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Is Christianity under threat in Middle East?

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By Nithin Sridhar

The rise of ISIS in Iraq that has resulted in massive migration and persecution of Christians from Middle East may eventually lead to an end of Christianity in Middle East.

A report published in The New York Times magazine says: “ISIS is looking to eradicate Christians and other minorities altogether. The group twists the early history of Christians in the region — their subjugation by the sword — to legitimize its millenarian enterprise.

Recently, ISIS posted videos delineating the second-class status of Christians in the caliphate. Those unwilling to pay the jizya tax or to convert would be destroyed, the narrator warned, as the videos culminated in the now infamous scenes of Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians in Libya being marched onto the beach and beheaded, their blood running into the surf.”

The report gives a brief history of Christianity in Middle East and how Christians have faced persecution over many centuries. The Christians in Iraq trace their roots to Mesopotamian empires that ruled the lands between Tigris River and Euphrates River around 1000 years before Jesus Christ and therefore they started calling themselves by various names such as Assyrians, Syriac etc. According to traditional beliefs, Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, sent Thaddeus to Mesopotamia to spread Christianity there.

From then on till present, Christianity has co-existed with other faiths like Judaism, Zoroastrianism and other faiths of communities like Druze, Yazidis and Mandeans. But, the Christian community is divided among themselves into Catholics, Eastern, Orthodox and Assyrian Church of the East.

When Islam arrived into Iraq around 7th century, there was a gradual shift from Christianity into Islam. But, the Eastern Christians had to live as dimmis– those who were allowed to practice their faith but had to pay jizya tax. With the fall of Ottoman Empire and the beginning of World War I, violence and persecution of Christians erupted in Middle East. The Young Turks killed around 2 million Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks, most of whom were Christians.

In countries like Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Jordan, the Christian population has seen a continuous decline over last 100 years. The Christians once comprised 14 per cent of the population. But, today they are only 4 per cent. In Lebanon, where Christians have considerable political influence, their population share has reduced from 78 per cent to just 34 per cent. Hostile political environment, low birthrate and rise of extremist groups have all contributed to the decline of Christianity.

After the US intervention in Iraq, hundreds of thousands of Christians had to flee due to extremists attack on them. The report quotes Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil as saying: “Since 2003, we’ve lost priests, bishops and more than 60 churches were bombed.” The Christian population in Iraq was 1.5 million in 2003. But, today it is less than 500 thousand.

Now with Arab Spring toppling dictators like Mubarak in Egypt and Qaddafi in Libya who had protected minorities, the persecution and decline of Christians and other minorities has increased. Now with the rise of ISIS, the future of Christianity in Middle East is very bleak and uncertain. The report quotes Nuri Kino, a journalist and founder of the advocacy group Demand for Action: “How much longer can we flee before we and other minorities become a story in a history book.”

One of the main routes taken by those who are fleeing Iraq goes through Lebanon. Recently, when ISIS assaulted and kidnapped 230 people for ransom, thousands of Christians from villages in north-eastern Syria along the Khabur River fled and took shelter in Lebanon. The ISIS is demanding a ransom of $ 100,000 for each of the 230 captives i.e. a total of $ 23 million.

The situation is not good in Syria either. Since, 2011, when civil war broke out, around one third of the Syrian Christians had no choice but to flee the country as they were forced out by extremist groups like Nusra Front and now by ISIS. The report quotes BassamIshaya and his family who have fled Syria due to ISIS threat, as saying: “Christians will all leave. What can I do? I have four kids, I can’t leave them here to die.”

David Saperstein, the United States ambassador at large for religious freedom has said: “To see these communities, primarily Christians, but also the Yazidis and others, persecuted in such large numbers is deeply alarming”.

But US has been criticized for not doing enough to help Christians and other refugees. The US has given an aid of $ 416 million since October 2013. The amount is not enough when compared to what is needed.

It has already admitted around 122,000 refugees from Iraq, 40 per cent of whom belong to oppressed minorities. But David Saperstein says: “There are limits to what the international community can do.”

The report quotes Eshoo, the Democratic congresswoman as saying: “The average time for admittance to the United States is more than 16 months, and that’s too long. Many will die.” She is striving to establish priority refugee status for minorities who want to leave Iraq.

