Christians continue to be slaughtered in the Middle East. But as reports of genocidal atrocities mount up, our governments have found a new reason to sit on their hands. Christians, the theory goes, don't have it as bad as the Yazidis. As 'people of the book’, Christians enjoy privileged status. Rather than suffering the full extent of Islamic State's depravities, they can pay a tax (Jizya) in return for protection. It sounds credible and contains just enough theology to bamboozle the secular population of the international community. Here's the Office of the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights:
“'While Christian communities still living in Daesh controlled territories live difficult and often precarious existences...their right to exist as Christians within any Islamic State existing at any point in time, is recognised as long as they pay the Jizya tax.
The UN has said it. Parliamentarians around the world have said it. Respected international NGOs specialising in genocide have said it. Case closed, you might think. Until you realise that the evidence for the Jizya claim originates almost exclusively from Isis. Yes, you read that right. That reliable source of accurate information on the treatment of minorities in the Middle East. They wouldn’t lie, surely?
Some background is necessary. The Jizya has its origins in the Qur'an (9:29, Surah al-Tawbah) under which 'people of scripture' (Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians and Sabean-Mandeans) paid a tax in exchange for guarantees of protection. The Jizya has expressed itself in different ways down the centuries, always falling short of modern standards of religious freedom, but broadly allowing for selected minorities to keep their faith and to worship provided they cough up.
So how does this compare to the Jizya that Isis claims to offer? Well, if your only source is Isis, pretty well. 'Dabiq' - the group’s ‘periodical’ - has boasted repeatedly of Isis's magnanimity in offering Christians the choice of paying Jizya. Only where Christians failed to meet the terms of the Jizya were they punished. So says Isis.
It's completely untrue, of course, which, had the UN or the various NGOs bothered to consult the local Christians, they would have found out. Rather than the established Jizya practice - hardly praiseworthy in itself - what Isis has been doing is brutally extorting money from the few remaining Christians on pain of death. They call it a Jizya, but this is like saying that a bunch of bananas is a pencil. The defining characteristics are missing. There is no Christian worship in return. There is no protection. There are no priests, and Churches in the region have all been either destroyed or 'repurposed'. Even if this were not the case, Christian worship would not be permitted, as recent years of unrestrained brutality have shown.
Moreover, the price of the so-called Jizya imposed in Raqqa was preposterously unaffordable and had to be paid in gold. But all of that is barely relevant, because long before the so-called 'terms' of the Jizya were laid down, Christian women were being abducted, routinely raped, places of Christian worship destroyed, and scores of 'Nazarenes' - Isis's favoured term - killed.
Last weekend, several Middle Eastern Christian leaders met in Italy to beg Western politicians to acknowledge the depth of the suffering of their people. They complained that they had been forgotten, describing in detail the annihilation of their communities, the silence of human rights organisations and media, and the willingness of Western governments to seize upon the Jizya as an excuse to withhold certain interventions. These leaders demolished Isis's Jizya claim, describing it as propaganda intended to add theological legitimacy to the group by linking it to the practices of historical caliphates, when, in fact, it is merely just another desperate attempt to fund their cult.
Surely, these testimonies are more credible than Islamic State's? In fact, the more you think about it, the more maddeningly stupid the UN's position becomes. Leaving aside the rank idiocy of just taking Isis's word for it, it simply isn't logical - as if the beheadings, tortures and rapes of the Christians were really down to a failure to pay tax. Or that atrocities against Christians perpetrated far in advance of so-called Jizya agreements were merely localised instances of excessive zealotry.
Even Isis has stopped pretending. A 2016 issue of Dabiq blew cover, outing Christians repeatedly as ‘pagans’ and encouraging followers to ‘break crosses’ while boasting of having murdered scores of priests since their last publication. All pretence that Christians were afforded special treatment has evaporated. So why does the international community keep trotting out this lie?
The sad truth? This is just the latest instance in the long-running clamour for any reason, no matter how specious, to refuse to use the word genocide in connection with what is happening to Christians in the Middle East. As the Jizya smokescreen clears, standby for more excuses from the Foreign Office, this time about how International Criminal Court action on the Isis genocide depends upon simultaneous investigation into Assad’s atrocities (which, of course, will amount to no action at all because Russia and China are likely to use their Security Council vetoes if Assad is on the ticket).
But, hey, look on the bright side! Current policy saves us the bother and expense of engaging with our responsibilities under the Genocide Convention. Let’s hope our slightly heavier pockets offer some consolation as entire communities are wiped from the map.
Luke de Pulford is Director of the Arise Foundation and serves on the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.