The following excerpt is from preface xiii-xvi of They Say We Are Infidels by Mindy Belz.
Odisho Yousif choked on baked dust and felt gravel tear into his cheek. His chest throbbed where the man his captors called “Commander” had kicked him. Odisho’s breath came in sharp heaves as he looked up at the Commander towering over him, holding his identity card.
Like all Iraqi IDs, Odisho’s had a line indicating his religion, and his was marked Christian. The Commander, who never removed his black face mask, paced to and fro in the gray dawn, turning the tattered card over and over. “You are an agent with the Jews of Israel!” he exploded.
“No, no!” Odisho protested. “I am a Christian from Iraq.”
Odisho was pummeled once more by the Commander’s boot, and by a sense of the helplessness of his predicament.
The irony didn’t escape him. His job, after all, was to carry money—the funds raised by church members to pay ransom for Christians kidnapped by Islamic militants. As often as he had helped other victims, Odisho never dreamed he might become one himself.
The year was 2006—eight years before the Islamic fighters known as ISIS launched strikes into the center of Iraq’s Christian heartland. Everywhere militants were blowing up Christians—their churches, grocery stores, and homes. They threatened them with kidnapping. They vowed to take their children. The message to these “infidels”: You don’t belong in Iraq. Leave, pay the penalty to stay, or be ready to die.
Much of the world didn’t grasp the deadly dangers for Iraq’s Christians until 2014, when a group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, took Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, in a lightning-fast overnight strike. From that moment genocide unfolded—with rapes, shootings, and beheadings—as ISIS fighters forced thousands of Christians and other non-Muslims to flee.
Long before, Odisho was among thousands who could testify to a decade of such brutality. The ultimatum ISIS handed Mosul’s Christians in 2014—pay jizya, convert to Islam, or be killed—was too familiar to believers like him.
Paying ransom came as part of the commerce of war. Christians knew that it financed more bombings and more terror, yet they had no choice but to pay. Given Odisho’s connections and his ability to raise money and direct it to families who needed it, he naturally became the conduit of funds for kidnapping victims and bombing survivors.
“Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, . . . [even if they are] of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued,” reads the Quran, and the ancient church leaders historically paid the jizya mandated by Islamic law. Modern infidels were paying it just the same: paying special taxes to hold public events and to serve Communion wine. In other words, it was the price to live among Muslims in the Christians’ own homeland. In times of war, it was the price to survive.
The decimation of Christians and their communities in the Middle East looks at first like a problem “over there.” While sad, it appears too complicated, too tied up in the complex politics of the region, and too big to solve. For me a tragedy held at arm’s length over time has become personal. As a reporter covering international events, I’ve made multiple trips to the region over the past twenty years. While I’m supposed to remain an objective observer, many of these “infidels”—ordinary people committed to raising families and finding work, often after being forced from their homes and losing everything they own—are not merely sources or subjects. They have become friends.