The role of Christians in Middle East is not limited to being a minority religious group. In Lebanon for example, they have played a powerful and influential role in the government and have acted as buffer between Shia and Sunni Muslim populations. But, today with Christianity weakening, the Shia and Sunni divide is widening and is threatening to result in huge bloodshed.

In Northern Iraq, the Assyrian Christians have formed five militia groups to fight against ISIS. Nineveh Plain Forces (a unit of 500 members), DwekhNawsha (100 members) and Nineveh Plains Protection Units (300 members) aim to protect their people and liberate Christian lands from ISIS.

The other two militia groups are Syriac Military Council and Babylonian Brigades. But these militias’ operations are under the command of Kurdish peshmerga. The Christian militia must ask their permission even to travel 1000 yards between their base and forward posts.

The future of Christians and other minorities is not looking good even if ISIS were to be defeated and wiped out. The report quotes Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute, a conservative policy center, as saying that the situation in Iraq is so horrible that Iraqi Christians must be allowed to have full residency in Kurdistan or must be helped to leave.

Rev. Emanuel Youkhana, the head of Christian Aid Program, Northern Iraq is quoted as saying: “For the first time in 2,000 years, there are no church services in Mosul. The West comes up with one solution by granting visas to a few hundred people. What about a few hundred thousand?” He added: “Iraq is a forced marriage between Sunni, Shia, Kurds and Christians, and it failed. Even I, as a priest, favor divorce.”

Amidst such demands for safe haven within Iraq for minorities, the future of Christianity and Christians looks very bleak.

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We Will make you Zero To Hero: This is how Jihadist ISIS Lures Western potential Recruits

The Chicago Project on Security and Threats has concluded that ISIS often targets Western recruits with heroic outcomes

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ISIS actively Lures Recruits from the West for its Jihadi Agenda
FILE - Fighters from the Islamic State group parade in Raqqa, north Syria, June 30, 2014. VOA

Beyond the slick, Hollywood-style cinematics, the Islamic State is targeting Western recruits with videos suggesting they, too, can be heroes like Bruce Willis’ character in Die Hard.

That’s the conclusion of The Chicago Project on Security and Threats, which analyzed some 1,400 videos released by IS between 2013 and 2016. Researchers who watched and catalogued them all said there is more to the recruitment effort than just sophisticated videography, and it’s not necessarily all about Islam.

Instead, Robert Pape, who directs the security center, said the extremist group is targeting Westerners — especially recent Muslim converts — with videos that follow, nearly step-by-step, a screenwriter’s standard blueprint for heroic storytelling.

ISIS targets Western recruits with Hollywood style heroism
Islamic State is recruiting Westerns by using Hollywood-style cinematics, like that seen in the story of “Wonder Woman,” in which a character learns his or her own powers through the course of their reluctant journey to be hero. VOA

“It’s the heroic screenplay journey, the same thing that’s in Wonder Woman, where you have someone who is learning his or her own powers through the course of their reluctant journey to be hero,” Pape said.

Heroic storytelling

The project at the University of Chicago separately has assembled a database of people who have been indicted in the United States for activities related to IS. Thirty-six percent were recent converts to Islam and did not come from established Muslim communities, according to the project. Eighty-three percent watched IS videos, the project said.

Bruce Willis in movie Die Hard 4.0
FILE – U.S. actor Bruce Willis poses for the photographers during a photo call for his new movie “Die Hard 4.0” in Berlin, Germany, June 18, 2007. VOA

The group’s success in using heroic storytelling is prompting copycats, Pape said. The research shows al-Qaida’s Syria affiliate has been mimicking IS’ heroic narrative approach in its own recruitment films. “We have a pattern that’s emerging,” Pape said.

Intelligence and law enforcement officials aren’t sure the approach is all that new. They say IS has been using any method that works to recruit Westerners. Other terrorism researchers think IS’ message is still firmly rooted in religious extremism.

Rita Katz, director of SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks messaging by militant groups, agrees that IS makes strong, visual appeals resembling Hollywood movies and video games, making its media operation more successful than al-Qaida’s. And IS videos can attract hero wannabes, she said.

“However, these features of IS media are only assets to a core message it uses to recruit,” Katz said. “At the foundation of IS recruitment propaganda is not so much the promise to be a Hollywood-esque hero, but a religious hero. There is a big difference between the two.”

