for the persecution, the pope deplored reports of 'thousands of people, including many Christians, driven from their homes in a brutal manner; children dying of thirst and hunger in their flight; women kidnapped; people massacred; [and] violence of every kind.'

"He added: 'All this gravely offends God and humanity. Hatred is not to be carried in the name of God. War is not to be waged in the name of God.'

"Iraqi authorities have reported that ISIS has kidnapped hundreds of women and girls from the Yazidi religious minority after seizing the north-western town of Sinjar. Up to 100,000 Christians are thought to have fled for their lives towards Iraqi Kurdistan."

Daily Mail reporter Ian Birrell recently published a feature that went into more detail about how the Yazidi, Christians and Shia Muslims are being treated by Sunni radicals in Iraq. Christians have been crucified as punishment for their beliefs. Others who did not worship in approved ways have been attacked, thrown out of their homes and in some cases kidnapped. According to Birrell, at least three Yazidi villages have been targeted recently by the Islamic State (IS). on Saturday, August 9 they told the 2,500 people who lived in the village of Kosho that if they didn't convert to Islam by noon on Sunday, August 10, they would all be killed.

According to Birrell, "This is thought to be the first time these blood-drenched fanatics – who delight in boasting of their barbarism and posting sickening murder videos on social media – have threatened to wipe out an entire village. Even by their own chilling standards, re-drawing the Middle East map with a rampage of rape, beheadings and revolting crucifixions, this marks a new low. It comes at the end of a week during which the fanatics of Islamic State... shocked the world again by advancing further into Iraq, prompting the US to renew military operations there for the first time since 2011."

On Saturday, IS soldiers kept themselves busy in other ways as well. Birrell reported that IS captured the strategically important Mosul Dam. He said it "supplies water and power to millions of Iraqis. There were fears its destruction would unleash a 65 foot wave that would overwhelm Mosul and even cause flooding in Baghdad."

He added that on the same day, IS troops kidnapped hundreds of Yazidi women under the age of 35. It is unclear what they plan to do with their captives, but there are rumors that they are being forced into sexual slavery. At least two women from the Yazidi villages that were targeted committed suicide to avoid being captured.

According to Birrell, "... As US jets started bombing again to protect Irbil, I found its churches, construction sites and parks packed with thousands of Christians and Yazidis fleeing the feared Islamists. Thousands more are trapped in searing heat on parched mountains to the west. The latest advance began a week ago when shots were heard in Sinjar late at night. Four hours later, the feared Kurdish peshmerga forces retreated, much to everyone's surprise – followed by 150,000 residents fleeing for their lives. ... An official for Amnesty International who has spent the past few days with refugees confirmed that both men and women were being kidnapped by the militants: 'People fear the women are being raped and sold into slavery but we just do not know the truth yet.'"

Birrell shared several heart breaking stories similar to the atrocities the Pope described on Sunday. Refugees and other survivors shared tales about women having to abandon dead children, a woman dying in childbirth in spite of the best efforts of her fellow refugees and thousands of people suffering in desert conditions without enough food or water. Others are doing whatever they can to hide from IS. Additionally, about 70 Yazidi men were killed in the village of Hezan.

There have been similar reports from Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, ever since IS seized it. Leonardo Blair of the Christian Post reported that militants have been displaying the severed heads of children from Christian families on sticks in one of Mosul's parks. He added that Mark Arabo, a national spokesperson for Iraqi Christians, said Christians in Mosul have been persecuted in other ways as well.

According to Blair, "Arabo said 95 percent of [Christians from Mosul] were forced to flee while some five percent of the Christian population converted to Islam. He said even Christians who thought they could escape persecution by paying a fine discovered later that there was no honor among the militants.

"'The letter that they sent out with those three items (convert, pay a fine or die), they did ask to pay a fine but actually after they pay a fine, they (ISIS militants) are actually taking over their wives and their daughters and making them into their wives. So really it's convert or die, face death by the sword,' explained Arabo.

"... 'They've marked the red stamp of death on Christian homes and basically saying we know who you are and if you come back, you will get killed. That's why we're saying this is a Christian holocaust within our midst and the world community cannot turn a blind eye,' said Arabo. 'They are absolutely killing every Christian they see. This is a genocide in every sense of the word. They want everyone to convert and they want Sharia law to be the law of the land.'"

Hooper added that Pope Francis is taking some steps to help Christians in Iraq. He recently named Cardinal Fernando Filoni as his personal envoy to the country. Filoni will travel to Iraqi Kurdistan where the majority of Christian refugees have fled.

According to Hooper, "Plans are also being made for a meeting in Rome, probably in September, of all the Vatican's diplomatic representatives in the region. The aim is to organize support for those who have been forced to flee the jihadists."