The Plight of Iraqi Christians: Is There a Solution?

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A sixth century Christian monastery in Mosul destroyed during bombardment in Nineveh, Iraq.

Today the Baghdad streets look no different than when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. If anything, it is more apocalyptic. According to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, 319 protesters have been killed and 15,000 wounded in the violence since October 1 when Iraqis started hitting the streets in anger over what they see has a predominantly Shi’ite government so corrupt it cannot provide jobs, clean water, health care and basic security to its people. As recently reported by the The New York Times and The Intercept, Iran is primarily to blame as it has been at painstaking work” to infiltrate every aspect of Iraq‘s political, economic and religious life in order to keep the country under its control. A 22-year-old Omar, a medical volunteer working in Tahrir said: “We’ve known for years that the Iranian government destroyed and killed our people.” 

Yet as made known by the Catholic Archbishop of the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil (the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan) Bashar Warda, who has been one of Iraq’s most prominent Christian leaders has deeper concerns, while in the past anti-government protests were sectarian, today there are Christians hand in hand with Muslim protesters in Baghdad to contest government corruption. This is something that has thus far been completely ignored by Western countries, including the European Union and the mainstream media. In fact, most protesters in Baghdad remain skeptical of all foreign intervention, including an American one. “For us, America and Europe don’t think about us, they care only about their interests,” said 69-year-old teacher Sabri.

In like manner, so has been the plight of Iraqi Christians. Of course, the the phenomenon of the Islamic State, attention had been drawn unto Iraq. Yet after the defeat of the physical caliphate, even though ISIS has not not been truly defeated, Iraqi Christians and religious minorities are barely a past recollection. This was highlighted by Archbishop Warda during his visit to the United Kingdom this past May in which he also expressed that UK and the EU, while being able to provided concrete and substantive assistance to help Iraqi Christians, have not done so.

Since the US-led invasion that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Christian community had dwindled by 83 percent, from around 1.5 million to just 250,000. Warda recalled: “Christianity in Iraq, one of the oldest Churches, if not the oldest Church in the world, is perilously close to extinction. Those of us who remain must be ready to face martyrdom.” He did say, however, that there is a way for all Iraqis to find a peaceful co-existence despite centuries of a dichotomy between Muslims and Christians as it used to be before sharia law became prevalent. 

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Enter a captionArchbishop Bashar Warda tending to a young refugee, one of many victims taken in by the Archdiocese of Erbil during the war with ISIS. – (Photo: chaldeanchurcherbil.org)

“Things were not always so bad. Apologists for 1,400 years of Christian oppression point to periods of Muslim tolerance as a possible and desired alternative to violence and persecution. One cannot deny the existence of times of relative tolerance. Under al-Rashid, the House of Wisdom, the great library, was founded in Baghdad. There was a time of relative prosperity while Christian and Jewish scholarship was valued, and a flowering of science, mathematics and medicine was made possible by Nestorian Christian scholars who translated Greek texts, already ancient in the ninth century.  Our Christian ancestors shared with Muslim Arabs a deep tradition of thought and philosophy and engaged with them in respectful dialogue from the 8th century. The Arab Golden Age, as historian Philip Jenkins has noted, was built on Chaldean and Syriac scholarship. Christian scholarship.  The imposition of sharia law saw the decline of great learning, and the end of the “Golden Age” of Arab culture. A style of scholastic dialogue had developed, and which could only occur, because a succession of caliphs tolerated minorities.  As toleration ended, so did the culture and wealth which flowed from it.”

The Archbishop also referred to the current and pressing threat from Islamic State jihadists as a “final, existential struggle,” following the group’s initial assault in 2014 that displaced more than 125,000 Christians from their historic homelands. “Our tormentors confiscated our present,” he said, “while seeking to wipe out our history and destroy our future. In Iraq there is no redress for those who have lost properties, homes and businesses. Tens of thousands of Christians have nothing to show for their life’s work, for generations of work, in places where their families have lived, maybe, for thousands of years.” Post-ISIS, Iranian-backed militias are now threatening the return of those Christians across large areas of Northern Iraq.

