Mosul is taken back, but Islamic State is not finished yet



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Iraqis celebrate the recapture of Mosul from Islamic State.
Reuters/Wissm Al-Okili

Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

The predictable recapture of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State (IS) marks a new milestone in the tumultuous events of the Middle East. It has important ramifications for Iraq, IS and the West.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi wasted no time claiming victory, entering the ruined city in staged jubilation. Wearing military uniform, al-Abadi was swift to capitalise on the victory, signalling his authority over the entire country. He hopes to keep Iraq united through strengthened political clout on his return to the politically polarised capital of Baghdad.

But the capture of Mosul may in fact accelerate the eventual break-up of Iraq into smaller states. The leader of the autonomous Kurdish regional government, Masud Barzani, has made clear his intentions to hold a referendum on independence by the end of 2017.

Until now, Barzani had to collaborate with the central Iraqi government to clear the IS menace from Mosul and northern Iraq. Now he will have to tread carefully to meet the growing Kurdish expectation of independence and manage al-Abadi’s anticipation of gratitude for the liberation of Mosul.

Barzani and Kurds can see a historic opportunity to create a Kurdish polity in northern Iraq. The gravity of this polity is eventually expected to pull neighbouring Kurdish regions in Syria, Iran and Turkey. The Kurdish dream is to combine these regions to create a larger Kurdish state.

At the same time, al-Abadi will increase pressure on Barzani to remain loyal to a unitary Iraq. While the prime minister will spend most of his time in the safety of the Baghdad green zone, Barzani will collaborate with US forces and heavily armed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to oust IS from its capital, Raqqa. He will also play a key role in further clearing operations in eastern Syria in the second half of 2017 and possibly into 2018.

With the fall of Mosul, the impending capture of Raqqa, and the confirmed death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, IS’s days as a caliphate are numbered. Although some argue that IS will transform into a virtual caliphate, without a sovereign state a caliphate is meaningless and Islamically invalid.

This reality has a dramatic impact on the recruiting power of IS. It was able to attract followers with its claim to have resurrected the caliphate abolished by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1924.

IS gained an almost miraculous aura after capturing Mosul with 800 fighters. In their eyes, this was proof that God was on their side. A few weeks after the capture of Mosul, al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate in the city’s historic mosque in June 2014.

For as much as Mosul had symbolic value for an IS caliphate, its loss signals an irreversible trajectory of collapse. Although IS is taking huge blows, there is no reason to believe it will disappear, much like the frustrating persistence of Taliban in Afghanistan since the collapse of its government in 2001.

Nobody should expect mass desertions from IS ranks. Its membership is likely to remain loyal and fight to the end. What remains of IS leadership holds to the theological line that the pledge of allegiance or bay’ah is binding before God, and if they abandon ranks they will die in a state of disbelief.

While this may help retain surviving militants, IS recruiting power around the world will dramatically reduce, as the greatest attraction for recruits was the promise of a utopian Islamic state.

Nevertheless IS, or whatever the group will be called in the future, will adapt and look for new missions to motivate its members and attract recruits.

One possible trajectory is a merger with al-Qaeda. This is a real possibility, as IS emerged from al-Qaeda branches in Iraq and Syria. Without a real caliphate, the line of distinction between IS and al-Qaeda blurs to insignificance, even though their leaderships were in open hostility and competed for the soul of the violent radical movement.

The ideology and the narrative of IS and al-Qaeda are the same: Western powers and their local collaborators are responsible for the occupation of Muslim territories and the ensuing suffering of Muslim populations; violent military response is the response these enemies understand and the only solution that works.

This ideology is conveniently covered by the same veneer of religious arguments to utilise the persuasive power of Islam in gaining and rallying gullible supporters to their ranks.

The more likely trajectory for IS is to ignore the spectacular failure of its state and cling to the alluring promise of a caliphate. Persisting with its brand of radicalism, IS could exist as a violent insurgent movement positioned in Deir ez-Zor, a Syrian town near the border with Iraq.

For the time being, the US administration seems determined not to leave IS any haven, Deir ez-Zor or elsewhere.

As IS regroups, it is likely to unleash violence on two fronts. The first is in the West. IS will attempt to use its sleeper cells and deploy social media to motivate a new generation of gullible minds to carry out terror attacks in North America, Europe and perhaps Australia.

The second front is where IS is based – Iraq and Syria. The conditions that gave rise to IS in the first place, such as military conflict, political instability, sectarian polarisation, ethnic divisions and corruption, continue to exist in both countries. The situation will not change overnight.

The ConversationThrough a drawn-out insurgency and waves of violence, IS will attempt to destabilise the Iraqi and Syrian governments in the hope of resurrecting its Islamic state. Ironically, the greatest victims will be Islam, Muslims and peace in Muslim lands.

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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After Islamic State falls, we should expect aftershocks in Syria



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Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

US-backed forces in Iraq and in Syria are in the process of rooting Islamic State (IS) fighters out of their strongholds in northern Iraq and eastern Syria.

In the case of Mosul in Iraq, the removal of diehard IS remnants might be completed any day now. In Raqqa, the IS headquarters in eastern Syria, US-backed rebel forces are in the town’s suburbs.

How long it will take for Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up of Arab and Kurdish militias supported by US artillery and airstrikes, to rid Raqqa of IS and at what cost is anyone’s guess. But it seems clear we are entering the final battle for what has served as the so-called caliphate’s headquarters.

