Bryan D. Estelle
They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East, by Mindy Belz. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2016, xix + 321 pages, $15.99, paper.
My father-in-law, Russell Lowell, MD, at the request of the American Medical Association for physicians to fill a need in South Vietnam, served as a civilian doctor there during the Vietnam War, since most of that country’s doctors were conscripted into service in the military. I remember him recounting to me that he would never read an American newspaper relating foreign wartime events again in quite the same way after experiencing that war zone first hand. Reading this book by journalist Mindy Belz has left me with a similar conviction about events in the Middle East during the last couple of decades. Don’t assume that what you read in our newspapers and magazines or watch on television accurately reflects events on the ground in the Middle East.
This is a deeply personal narrative of a journalist who has been covering the situation of Christians in the Middle East for years. The book is well-written English prose with a pleasing cadence. Although it is mostly about events in Iraq and Syria in the last twenty years, it’s not merely about recent events. At times Belz easily segues into history as old as civilization, or as recent as the decades following World War I; nevertheless, her story is well constructed to demonstrate historical influences that had profound influence on current events. A map plotting all the important cities talked about in the book is found on page xi and proves helpful for those of us unfamiliar with the geography of this part of the world. Additionally, a time line of key events in Iraq and Syria from 1920–2015 will keep the reader from getting lost in this well-documented, detailed account (303–7). There is no glossary of important or foreign terms, something the publishers would have done well to include. Belz demonstrates just how hard life was under Saddam. However, despite his defeat, capture, and ultimate demise, she also showcases the complexities and hardships of what replaced Saddam and the former power of the Baath party. The situation, according to Belz, was not helped by the Americans’ protracted de-Baathification policies either.
While the mainstream media has portrayed the narrative unfolding in Iraq as primarily a Shia-Sunni sectarian conflict, Belz relates through first-hand experience and many trips to the Middle East that the picture is much more complex than supposed. Her primary interest is the story about the persecuted Christian minority in Iraq. That story is important because it doesn’t fit into the neat and tidy narrative most often told by the US government or the American news media. However, the evidence is overwhelming that Belz presents: many, many Christians between 2005–2011 and beyond were assassinated. Although her book unveils the vast suffering of many Christians (and others) in the Middle East, it also recounts tremendous courage and sacrificial charity that Christians offered to others (not just fellow Christians), often taking on great risks (e.g., see page 291). As Belz shared her stories with Christians in the states, they too began to show charity—even in the form of cash—to help relieve the suffering and thirst of so many refugees, especially in Northern Iraq.
This book recounts extreme suffering, persecution, and exile. Often death. It is particularly engaging because the stories are frequently told from the perspective of real people, friends whom Belz made through years of reporting in Iraq and Syria. For example, the story is told through the eyes of Insaf, a mother like Belz, who years previously had to leave the country of Iraq and yet made many sacrificial trips back home to her Christian friends and relatives in order to deliver much needed aid and money to those left behind. The story is also recounted from the perspective of many displaced refugees (over a million from Iraq in 2014 alone) who had to flee for safety, often without shoes and with only the clothes on their backs.
Then ISIS came in 2014. When ISIS began its invasion of Qaraqosh, the inhabitants had to flee for safety. The descriptions of the “crawl of humanity making its way east, south, and north from Nineveh” (247) is heart rending to read. The vivid descriptions of flight to cities of refuge and Kurdistan will jerk tears from your eyes as will the well-documented slave trade of young girls and women by ISIS, especially those girls who committed suicide in order to escape their torment and their oppressors (269–74).
One of the greatest realizations of reading this book is that Americans have often been under-informed or just plain misinformed about the situation in the Middle East. No matter what your source of news is, this book will intelligently inform opinions about the political and religious realities that our brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria have faced throughout history, but especially in the last fifteen years. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to know more about the complex situation in the Middle East and for all Christians who want to learn how to pray more intelligently for persecuted Christians in that region of the world.
Bryan Estelle is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, California. Ordained Servant Online, March 2018.