Promise of martyrdom

When a fighter sits in front of a camera and calls for attacks, Katz said, he will likely frame it as revenge for Muslims killed or oppressed somewhere in the world. The message is designed to depict any terror attack in that nation as justified and allow the attacker to die as a martyr, she said.

The promise of religious martyrdom is powerful to anybody regardless of whether they are rich or poor, happy or unhappy, steeped in religion or not at all, she said.

Pape said he knows he’s challenging conventional wisdom when he says Westerners are being coaxed to join IS ranks not because of religious beliefs, but because of the group’s message of personal empowerment and Western concepts of individualism.

How else can one explain Western attackers’ loose connections to Islam, or their scarce knowledge of IS’s strict, conservative Sharia law, he asked. IS is embracing, not rejecting, Western culture and ideals, to mobilize Americans, he said.

“This is a journey like Clint Eastwood,” Pape said, recalling Eastwood’s 1970s performance in High Plains Drifter about a stranger who doles out justice in a corrupt mining town. “When Clint Eastwood goes in to save the town, he’s not doing it because he loves them. He even has contempt for the people he’s saving. He’s saving it because he’s superior,” Pape said.

“That’s Bruce Willis in Die Hard. That’s Wonder Woman. … Hollywood has figured out that’s what puts hundreds of millions in theater seats,” Pape said. “IS has figured out that’s how to get Westerners.”

12-step guide

Pape said the narrative in the recruitment videos targeting westerners closely tracks Chris Vogler’s 12-step guide titled “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.” The book is based on a narrative identified by scholar Joseph Campbell that appears in drama and other storytelling.

Step No. 1 in Vogler’s guide is portraying a character in his “ordinary world.”

An example is a March 25, 2016, video released by al-Qaida’s Syria branch about a young British man with roots in the Indian community. It starts: “Let us tell you the story of a real man … Abu Basir, as we knew him, came from central London. He was a graduate of law and a teacher by profession.”

Vogler’s ninth step is about how the hero survives death, emerging from battle to begin a transformation, sometimes with a prize.

In the al-Qaida video, the Brit runs through sniper fire in battle. He then lays down his weapon and picks up a pen to start his new vocation blogging and posting Twitter messages for the cause.

‘Zero to hero’

Matthew Levitt, a terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says it doesn’t surprise him that IS would capitalize on what he dubs the “zero to hero” strategy because the organization is very pragmatic and accepts recruits regardless of their commitment to Islamic extremism.

Heroic aspirations are only one reason for joining the ranks of IS, he said. Criminals also seek the cover of IS to commit crimes. Others sign up because they want to belong to something.

“I’ve never seen a case of radicalization that was 100 percent one way or the other,” Levitt said. (VOA)

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Syrian Militia: End Is Near for Islamic State in Raqqa

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Smoke rises near the stadium where the Islamic State militants are holed up after an airstrike by coalition forces at the frontline, in Raqqa, Syria. voa

Islamic State is on the verge of defeat in Syria’s Raqqa and the city may finally be cleared of the jihadists Saturday or Sunday, the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia told Reuters Saturday.

The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State said around 100 of the jihadist group’s fighters had surrendered in Raqqa in the last 24 hours and had been “removed from the city,” but it still expected difficult fighting “in the days ahead.”

It did not say how the fighters had been removed or where the fighters had been taken.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said remaining Islamic State fighters were being transported out of Raqqa by bus under a deal between Islamic State, the U.S.-led coalition and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by the YPG. There was no immediate comment on that report from the coalition or the SDF.

Fighting since June

Civilians who escaped from Islamic State
Civilians who escaped from Islamic State militants rest at a mosque in Raqqa, Syria. voa

The SDF, backed by coalition airstrikes and special forces, has been battling since June to oust Islamic State from Raqqa city, formerly its de facto capital in Syria and a base of operations where it planned attacks against the West.

The final defeat of Islamic State at Raqqa will be a major milestone in efforts to roll back the group’s self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq, where earlier this year the group was driven from the city of Mosul.

“The battles are continuing in Raqqa city. Daesh (Islamic State) is on the verge of being finished. Today or tomorrow the city may be liberated,” YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud told Reuters by telephone.

In emailed comments to Reuters, coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon said about 100 Islamic State fighters had surrendered in Raqqa in the last 24 hours and were “removed from the city,” without giving further details.