However, what should be understood is the Syrian conflict is far from any sort of long-term resolution. It may be on the verge of becoming more complex and thus more dangerous.

The world is now observing a potentially highly volatile stage in the post-IS fight for Syria, with interested parties manoeuvring for what might be described as the “next game” – certainly not the “endgame”. Latest developments are bringing the US and its allies in Syria into closer proximity to – and possible direct conflict with – the Iranian-backed Bashar al-Assad regime, and Iran itself.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commanders and Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias are on the ground in Syria fighting alongside Assad forces to regain territory and re-establish Damascus’s sovereignty over the entire country.

This is a fight to the death.

From Iran’s perspective, Syria – ruled by a heterodox Shiite sect – represents a vital piece in its Middle East designs. This is not least because it provides a corridor to its Hezbollah Shiite co-religionists in Lebanon. This is why it continues to invest heavily in propping up the Assad regime. A Syrian setback would be crippling for its regional ambitions.

Risks of the US and Iran rubbing up against each other in Syria and precipitating a wider conflagration are incalculable in circumstances in which America’s Middle East policy is in flux, if not in chaos. Not helping is the impression that elements of the Trump administration are spoiling for a fight with Iran without comprehending wider consequences.

And then there’s Russia. It may not have forces on the ground, but its warplanes in Assad’s service are part of a toxic brew that threatens a wider Middle East conflict. Risks grow by the day.

What is clear – as Iraqi forces retake a shattered Mosul and Syrian anti-Assad regime rebels push further into Raqqa – is that contesting forces in Syria are battling over the country’s shattered post-IS corpse. Where this will end is impossible to predict, but as a rule of thumb in the Middle East these sorts of situations do not end well.

Tensions – and risks – were underscored earlier this month when the US shot down a Syrian Russian-supplied jet in airspace to the south of Raqqa. The US has also brought down several Iranian drones in hotly costed territory around the Euphrates.

What is transpiring as an IS “caliphate” shrinks east towards the Iraq border from Raqqa is the emergence of a vacuum that various players are striving to fill, including principally the Assad regime, having regained control of the west of Syria.

Where this will go next is not clear, not least because the US has not indicated the extent to which it plans to continue to involve itself on the ground beyond rooting out IS from its Raqqa redoubt. Will it step aside when and if Raqqa falls, enabling Syrian government forces, backed by Iran and Russia and with the participation of Lebanese and Iraqi militias, to regain control of lost territory? Or will it remain a factor?

Journalist Jonathan Spyer, who has spent years reporting on the Syrian conflict and its implications for the wider Middle East, is at a loss to interpret US policy in Syria beyond its confrontation with IS. As he writes in Foreign Policy:

The crucial missing factor here is a clearly stated US policy. Trump can either acquiesce to the new realities that Russia seeks to impose in the air, and that Iran seeks to impose on the ground, or he can move to defy and reverse these, opening up the risk of a potential confrontation. There isn’t really a third choice.

Spyer quotes the Iranian Fars News Agency as saying ominously:

The imbroglio in eastern Syria has only begun. Stormy days are ahead of us.

That might be regarded as an understatement. What is clear is that the US cannot expand its presence in eastern Syria without engaging the Iranian-backed Syrian regime. As Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East observes:

The United States cannot tiptoe around Iran and the Syrian regime while capturing strategic territory and resources.

While Russia does not seek a confrontation, it appears unable (or unwilling) to restrain its allies. The United States does not seem to have decided whether fighting IS only to empower Iran and Assad would be worthwhile, or whether there is a feasible way, at an acceptable cost, to beat the Islamic State without strengthening US adversaries … It’s perfectly clear now that choosing which wars to fight or ignore in Syria is not possible – and it probably never was.

From an Australian perspective, Syria presents a concerning spectacle. Canberra suspended missions by the Royal Australian Airforce over Syria (not Iraq) after the US shooting down of the Syrian warplane out of concern over a suspension of “deconfliction” arrangements with Russia. It is not clear whether those missions have resumed.

More broadly, deeper US involvement in the Syrian conflict would potentially pose challenges for an Australian government – if indeed a request was made for on-the-ground assistance.

At this stage there is no sign of that occurring. But Australia should be prepared for an unravelling of circumstances in Syria and be ready for any eventualities. Needless to say, it should hasten slowly.

In all of this, it doesn’t take much imagination to consider what would be nightmare scenario in which the US and Iran found themselves at war. As Nader Hashem, director of the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Denver and an expert of sectarian conflict in the region, has observed:

I suspect the biggest problem is a clash between American and Iranian forces somewhere in Syria where there will be a major loss of life, and then a slow, steady decline toward war with Iran, where Iran chooses to retaliate in the Persian Gulf with American shipping or some sort of escalation along those lines. That would have huge consequences for the nuclear agreement and the broader stabilisation of the region.

The ConversationIndeed.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Destroying Mosul’s Great Mosque: Islamic State’s symbolic war to the end



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The Great Mosque’s famous leaning minaret in 2013.
Faisal Jeber/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Benjamin Isakhan, Deakin University and Jose Antonio Gonzalez Zarandona, Deakin University

On June 29 2014 – nearly three years ago to the day – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took the pulpit at the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri in Mosul in northern Iraq. He announced the creation of a new Islamic State that stretched across the borders of Iraq and Syria. Declaring himself Caliph Ibrahim, the leader of all Muslims, he implored the faithful from across the world to make the pilgrimage to come and serve.

