WHILE the world's attention has been focused on Israel's pounding of Gaza in recent days, another humanitarian tragedy was unfolding hundreds of kilometres away in another strife-torn region.
The Sunni extremist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) swept across a large swathe of territory in northern Iraq, forcing thousands of Christians and people of minority faiths to flee their homes.
Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako, the head of Iraq's largest Christian denomination, estimated that some 100,000 Christians had been made homeless in the face of the ISIS onslaught last week.
"This is a humanitarian disaster. The churches were occupied, their crosses were taken down," he told news agency Agence France-Presse.
In the eyes of the Sunni extremists, Shi'ites and Sufis are apostates, Christians are infidels, and Yazidis, a Kurdish ethno-religious community, devil worshippers. In the places that ISIS has conquered, such as Mosul, religious minorities are faced with the ultimatum - leave or pay a levy, convert to Islam, or face death.
It is a huge tragedy because these minority communities are being emptied from lands they have called home for millennia; in one fell swoop, all the years of peaceful coexistence are destroyed at the point of the sword.
Ancient shrines, statues, tombs and places of worship have been vandalised or destroyed as fighters of ISIS go about purging the land to create an Islamic caliphate under its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
If their idea is to revive the glory of Islam, then ISIS has clearly distorted Prophet Muhammad's words and deeds on treating minorities with respect.
The persecution of the Christians by ISIS started with the seizure of a 4th century monastery belonging to the Syriac Catholic Church in Mosul, the capital of an Iraqi province known to be the homeland of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
They removed the statues of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, and strung the black flags of the Islamic state before driving out the priests.
Next, the Arabic letter N or Nuun, which stands for "Nasrani" (Christians in Arabic), was found marked outside houses, causing much alarm to the terrified Christian occupants. It is reminiscent of the harassment suffered by Jews whose businesses were marked with the word "Jude" and the Star of David in Hitler's Germany before the war.
Then came the ultimatum to the Christians to either convert to Islam, pay a religious levy or face death on July 19.
"We offer them three choices: Islam; the dhimma contract - involving payment of jizya; if they refuse this, they will have nothing but the sword," said an ISIS announcement.
Christians who want to remain in the caliphate must agree to abide by terms of a "dhimma" contract - a historic practice under which non-Muslims were protected in Muslim lands in return for "jizya", a special levy.
The concept of dhimma dates back to the early Islamic era, but was largely abolished during the Ottoman reforms of the mid-19th century.
In the caliphate of old, Christians who refused to convert or abide by the dhimma contract were allowed to leave the state.
To threaten those who refused with the sword, as ISIS did, is to go against the practice of the Prophet and the Quran.
According to the Quran, Christians and Jews are the People of the Book, and are to be accorded respect and protection.
In a covenant with the monks of Saint Catherine's Monastery in Mount Sinai in 626, the Prophet pledged to protect the Christians and their monks, declaring that their churches should not be destroyed or taken away from them.
They should not be forced to be conscripted for war.
No poll tax should be imposed on Christian monks and priests.
But if poll tax were to be collected from wealthy Christians, it should not be more than "12 drachmas" a head per year, according to the covenant.
The Prophet also said that if a Muslim man is married to a Christian woman, he should not prevent her from going to church to pray or to perform the practices of her religion.
Christians should not be forced to convert to Islam.
Prophet Muhammad's trust in Christians has been well documented in Islamic history.
Once, when Muslims in Mecca were persecuted by pagan Arabs, he advised them to seek refuge in the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia, in what is today's Ethiopia.
The Prophet also told them to obey the Christian king.
The current animosity towards Christians has its roots in the teachings of Muhammad Abdul Wahab, the 18th century Islamic reformer who advocated a return to a ultra-conservative, pure form of Islam.
Disastrously, this concept has evolved into a form of extreme intolerance towards all others.
Shi'ites and Sunni Sufis have had their mosques, shrines and Husseiniyah, or communal halls, destroyed by ISIS.
Even the tomb of the prophet Jonah, or Yunus, near Mosul has not been spared.
The caliphate of ISIS is far unlike its predecessors.
The Ottoman caliphate, for example, rescued the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century and resettled them in the empire.
It encouraged the diversity of the four schools of Sunni legal jurisprudence and accommodated the Shi'ites, whose beliefs were accepted as the second branch of Islamic orthodoxy.
ISIS says its mission is to restore the glory of Islam, but what it has done instead is blacken the image of the religion and its followers. It also aspires to extend its sovereignty over Muslims worldwide - a horrifying prospect given its intolerant, puritanical worldview tethered to a willingness to resort to violence to achieve its aims.
Its territorial gains in the Kurdish region have prompted American intervention with air strikes launched on ISIS fighters in northern Iraq over the weekend.
These had been authorised by President Barack Obama to prevent a potential act of genocide against the besieged Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar and to protect American diplomatic personnel who remained in the nearby Kurdish capital of Erbil after being evacuated from Baghdad earlier.
It is a shame that there is a deafening silence from the Islamic world over the human crisis caused by a band of fanatics who claim to be acting in the name of Islam.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation only denounced the persecution of the Christians as an "intolerable crime".
There is nothing else beyond the rhetoric that it was "ready to provide the necessary humanitarian assistance to displaced persons until they are able to return to their homes".
The Islamic world should do more to oppose ISIS and what it represents.
This article was first published on August 11, 2014.
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