“We still expect difficult fighting in the days ahead and will not set a time for when we think (Islamic State) will be completely defeated in Raqqa,” he said, adding that around 85 percent of Raqqa had been liberated as of Oct. 13.

Some civilians escape

Around 1,500 civilians had been able to safely make it to SDF lines within the last week, he added.

Omar Alloush, a member of a civilian council set up to run Raqqa, told Reuters late Friday that efforts were under way to secure the release of civilians and “a possible way to expel terrorist elements from Raqqa province,” without giving further details.

An activist group that reports on Raqqa, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, said on its Facebook page Saturday that dozens of buses had entered Raqqa city overnight, having traveled from the northern Raqqa countryside.

The Observatory said Syrian Islamic State fighters and their families had left the city, and buses had arrived to evacuate remaining foreign fighters and their families. It did not say where they would be taken.

During the more than six-year Syrian war, the arrival of buses in a conflict zone has often signaled an evacuation of combatants and civilians.

The campaign against Islamic State in Syria is now focused on its last major foothold in the country, the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, which neighbors Iraq.
Islamic State is facing separate offensives in Deir el-Zour by the SDF on one hand, and Syrian government forces supported by Iranian-backed militia and Russian airstrikes on the other. (VOA)

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Will the Latest Message From Islamic State Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Provoke New Attacks in the West?

IS remains a potent organization, despite its continued losses in United States and Europe

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This image taken from a militant website July 5, 2014, purports to show the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. (VOA)

Washington, September 30, 2017 : U.S. intelligence officials examining the latest audio statement claiming to be from Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi say, so far, they have no reason to doubt its authenticity.

However, there are questions as to whether the message from the leader of the collapsing, self-declared caliphate will cause IS operatives to spring into action. Some analysts see Baghdadi’s continued call to arms as almost a shot in the dark, aimed at rekindling interest despite the terror group’s fading fortunes in Syria and Iraq.

The still-early U.S. intelligence assessment comes just a day after the Islamic State’s al-Furqan media wing issued the 46-minute audio recording featuring Baghdadi, in which he calls on followers to “fan the flames of war on your enemies, take it to them and besiege them in every corner.”

“Continue your jihad and your blessed operations and do not let the crusaders rest in their homes and enjoy life and stability while your brethren are being shelled and killed,” he says.

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A U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighter takes cover behind a wall on a street where they fight against Islamic State militants, on the front line on the western side of Raqqa, Syria (VOA)

Despite such threats, U.S. officials say the release of the latest audio message is not changing Washington’s approach.

“We are aware of the tape,” a National Security Council spokesman said Friday. “But whether it’s al-Baghdadi or any member of ISIS, the Trump administration’s policy is destroying ISIS in Iraq, Syria and around the globe.” ISIS is an acronym for Islamic State.

Still, intelligence and counterterror officials, both in the United States and in Europe, warn that IS remains a potent organization, despite its continued losses on the ground.

“We do not think battlefield losses alone will be sufficient to degrade its terrorism capabilities,” the head of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, Nick Rasmussen, warned in written testimony to U.S. lawmakers earlier this week, calling IS’s reach on social media “unprecedented.”

And while Western counterterror officials say the expected wave of returning IS foreign fighters has yet to materialize, the experience and skill sets of the operatives who have made it back home are ample reasons to worry.

But some caution the new Baghdadi audio message may have more to do with the terror group’s long-term strategy than its desire to carry out attacks in the near term.

“The broadcast boosts morale by contextualizing the hardships facing the group as their losses accumulate by reminding Islamic State militants and their supporters that day-to-day actions are part of a broader struggle, and metrics of progress shouldn’t be assessed in a vacuum,” according to Jade Parker, a senior research associate at the Terror Asymmetrics Project (TAPSTRI).

ALSO READ  intelligence officials , Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al-Furqan, war, enemies, threats, US officials, raqqa, National Security Council, isis, Iraq, Syria, U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, Nick Rasmussen, terrorism, Terror Asymmetrics Project ,

Parker also believes that while it is “extremely unlikely” the latest Baghdadi audio will spark or accelerate any IS plots, it might prevent fraying within the organization’s ranks.

“Baghdadi’s silence during the final days of IS’s battle for Mosul was a sore point for many IS fighters and supporters who felt confused and abandoned by their leader,” she added. “This statement was likely released in part to avoid that sentiment with respect to the fight to retain ground in Raqqa.” (VOA)