Yesterday, in the midst of what are likely to be the final stages in the Battle for Mosul, the Islamic State appears to have destroyed the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri and its iconic leaning minaret.

As the Iraqi poet Ahmed Zaidan has said, the Great Mosque was not only a significant cultural heritage site for Muslims in general, but it was also regarded as an essential part of the Mosul skyline – a symbol of the city’s long past and diverse communities. The building itself was erected in 1172 by the great Nur Al-Din ibn Zengi (1118-1174), widely regarded as the man who launched the first successful holy war against Western crusaders.

Although there are conflicting reports about who destroyed the mosque – the IS blames American airstrikes – the available footage online suggests the site was bombed with explosives from the inside. Such destruction certainly fits with their pattern of the Islamic State’s aggressive destruction of religious imagery, as we have described recently.

It would be cynical and unwise to dismiss the destruction of the Great Mosque as a last desperate effort by the IS, a fit of rage in the face of imminent defeat. From their inception, the IS have been engaged as much in a symbolic war as they have a military one. And as their capacity to hold and defend territory shrinks, this war becomes key to expressing their power and ideology and imploring their adherents to continue the fight.

Still from a video showing the destroyed mosque on June 21 2017.
Reuters

An attack on heritage, an attack on Mosul

The IS has been involved in the deliberate destruction of sites that are held most dear by local populations. A key reason for this is to discourage the millions of refugees and displaced from returning and re-building their fragile and cosmopolitan communities.

As our ongoing research, which includes interviews with displaced Iraqis from Mosul, is starting to reveal, many Yezidi and Christians have claimed that they will not go back to their traditional homelands. This is in no small part because their sacred sites – their spiritual connection to the place and their heritage – have been so systematically ruptured by the IS’s destruction.

The Great Mosque of Mosul is no different. The people of Mosul – and more broadly of Iraq – were extremely proud of the mosque and its leaning minaret, which appears on the 10,000 Iraqi dinar banknote. They will lament the destruction of the mosque in much the same way that they continue to mourn the countless archaeological sites and churches that the IS has destroyed.

The Great Mosque on Iraq’s 10,000 dinar note.

Another key reason to destroy the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri is that it has already yielded them news attention from across the world. By destroying the mosque, the IS are drawing attention to the fact that many in the West might care more about the destruction of a mosque than the horrific human tragedies unfolding every day in Iraq. Such an attack is therefore also an attack on the “Western” ideology that values the preservation of heritage such as the mosque.

Finally, when Mosul is eventually re-taken from the IS it will be the product of a long and complex battle by a combination of Shia, Kurds and what the IS sees as crusaders (Westerners). It would be a disastrous symbol of defeat for the IS if such forces were to take the pulpit in the Grand Mosque and declare victory over the Caliphate. To destroy the mosque is to deprive their enemies of this opportunity.

The destruction of heritage is always deplorable, and forces us to ask how we value the past and what we can learn from it. However, heritage is also about the future – it is a fundamental part of the recovery of societies which have been affected by war and conflict; it is the glue that holds together such fragile and diverse communities.

The ConversationThe destruction of the Great Mosque is not only an attack on the social fabric of Mosul, it is also a deeper attack on the Iraqi people; a symbol of the many challenges that lie ahead as they try to re-build a peaceful and positive future after the horrors of the Islamic State.

Benjamin Isakhan, Associate Professor of Politics and Policy, Deakin University and Jose Antonio Gonzalez Zarandona, Associate Research Fellow, Heritage Destruction Specialist, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The tragedy of Mosul: battle against Islamic State is leading to all-too-familiar consequences



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Mosul’s residents are caught between Islamic State’s brutal violence and the amassed firepower of the Iraqi armed forces and their international backers.
Reuters/Khalid Al Mousily

Damian Doyle, Australian National University and Tristan Dunning, The University of Queensland

A tragedy is unfolding in Mosul, the northern Iraqi city that Islamic State (IS) has brutally occupied since June 2014. The Conversation

Airstrikes conducted by the international coalition have killed more than 300 civilians in the course of a few weeks. And an investigation is under way to determine who is to blame for more than 200 deaths in Mosul’s al-Jadida neighbourhood on March 17. This is the most deadly event in the battle for Mosul so far.

Given the carnage this one attack caused, it is perhaps unsurprising that local sources put the kill count much higher. Bassma Bassim, head of the Mosul District Council, claimed airstrikes killed “more than 500” civilians in one week in March alone.

All too familiar

The spike in civilian deaths during February and March has been so dramatic it has prompted speculation that the US military has changed its rules of engagement. It has also sparked debate about whether deaths caused by the West are held to a different standard than those caused by countries like Russia.

Long-time Middle East journalist Patrick Cockburn argues the West vehemently denounced Russia and Syria for alleged war crimes for indiscriminate bombing of densely populated areas during the siege of Aleppo, while hypocritically engaging in similar activities in Mosul at the same time.

The result has been the same. Scores of civilians have been killed in their homes or crushed beneath the rubble of supposed bomb shelters. This has led Amnesty to suggest the coalition is violating international humanitarian law in its campaign in Mosul.

