“There’s just a lot of killing — a lot of killing of innocent Christians,” Donna Panoussi, 43, was saying after the only Sunday Mass at St. Paul Chaldean and Assyrian Catholic Church in North Hollywood. Many of the congregants filing out still had family and friends in Iraq.
Her mother, Rosa Bouganian, 67, pointed out how she was half Armenian, on her father’s side, and half Assyrian. “They’re killing everybody, kids and adults.” she said.
“They told them, ‘You be Muslim or go from here, or we’re going to kill you, or pay a tax, too.’ This is a fact, $450, but Christians don’t have that much money. So many people they killed in Mosul and other places. Deaths that nobody has seen on earth,”
“The kind of deaths that nobody is supposed to die like that,” observed Rosa, shaking her head.
“They have a kid in front of a hole, OK,” the daughter continued. “And they already dig their grave. Then they just shoot him in the head and throw him in there. And if he’s just moving around, they keep shooting. So these deaths are horrific, I think. It’s just not humane.”
“This is not war, from one country to another. This is genocide,” pointed out the older woman, all too knowingly. “And my Armenian side, a very long time ago in Turkey, all my father’s family they killed with the genocide. And now, again, they do it to my mother’s side. I can’t believe. I am sick. I am sick.”
Janine Jacoby, who had been listening, raised her head a little, her face becoming both stern and sad.
“Why?” she asked. “Nobody told us about ISIS.” When neither parent or child had an answer, the 60-year-old woman, who attends Mass daily at nearby Our Lady of Lourdes Church, said, “This is not about Iraqis. As she mentioned, it’s not about any nationality. It’s about Christians, not Muslims. They’re killing Christians.”
‘Have fled for their lives’
At first, when President Obama and his administration decided to take military action on Aug. 7 against ISIS — called the Islamic State and formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — almost all the attention was given to protecting members of the Yazidi religious sect. It was as if the indigenous Christians, who had managed to survive in the Muslim-dominated region for nearly 2,000 years, didn’t exist.
From the White House, the president said Yazidis “have fled for their lives” to Mount Sinjar with only the clothes on their back, while the Islamic militants were calling for their “systematic destruction.” He stated that amounted to genocide, stressing “when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye.”
But tens of thousands of Christians, many Chaldean Catholics, also existed in Iraq and were also fleeing to safer ground. And the next day, national newspapers were using words like “catastrophic” to describe the plight of Iraqi Christians.
The French government confirmed that Iraq’s biggest Christian settlement, the historic Assyrian town of Qaragosh, had fallen to ISIS fighters. Qaragosh was where many residents of Mosul had fled after Christians living there were given the infamous ultimatum: Convert to Islam; pay jizya, a Muslim tax for nonbelievers; or face certain “death by the sword.”
A report in the Los Angeles Times, in fact, estimated that during the last week Christian towns and villages had been completely overrun by ISIS, with maybe 100,000 fleeing to the relative haven of the semi-autonomous Kurdish zone.
At the same time, there were reports of crosses being pulled down and their churches being converted to mosques. Bishop Joseph Tomas, based in the Kurdish city of Kirkuk, dutifully noted, “All Christian villages are now empty.”
Much more disturbing, a Christian Post headline read: “ISIS ‘Systematically Beheading Children’ in Iraq; They are ‘Killing Every Christian They See,’ says Chaldean Leader.”
In the story, Mark Arabo, a Chaldean-American businessman and national spokesman for Iraqi Christians, observed, “The world hasn’t seen an evil like this for a generation. There’s actually a park in Mosul that they’ve actually beheaded children and put their heads on a stick.”
And photos of beheaded children and crucified adults starting showing up on YouTube and websites. One is of a headless little girl, maybe 10 or 12, sprawled out on the ground as a grotesque display, in a pretty blue lace party dress. In another, a young man has his head turned at a sharp angle, with a hand holding a steel blade to his throat.
‘Stop the killing’
“I want to know why nobody’s helping them. That’s what I want to know.” Dona Panoussi from the San Fernando Valley said, “Somebody has to stop the killing. They have beheaded so many young Christian boys and they put them in the middle of the street to show off. Or they have hanged them on the telephone wire. What is this?
“What I have heard is that Obama is going to help the Kurds,” she added. “But there’s Christians that are dying over there in the mountains right now, because they have to run away from their city, Mosul. And they have nothing to hope for. The militants took everything. They’re on their feet. The kids are dying from hunger and heat.”
Rosa Bouganian, Dona’s mother, has heard that ISIS fighters strip bodies of everything, including, of course, wedding rings. “I’m going to tell you,” she said, “this is an era starting with the Shiite and Sunni, a long time ago. But I don’t know why they turned to killing the Christians, the Assyrians. I don’t know. That’s a question for me.”
Janine Jacoby recalled a favorite Jesus quote, the Matthew 25 teaching about whatever you do for the least, you are doing for him. “We are his hands. We are his mouth. We are his feet,” she said. “He’s not going to come from heaven. We are here as Catholics, as Christians. So whatever we do for these fleeing Christians, for these are the least of the least. And if we do something for them — and that’s what the whole Christianity is about — we’re honoring Jesus.
“So we are inviting every Catholic, we’re inviting every Christian from different denominations to join us, to make our voice heard. If we all hold our hands together and help Christians, that’s all we want to do.”
Pope Francis spoke about helping these terribly hurting individuals and families during his traditional Sunday blessing on Aug. 10. Using what some papal observers were calling “unusually strong language,” he condemned Islamist jihadists for keeping up their horrific campaign against religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq, while calling in the name of God for an end to the bloodshed.
The Holy Father deplored ongoing 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 admonished, “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.”
Oldest people on Earth
Ayad Tobiya, who makes his living as a driver, also attended the 10:30 a.m. Mass at St. Paul Chaldean and Assyrian Church in North Hollywood. He has a nephew who lives in Northern Iraq and a brother who resides in Baghdad.
“There’s no future for all the Christians in Northern Iraq,” he said in a stoic voice. “It is very bad. These people, they hate any Christians. ISIS hates those people carrying a cross.
“They are dangerous to the whole world. They’re contagious people. They have no beliefs. They have no God. They have no respect for anyone. So we need the United Stated, first, with their support of the Christians in Iraq. And we need all the world to protect us and save our villages and save our people.”
The 50-year-old man compared Iraq and fleeing Christians to a garden without its beautiful flowers. “We are the oldest people on the Earth,” pointed out Tobiya. We are the people who created the history of the world. We created the law. We are the very people who believe in Jesus. We are his followers, and we are all over the world, and we announce Christianity all over the world.
“So the Middle East is where we need to stay in our land,” he declared. “Our land is important to us. And if we return, we can go back to raising our heads in the world — as Babylonians, Syrians, Chaldians and Assyrians. We are human.”