Having visited Northern Iraq last year — Kurdistan and Nineveh, war-torn town of Mosul and the surrounding cities and villages in particular — I had the opportunity to speak with a number of Christians still there. They collectively concurred that the drastic reduction of the population, and I would add an abandonment in post-ISIS Iraq, is in part due to the lack of commitment from both Western countries and local government officials to formulate the ways and means for Christians return to their land.

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Billboard of Iranian-backed militias in city of Teleskof.

The Kurds of northern Iraq who had provided protection and shelter to thousands of Christians at the height of the Islamic State crisis have since then not been able to contain, or rather eliminate the obstacles to the hopes of preserving a Christian presence in Iraq. For example, in the town of Karemles — an Assyrian town less than 18 miles south east of Mosul — where Christians were the majority before the occupation of ISIS, predominantly Shi’ite groups, like the Shabaks have appropriated for themselves the places vacated by Christians, which allows them to impose their Islamic law and culture. They also try to shortcut Christians of government funding for the reconstruction of houses and employment opportunities. The parish priest of Saint Adeus at Karemles, Father Thabet Habeb, had told me that it is an ongoing struggle with the government to try to preserve or regain housing and all that was relevant to them.

There has also been a breakdown in the rule of law in which various Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias have been able to exploit an already incendiary situation to their favor in those cities that were predominantly Christian before ISIS. Instead of working towards peace and stability, Christians have been allowed to be harassed for purely religious reasons, and without granting them any chance to appeal to the central Iraqi government.

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Statue of the Virgin Mary in Erbil.

The mayor of the city of Teleskof — 20 miles from Mosul; one of the most ancient Christian communities in the world — Bassim Bello, who is a Christian, told me that aside from trying to have the central government recognize Christians as equals as Iraqi Muslims and Kurds, Christians face threats just to rebuild and reopen their churches. In addition, the fact that former ISIS members have taken on key positions in local government have added to the burden of Christians. And even in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, which is autonomous from the Iraqi central government and which is perhaps the safest region in all of Iraq, many Christians suffer abuse of various kinds: Christian women are hassled because they do not wear hijab (the scarf that covers the head). This is just one example of how precarious the situation is in a city in which there is a statue of the Virgin Mary in one of its squares.

Iraqi Christians, the young in particular, as well as those Westerners working in Iraq to restore stability, had expressed their great distrust in politicians. They are convinced that the heads of state are more interested in the petrodollar than in human rights. The Trump administration’s gripe, despite previous financial support and pledges to continue, that Iraq should financially compensate the United States for the costs of its invasion and stay there until the end of 2011 — Trump had stated: “If they’re going into Iraq,” Trump said, “keep the oil.” … If you did that, Iraq would be a much different story today because they would be owing us a lot of money — only agitates, if not confirm, their suspicions.

This is rather pretentious since the Iraqis had never asked President George W. Bush to invade their country and topple Saddam Hussein, let alone occupy their land and impose a “democratic” government with a pro-Islamic Constitution that has proven to be ineffective, at best. As journalist Kelley Beaucar Vlahos says, it is more than worth noting that the U.S. spent billions of dollars and sent thousands of troops, contractors, consultants, diplomats and all manner of do-gooders to Iraq between 2003-2009 to help set up a stable, democratic government. Yet it was already understood that it was a farce to begin with since the U.S. never asked the Iraqis what they wanted.

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Christians restoring one of their churches in Iraq

There may still be a bright spot to all of this. Christians retain a strong will and continue to fight for their faith and their rights, with the hope that their example will bring other Iraqis, regardless of religion and ethnicity, to a constant mutual respect. Some churches destroyed during the war with ISIS have been reopened to worship, despite the discouraging threats and obstacles. In fact, Archbishop Warda founded the Catholic University of Erbil a few years ago. His hope is that in providing the opportunity of a higher education to Iraqi Christians they can be not only inspired to stay in Iraq but build a thriving and brighter future for their country and the region. If the Western nations, including the EU and members of the Catholic hierarchy, followed this phase of Iraqi reconstruction and not just provide money to local government officials that end up in their back pockets, then there would be a possibility of establishing a new era not only on the political-economic level but also of a peaceful co-existence among Iraqis, the Christians in particular.

N. B. Quotations are first-hand; photos are my own personal collection, unless noted.