It is not the first time Western airstrikes have killed Iraqis at the same time as Western politicians have claimed to be saving Iraq. But the deaths in Mosul on March 17 – a day after the anniversary of the 1988 Halabja chemical weapons massacre – will add another tragic anniversary to Iraq’s already overloaded memorial calendar.

Mosul’s residents are caught between the brutal violence of IS, which hides among civilians and uses them as human shields, and the amassed firepower of the Iraqi armed forces and their international backers. As one Mosul resident put it:

We are like the wheat between the millstones. They are killing us.

Similarly, the destruction caused by airstrikes have left some Mosul residents wondering whether the putative cure is any better than the disease. One local expressed his view that:

After watching what happened here, I really believe now that the US and Daesh [IS] are a team, working together to destroy our country.

Such sentiments do not bode well for national reconciliation and the reintegration of those who have lived under IS rule.

Wider social and humanitarian crisis

Since it began in October 2016, the fight to liberate Mosul from IS has created a humanitarian crisis which is further straining Iraqi and international resources. It has caused mass displacement, destruction and trauma.

For the 190,000 Iraqis who have been displaced by the Mosul campaign, the most immediate needs are shelter, protection and food security. The UN is concerned that up to 450,000 displaced people will soon need shelter in camps established near Mosul. It expects 3 to 4 million will remain homeless if and when the fighting finally ends.

Longer term, there will be a need for individual and community healing. Mosul residents have described an IS regime of brutality, propaganda and intimidation. Minority groups have been massacred. Women have been forced into sex slavery. Children have been exposed to brutal violence.

These experiences will leave deep scars and social divisions. Reconciliation will be complex and painful. National political leaders have already found themselves at loggerheads about the shape reconciliation might take.

Years of corruption, which undermines effective service delivery, has eroded the government’s capacity to deal with a new generation of traumatised Iraqis. International support will be vital. But the present UN High Commissioner for Refugees has received only 4% of the funding requested.

The fighting in Mosul has displaced 190,000 Iraqis.
Reuters/Youssef Boudlal

New vulnerabilities

The impacts of Mosul’s brutal occupation and painful liberation are compounding Iraq’s seemingly endless list of social and economic problems.

Displaced people face difficulties when they try to return home. Returning Mosul residents have to contend with shortages of water, electricity and employment opportunities.

Large amounts of money are needed for reconstruction and to breathe life back into services. The Iraqi government, faced with a looming financial crisis, will rely on international loans for this.

Mosul will remain insecure and dangerous for some time. Problems will persist after liberation including traps, infiltrators and sleepers, and the confusion and fear these tactics create. As in other post-IS cities, various non-state armed groups may play a role in providing security. This creates the potential for new conflicts.

At the same time, IS tactics will continue to evolve – shifting emphasis from territorial control to guerrilla warfare and terrorist bombings – so it can keep killing Iraqis, target vulnerable communities to stoke religious and ethnic tensions, and try to undermine the Iraqi government’s legitimacy.

The tragedy

For the past few weeks, Iraqis have used the social media hashtag #مأساة_الموصل, masat al-Mosul – “the tragedy of Mosul” – to share news reports and images from Mosul and surrounding areas.

It has also been used to request donations to various relief efforts for displaced people, often accompanying photos of volunteers and their supplies.

There is no equivalent hashtag in English. This is a small but telling reflection of Western indifference to Iraqi civilian deaths and international news media priorities.

The tragedy of Mosul is that while IS’s territorial project in Iraq is coming to an end, it is creating new problems – destruction, displacement, trauma – that exacerbate the country’s existing challenges.

The West must acknowledge its role in stoking this crisis, just as Russia and Iran have been responsible for suffering in Syria. Mosul, it seems, is the West’s Aleppo.

Damian Doyle, PhD Candidate, Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Australian National University and Tristan Dunning, School of Political Science and International Studies, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Anti-Christian Sentiment Heats Up


Terrorist threat in Iraq emerges at importune moment for Copts.

CAIRO, Egypt, November 22 (CDN) — As bombings and other attacks continue against Christians in Iraq, Christians in Egypt have gathered to pray and plan for their own safety.

When a group of Islamic extremists on Oct. 31 burst into Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad during evening mass and began spraying the sanctuary with gunfire, the militant organization that took responsibility said Christians in Egypt also would be targeted if its demands were not met. Taking more than 100 congregants hostage, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) called a television station and stated that the assault came in response to the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt allegedly holding two Coptic women against their will who, the ISI and some others believe, converted to Islam.

The group issued a 48-hour deadline for the release of the women, and when the deadline passed it issued a statement that, “All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the muhajedeen [Muslim fighters] wherever they can reach them.” The statement later added ominously, “We will open upon them the doors of destruction and rivers of blood.”

In the attack and rescue attempt that followed, 58 people were reportedly killed. A week and a half later, Islamic extremists killed four people in a series of coordinated attacks against Christians in Baghdad and its surrounding suburbs. The attackers launched mortar rounds and planted makeshift bombs outside Christian homes and one church. At least one attack was made against the family members of one of the victims of the original attack.

On Nov. 15, gunmen entered two Christian homes in Mosul and killed two men in the house. The next day, a Christian and his 6-year-old daughter were killed in a car bombing. At the same time, another bomb exploded outside the home of a Christian, damaging the house but leaving the residents uninjured, according to CNN.

