Yesterday, I had a succession of texts from one of the priests in my local parish, Mgr Nizar, who heads the Iraqi Catholic church in London, asking, with increasing urgency, what could be done for the Christians in Quaraqosh, in Ninevah, where most of Iraq’s remaining Christians live. ‘The situation is very bad,’ he wrote. ‘200,000 Christians are displaced. All the Christian cities fallen in the hands of ISIS.’ Another read: ‘Our cities are empty now and the people on the street sleeping and nowhere to go.’ The last time we spoke, he was agonised about the Christians displaced from Mosul, including most of his own family, under the threat of forced conversion or death by the army of the Islamic state, the one that several hundred young British Muslims have already joined.
Well, it seems his prayers have been answered, in some style. President Obama has announced that the US will undertake air attacks against ISIS forces on the grounds that the US consulate in the nearby Kurdish territory is threatened. As he makes clear though, he also has a straightforward invitation to intervene from the Iraqi government and besides, the US has a duty to prevent massacre. It turns out it’s not just Christians under threat but Yazidis too. They’re a shadowy community said to derive from the teachings of Nestorian Christians – who were a bit iffy about a couple of aspects of the Incarnation – but with an assortment of other beliefs including the transmigration of souls and some aspects of Islam. In fact, the plain of Ninevah is a kind of Lost World in the Conan Doyle sense, where some of the sheer diversity of religion in the first millennium is preserved into our own, blander, time. The followers of John the Baptist have their own sect in Iraq too.