Symbol of ISIS hate becomes rallying cry for Christians

When the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS, captured Mosul, one of Iraq's largest cities, militants began singling Christians out. The symbol that marked their homes and businesses -- the Arabic letter "n," which is pronounced "noon" and stands for Nazarene or Nasrani, the Arabic word for Christian -- reportedly was a signal: convert, pay a tax or be killed. Many Christians fled.

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An image grab taken from a video released on July 26, 2014 shows a graffiti with the Arabic letter "n", the first letter of the word "Nasara", the word used in the Quran for Christians, tagged on the wall of a church in the Iraqi city of Mosul.
AFP/Getty Images

Jeremy Courtney, who has lived in Iraq for almost eight years, decided to bring the world's attention to what the militant group, whose radical views on Islam have been widely condemned by Muslims around the world, had been doing.

"Watching the homes of Christians be marked with this Arabic letter 'n,' marking them for extermination - I was just very moved and hurt in my soul and inspired to try and do something to awaken the emotions of people anywhere, everywhere to pay attention to this tragedy," said Courtney, the founder and executive director of an international development organization called Preemptive Love Coalition, which provides life-saving heart surgeries to Iraqi children and aid for displaced families.

Courtney said he grabbed a marker in mid-July and marked his hand with the Arabic letter "n" to stand in solidarity with the Christians who were also being marked.

He posted the photo on Twitter with the hashtag #WeAreN.

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"When I started the #WeAreN hashtag, I certainly didn't know or envision that this was going to be a rallying cry for Christians and others around the word," said Courtney.

Places like the the Archdiocese of Washington posted it on their Facebook. The Church of England has it on their Twitter feed. More than 22,000 people have also taken to Instagram, posting photos of the Arabic "n" on their hands, faces and clothing with #WeAreN.

"They [ISIS] gave us a logo in which to hang our best hopes for Iraq. Suddenly, now the whole Western world was paying attention," said Courtney.

One of those paying attention was Michelle Palmeiri in New York.

"All I could think of was Iraq and Syria, and the poor Christians who were being moved from their homes and killed and I was like 'We got to do something,'" said Palmeiri.

She is a member of The Church of the Holy Innocents in Manhattan, where she started organizing vigils where people would wear the Arabic "n" on pins, on their hands and on posters. People also wore the pins during the church's masses.

"Christ says 'be not afraid,' and we're showing that we're not afraid of them [ISIS]," said Palmeiri.

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The Church of the Holy Innocents vigil for persecuted Christians in Iraq and Syria. New York, August 22, 2014

They have held three vigils so far. Members of the church walk with candles and prayers in hand from their church location on 37th Street to Herald Square a few blocks away.

They pray inside and outside of the church for the Christians being persecuted in the Middle East and want to support them by wearing the letter.

The Rev. Stephen Safron helps with Mass at the Church of the Holy Innocents where he has spoken about the persecution of Christians.

"Things like this do bring attention to specific needs at a specific time," said Safron.

He also sees historical parallels in ISIS' persecution of Christians.

"We think of history itself also. ... The invasion of Poland for example and the beginnings of World War II. And we think of the Jewish people forced to wear the star. And so this here, we see the same thing happening. People are being labeled."

"It's really blasphemy to say that these things [killings] can be done in the name of God. This sheer fanaticism tries to justify itself by wrapping itself in religion but it really is holding religion in contempt," the Rev. George Rulter, an administrator at the church, said.

Rulter sees the effort to reclaim ISIS' intended symbol of Christian oppression and turn it into one of solidarity as "propaganda for the good rather than for the bad."

"They wanted to identify with fellow Christians who were suffering. And I think now it has served the function of awakening other people as well," he said.

Since Palmeiri's initial efforts a few months ago, she said she has received messages on Facebook from bishops and priests in the Middle East thanking them.

"It's a serious matter, especially when that area of the world is asking us to help them. ... Something has to be done whether it's the physical or in the spiritual."

What ISIS used as a symbol for Christian oppression in the Middle East has now become image of solidarity for people like Palmeiri, Courtney and thousands of others.

"I was not expecting #WeAreN as a hashtag or the 'noon' as a logo or icon to grow this big at all. No, it was a moment of frustration. It was a moment of personal protest, just trying to say if you're coming for them, then you can come for me too," said Courtney. "Living in Iraq and watching this play out in my backyard, I just had this sense that we can't just stand by idly and let our neighbors be slaughtered."