The threats against Christians caused a flurry of activity at churches in Egypt. A 35-year-old Protestant who declined to give her name said Christians in Cairo have unified in prayer meetings about the threats. An SMS text message was sent out through prayer networks asking people to meet, she said.

“I know people are praying now,” she said. “We have times for our people to pray, so all of us are praying.”

Security has increased at churches throughout Egypt. In Cairo, where the presence of white-uniformed security police is ubiquitous, the number of uniformed and plain-clothes officers has doubled at churches. High-ranking police officers shuffle from one house of worship to another monitoring subordinates and enforcing new security rules. At times, parking on the same side of the street as a church building, or even driving by one, has been forbidden.

On Nov. 8, leaders from the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox churches gathered to discuss how to improve security at churches. According to the leaders of several churches, the government asked pastors to cancel unessential large-scale public meetings. Pope Shenouda III canceled a celebration to commemorate the 39th anniversary of his installment as the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Guests at a recent outdoor Christmas bazaar and a subsequent festival at the All-Saints Cathedral in Zamalek
were greeted with pat-downs, metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs.

Some church leaders, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the security improvements are haphazard, while others say they are genuine efforts to ensure the safety of Christians.

Most Christians in Cairo avoided answering any questions about the attacks in Iraq or the threats made against Christians in Egypt. But Deliah el-Sowkary, a Coptic Orthodox woman in her 20s, said she hoped no attacks would happen in her country. Noting the security present at all churches, still she said she is not that worried.

“I think it’s different in Egypt than in Baghdad, it’s more safe here,” El-Sowkary said.

Almost a week after the bombings, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak issued a statement through the state-run MENA news agency that the Copts would be protected from attacks.

“The president affirmed his extensive solicitude for the protection of the nation’s sons, Muslims and Copts, from the forces of terrorism and extremism,” the agency stated.

 

Pressure Cooker

The security concerns came against a backdrop of heightened tensions between the Muslim majority and the Coptic Christian minority over the past few months, with weeks of protests against Christians in general and against Shenouda specifically. The protests, held mostly in Alexandria, ended two weeks ago.

The tension started after the wife of a Coptic priest, Camilia Zakher, disappeared in July. According to government sources and published media reports, Zakher left her home after a heated argument with her husband. But Coptic protestors, who started gathering to protest at churches after Zakher disappeared, claimed she had been kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam.

Soon after, Egypt’s State Security Intelligence (SSI) officers found her at the home of a friend. Despite stating she had left of her own free will, authorities brought Zakher back to her husband. Since then, Zakher has been in seclusion. It is unclear where she is or if she remains there of her own free will.

Unconfirmed rumors began spreading that Zakher had converted to Islam and was being held against her will to force her to return to Christianity. Protests outside mosques after Friday prayers became weekly events. Protestors produced a photo of unknown origin of a woman in Islamic covering whom they claimed was Zakher. In response, Coptic authorities released a video in which the priest’s wife stated that she wasn’t a Muslim nor ever had been.

Another rumor began circulating that Zakher went to Al-Azhar University, one of the primary centers of Islamic learning in the world, to convert to Islam. But Al-Azhar, located in Cairo, released a statement that no such thing ever happened.

No independent media interviews of Zakher have taken place because, according to the Coptic Church, the SSI has ordered church officials not to allow public access to her. Along with their accusations about Zakher, protestors also claimed, without evidence, that a similar thing happened in 2004 to Wafa Constantine, also the wife of a Coptic Orthodox priest. Constantine was the second woman the ISI demanded the Copts “release.” Like Zakher, her location is not public knowledge.

The month after the Zakher incident, Egyptian media reported in error that the SSI had seized a ship from Israel laden with explosives headed for the son of an official of the Coptic Orthodox church. The ship was later found to be carrying fireworks, but another set of Islamic leaders, led in part by Nabih Al-Wahsh, an attorney famous for filing lawsuits designed to damage the church, declared without any evidence that Copts were allied with the Israelis and stockpiling weapons in the basements
of their churches with plans to overthrow the Muslim majority.

The claims were echoed on Al-Jazeera by Dr. Muhammad Salim Al-’Awa, the former secretary-general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, and in a statement issued by the Front of Religious Scholars, a group of academics affiliated with Al-Azhar University.

There was no time for tensions to cool after Al-’Awa and the others leveled their allegations. The next month, Bishop Anba Bishoy, the secretary of the Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masri Al-Yawm that Muslims were “guests” in Egypt, inflaming a Muslim population already up in arms.

“The Copts are the root of the land,” the bishop said. “We love the guests who came and settled in our land, and regard them as brothers, but they want to control even our churches? I reject anything that harms the Muslims, but as Christians we will do everything, even die as martyrs, if someone tries to harm our Christian mission.”

Around the same time, the Front of Religious Scholars called for a complete boycott of Christians in Egypt. The group called Christians “immoral,” labeled them “terrorists” and said Muslims should not patronize their businesses or even say “hello” to them.

The statement by the scholars was followed by a media leak about a lecture Bishoy was scheduled to give at a conference for Orthodox clergy. In his presentation, Bishoy planned on questioning the authorship of a verse in the Quran that calls Christians “blasphemers.” Muslims believe that an angel revealed the Quran to Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, who transmitted it word-by-word to his followers. Bishoy contended there was a possibility the verse in question was added later.

The mosque protests became even more virulent, and the conference was abruptly cancelled. Bishoy was forced to issue an apology, saying he never meant to cast doubt on Islam and called Muslims “partners” with the Copts in Egypt. Shenouda also issued an apology on national television. By comparison, an Islamic publishing house that rewrote and then issued what it termed the “true Bible” caused barely a stir.

Al-’Awa then blamed the deteriorating state of Muslim-Christian relations on Shenouda and Bishoy. He accused the Coptic Orthodox Church of exploiting the government’s “weak stance” toward it and “incarcerating anyone [who] is not to its liking.”

The Al-Azhar Academy of Islamic Research issued a statement that declared, “Egypt is a Muslim state.” The statement further went on to read that the Christians’ rights were contingent on their acceptance of the “Islamic identity” of Egypt. The statement was endorsed by Ali Gum’a, the mufti of Egypt.

The statement also referenced an agreement made between Muhammad and a community of Egyptian Christians in the seventh century as the guiding document on how Christians should be governed in a Muslim-dominated state. If ever codified into Egyptian law as many Muslims in Egypt desire, it would legally cement the status of Christians in the country as second-class citizens.

In 639, seven years after Muhammad died, Muslim armies rode across from Syria and Palestine and invaded Egypt, then controlled by the Byzantines. At first the Muslims, then a new but well-armed minority within Egypt, treated the conquered Christians relatively well by seventh century standards. But within a generation, they began the Islamization of the country, demanding all official business be conducted in Arabic, the language of the Quran, and Coptic and Jewish residents were forced to pay special taxes and obey rules designed to reaffirm their second-class status.

In the centuries since then, the treatment of Christians in Egypt has ebbed and flowed depending on the whim of those in power. After the coup of 1952, in which a group of men known as the Free Officers’ Movement took power from a European-backed monarch, Copts have seen their treatment decline.

In 1971, then-President Anwar Sadat introduced a new constitution designating Islamic law as “a principle source of legislation” in Egypt. In 1980, the National Assembly made Islam the official religion of the state.

Estimates of the Coptic population range from 7 to 12 percent of Egypt’s 84 million people. They are accepted by some in Egypt and openly discriminated against by others. Violent attacks against Christians – which the government does little to prevent – accentuate tensions.

The state also routinely harasses converts to Christianity from Islam. Many have to live in some sort of hiding.

The Protestant woman said she was not sure whether attacks would happen in response to the threats, but whatever happens, she said she expects that Christians in Egypt will continue to endure persecution.

“According to the Bible, we know this is going to happen,” she said. “This is not new or novel for us. The Bible said that we will be persecuted. It is expected.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Iraqis Mourn Victims of Massive Attack on Church


Islamic extremist assault, security force operation leave at least 58 dead.

ISTANBUL, November 2 (CDN) — Amid questions about lax security, mourners gathered in Iraq today to bury the victims of Sunday’s (Oct. 31) Islamic extremist assault on a Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad, one of the bloodiest attacks on the country’s dwindling Christian community.

Seven or eight Islamic militants stormed into Our Lady of Salvation church during evening mass after detonating bombs in the neighborhood, gunning down two policemen at the stock exchange across the street, and blowing up their own car, according to The Associated Press (AP). More than 100 people were reportedly attending mass.

A militant organization called the Islamic State of Iraq, which has links to al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, claimed responsibility for the attack. The militants sprayed the sanctuary with bullets and ordered a priest to call the Vatican to demand the release of Muslim women whom they claimed were held hostage by the Coptic Church in Egypt, according to the AP. The militants also reportedly demanded the release of al Qaeda prisoners.

“It appears to be a well-planned and strategic attack aiming at the church,” said a local source for ministry organization Open Doors.

About four hours after the siege, Iraqi security forces launched an assault on the church building, and the Islamic assailants blew themselves up. It was unclear how many of the 58 people dead had been killed by Iraqi security personnel, but the militants reportedly began killing hostages when the security force assault began. All who did not die from gunshots and blasts were wounded.

The dead included 12 policemen, three priests and five bystanders from the car bombing and other blasts outside the church. The Open Doors source reported that the priests killed were the Rev. Saad Abdal Tha’ir, the Rev. Waseem Tabeeh and the Rev. Raphael Qatin, with the latter not succumbing until he had been taken to a hospital.

Bishop Georges Casmoussa told Compass that today Iraqi Christians not only mourned lost brothers and sisters but were tempted to lose hope.

“It’s a personal loss and a Christian loss,” said Casmoussa. “It’s not just people they kill. They also kill hope. We want to look at the future. They want to kill the Christian presence here, where we have so much history.”

Casmoussa, who knew the priests who died, said that this attack will surely drive more Christians away from the country or to Kurdish administrated northern Iraq.

“Those who are wounded know that it is by the grace of God they are alive, but some of them don’t know exactly what happened,” said Casmoussa. “There is one hurt man who doesn’t know if his son is still alive. This is the drama. There are families that lost two and three members. Do I have the right to tell them to not leave?”

The attack was the deadliest one against the country’s Christians since Islamic extremists began targeting them in 2003.

“It was the hardest hit against the Christians in Iraq,” said Casmoussa, noting that no single act of violence had led to more casualties among Christians. “We never had such an attack against a church or Christian community.”

Memorials were held today in Baghdad, Mosul and surrounding towns, said Casmoussa, who attended the funeral of 13 deceased Christians including the dead priests.

“At the funeral there was the Shiite leader, the official spokesperson of the government ministers,” Casmoussa said. “All the discussion was flippant – ‘We are with you, we are all suffering,’ etcetera, but we have demanded a serious investigation. We can’t count on good words anymore. It’s all air. We’ve heard enough.”

The Rev. Emanuel Youkhana of the Church of the East told Compass that Iraqi Christians have been systematically driven out over the last five years. He said this attack came as no surprise to him.

“I’m not surprised, in that this is not the first time,” said Youkhana. “In the last five years, there has been a systematic terrorist campaign to kick out the Christians from the country. [They are saying] you are not accepted in this country. Christians should leave this country.”

Youkhana said that in the same way that the Jewish community has disappeared from Iraq, the Iraqi Christians, or Medians as they are called, “are in their last stage of existence” in Iraq.

The Iraqi government is to blame due to its lax security measures, Youkhana said.

“I’m ashamed of the minister of defense, who came on TV and said it was a successful and professional operation – 50 percent of the [congregation] was massacred,” said Youkhana of the assault on the Islamic terrorists by Iraqi security forces.

He said that in order for Christians to have any hope of staying in Iraq, the government must come up with a political solution and set up an independent administrative area, like that of the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq.

“Just now I was watching on TV the coverage of the funeral,” Youkhana said. “All the politicians are there to condemn the act. So what? Is the condemnation enough to give confidence to the people? No!”

It is estimated that more than 50 percent of Iraq’s Christian community has fled the country since 2003. There are nearly 600,000 Christians left in Iraq.

“More people will leave, and this is the intention of the terrorists: to claim Iraq as a pure Islamic state,” said Youkhana. “Our people are so peaceful and weak; they cannot confront the terrorists. So they are fleeing out of the country and to the north. This is why we say there should be political recognition.”

Five suspects were arrested in connection with the attack – some of them were not Iraqi, and today an Iraqi police commander was detained for questioning in connection to the attack, according to the AP.

“We can’t make political demands,” said Casmoussa. “We are making a civic and humanitarian demand: That we can live in peace.”

Following the funerals today, a series of at least 13 bombings and mortar strikes in predominantly Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad reportedly killed 76 people and wounded nearly 200.

Report from Compass Direct News

Bomb Attack in Iraq Seriously Injures Christian Students


One person dead in explosions that end classes for students this semester.

ISTANBUL, May 5 (CDN) — At least 50 Iraqi Christian students are receiving hospital treatment following a bomb attack on Sunday (May 2) outside Mosul that killed at least one person and has forced nearly 1,000 students to drop classes for the rest of the semester.

Nearly 160 people were injured in the blasts targeting three buses full of Christians traveling to the University of Mosul for classes. The convoy of buses, which brings Christian students from villages east of Mosul, was making its daily route accompanied by two Iraqi army cars.

“This is the hardest attack, because they attacked not only one car, but the whole convoy and in an area that is heavily guarded by the army,” said Syrian Catholic Bishop of Mosul Georges Casmoussa.

The explosions happened east of Mosul between two checkpoints. A roadside bomb followed by a car bomb reportedly exploded as the buses were clearing the second checkpoint in the area of Kokjaly. The checkpoint was staffed by U.S., Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish soldiers.

The owner of a nearby car repair shop, Radeef Hashim Mahrook, was killed in one of the blasts as he tried to help the students, sources said.

Sources told Compass that lately there have been indications that Islamic extremists intend to increase attacks against Christians in more sophisticated and targeted ways. There were no warnings of the Sunday blasts.

Nearly 20 of the more seriously injured students are receiving treatment in Erbil, capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Casmoussa said the Turkish Consulate and the Kurdish Regional Government have offered to transfer students needing more medical care to Turkey.

“Some of them were severely injured in the face, arms, necks or eyes,” said Casmoussa. “Now the Turkish consulate and the government of Kurdistan offer us to bring the most injured to Turkey to continue the care.”

Many of Mosul’s Christians have fled the city after repeated violence targeting them and live in the villages east of the city. The students on Sunday’s convoy were from Qaraqosh, Karamless and Bartella, located nearly 32 kilometers (20 miles) away.

Over 1,000 Christian students, most belonging to internally displaced families, and about 100 university faculty and staff members commute to Mosul every week in buses belonging to the Syrian Catholic Bishopric. About 15 buses served the internally displaced Christian community daily.

“The project of transportation of students will be stopped,” said Casmoussa. “We can’t continue now.” 

While the church has focused on dealing with immediate medical needs, the bishop said the church simply could not take the responsibility of transporting students after such a calculated and fierce attack.

“The chief of army offered to help us again, but it is impossible,” said Casmoussa. “They were with us every day…yet this is the result. We don’t have another solution now.”

Last February, after attacks against Christians left three university students dead, the Chaldo-Assyrian Student and Youth Union proposed that the Ministry of Education open a new university in a safer area on the Nineveh plains. Nearly 3,000 Christian undergraduate students and 250 graduate students are studying in Mosul.

Casmoussa said the Christian community is hoping the University of Mosul will help Christian students who are unwilling to commute to Mosul by sending faculty members to hold semester-end examinations in Qaraqosh.

“This is [an attack] against all the Christian people,” said Casmoussa. “Our culture is immense capital for the future to build our lives, not just to have bread to eat and continue life without any sense.”

Due to the violence against Christians in Mosul, Casmoussa relocated to the village of Qaraqosh three years ago, and commutes into the city to serve his diocese. On Jan. 17, 2005 gunmen abducted him and released him the next day.

Sunni Muslim insurgents have frequently targeted members of Iraq’s Christian minority, especially in Mosul. Iraq’s current government is Shiite-led.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Violence Escalates in Mosul, Iraq ahead of Elections


Christians targeted as political tension builds in weeks leading to parliamentary polls.

ISTANBUL, March 5 (CDN) — Political tensions ahead of parliamentary elections in Iraq on Sunday (March 7) have left at least eight Chaldean Christians dead in the last three weeks and hundreds of families fleeing Mosul.

“The concern of Christians in Mosul is growing in the face of what is happening in the city,” said Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk Louis Sako. “The tension and struggle between political forces is creating an atmosphere of chaos and congestion. Christians are victims of political tension between political groups, but maybe also by fundamentalist sectarian cleansing.”

On Feb. 23 the killing of Eshoee Marokee, a Christian, and his two sons in their home in front of other family members sent shock waves across the Christian community. The murder took place amid a string of murders that triggered the mass exodus of families to the surrounding towns and provinces.

“It is not the first time Christians are attacked or killed,” said the archbishop of the Syrian Catholic Church in Mosul, Georges Casmoussa. “The new [element] in this question is to be killed in their own homes.”

The capital of Nineveh Province some 400 kilometers (250 miles) northwest of Baghdad, Mosul has been known as the most dangerous city for Christians. At least 275 Assyrian Christians have been murdered by Islamic insurgents since 2003, according to a report prepared by the International Committee for The Rights of Indigenous Mesopotamians.

While in 2009 the organization listed 16 deaths, since January there have been at least 13 murders, eight of which took place the second half of February.

The movement of internally displaced persons to surrounding areas started in mid-February and tripled between Feb. 24 and Feb. 27 to about 683 families, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Although the rate of displacement into areas around Mosul has slowed, the report estimates that 720 families had fled the city as of March 1. This represents about 4,320 people.

Christian Students Affected

The murders have not only driven families away from the cities but have also kept students away from university. Three of the Christians killed in February were university students. As a result, around 2,000 Christian students are staying away from their classes until the tension in Mosul eases.

“We believe that the attack against these students was somehow related to the political situation in Mosul,” said General Secretary of the Chaldo-Assyrian Student and Youth Union Kaldo Oghanna. “This has affected our people in Mosul badly, and they have left the university.”

Oghanna said that the union has proposed that the Ministry of Education open a new university in a safer area of the Nineveh plains for the nearly 3,000 Christian undergraduate students and 250 graduate students studying in Mosul. He also said that they have appealed to the university’s administration to make necessary exceptions for the Christian students who have not attended classes in the last few weeks.

Although some local Christian leaders say they expect the tension to ease after Sunday, security may not improve as the Christian community is caught in political tensions between Arabs and Kurds vying for control of the province. Archbishop Casmoussa said regardless of who is behind the murders, the Christian community demands justice.

“We urge the Central and Regional Government to pursue the murders and their masters and judge them according to Iraqi laws, even if they are supported by religious or political parties,” Casmoussa said. “Enough is enough. Are we to pay the price of political struggles or ambitions?”

Sako said that in other cities security has improved, and that Christians are eager to cast their votes.

The election on March 7 will decide the 325 members of the Council of Representatives of Iraq, who will then elect the prime minister and president of Iraq. Of these seats, five are reserved for the nation’s Christian minority, estimated at around 600,000. Most of them live in the Nineveh plain.

At the beginning of the Iraq war, there were about 1.2 million Christians living in Iraq. Iraq’s population is roughly 30 million.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Archbishop: Anti-Christian attacks in Iraq part of brutal strategy


Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa of Mosul said last week that last Thursdya’s anti-Christian attacks in Iraq which destroyed a church and damaged a convent “show that there is a strategy to erase our cultural heritage and more than 2000 years of history” on the part of Muslim extremists, reports Catholic News Agency.

In an interview with L’Osservatore Romano, the archbishop said these Islamic groups “want to destabilize the atmosphere of trust in our country. We must oppose this atmosphere of hatred with strength and with prayer,” he added.

The strategy of these groups “is clear,” the archbishop continued. “As soon as the situation becomes calm and it appears there is a chance Christians can return to their homes in their cities, the terror and violence reappear with greater threats.”

“This is the not the first time extremist groups lashed out at the symbols of the Christian community in Iraq. And it is not the first time that priests and religious have paid with their blood,” he explained.

After recalling the March 2008 assassination of his predecessor Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, Archbishop Casmoussa said, “It seems like nobody is able to guarantee the safety of Iraqi Christians.”

“The only path to take to placate violence is dialogue,” the archbishop continued. “Only then will we be able to isolate these extremist groups and become a tolerant country. Now we must seek to be close to our small community and give ourselves strength and encouragement.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph