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Persecuted Iraqi Christians returning to damaged villages to celebrate Christmas

December 18, 2018

 Despite widespread destruction of Christian churches, homes and infrastructure in northern Iraq, Christians are returning home for Christmas. Photo credit:  Ewelina Ochab.

 

 

“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.’” --Luke 2:10 (NIV)

 

For Christians, Christmas is a time of hope and light, a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.  But in Iraq, the ancient Christian community is struggling to recover from genocide while living with the devastating impact of 15 years of attacks and persecution at the hands of jihadists, criminal gangs, and the country’s Muslim-majority society. 

 

What will Christmas 2018 hold for Iraqi Christians?  Can they recover from genocide?  And what do they need to be safe and live in peace?

 

Although some countries and nongovernmental organizations are unwilling to formally declare that the Islamic State--also commonly referred to as ISIS, ISIL, Daesh--committed genocide in Iraq, there can be no doubt that the terrorist movement was determined to exterminate and/or erase all traces of Iraq’s religious minority communities.

 

As the genocide, which began in 2014, continued to unfold in the early months of 2016, the Obama administration finally took a clear position on the nature of the crimes committed by ISIS. 

 

“In my judgement, Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims,” then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared in a March 17, 2016 press briefing in Washington, D.C.   Kerry stated that “Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions.”

 

In addition, America’s top diplomat stated that “Daesh is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at the same groups and in some cases also against Sunnis Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities.”

 

New U.S. law

 

Earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law a piece of legislation that aims to assist the survivors of genocide perpetrated by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and Daesh.  The legislation, put forward by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), is also designed to help bring the perpetrators to justice.

 

According to Smith’s congressional website, “less than 200,000 Christians remain in Iraq, down from 1.4 million in 2002 and 500,000 in 2013, before ISIS swept through the region on its genocidal campaign.”  And the website points out that “many of the remaining Christians in Iraq are displaced, mostly in Erbil in the Kurdistan region, and need assistance to return to their homes and stay in Iraq.”

 

 U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act on Dec. 11, 2018.

 

Under the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act, the U.S. government is authorized to fund organizations that provide “humanitarian, stabilization, and recovery aid on-the-ground to genocide survivors from religious and ethnic minorities.”  The bill was signed into law on Dec. 11, 2018 by President Donald Trump.   

 

In addition, the website states that “after the ISIS invasion, 60,000 Yezidis fled to Europe, and of the 550,000 Yazidis still in Iraq, 280,000 remain displaced and only 20 percent have been able to return to their historic homeland of Sinjar.”  The new law also directs the U.S. government to help them as they return to Sinjar. 

 

Significantly, the legislation calls upon the U.S. administration to “assess and address the humanitarian vulnerabilities, needs, and triggers that might force these survivors to flee.”

 

In addition, the legislation seeks to bring the perpetrators of the genocide to justice by supporting criminal investigations and evidence collection.  

 

“Aid to the Church in Need is rejoicing at the announcement of the new American Law, HR390, signed by the American President on December 11th,” Marie-Claude Lalonde, the National Director of the Canadian branch of Aid to the Church in Need, declared in the press statement about the new American law.

 

“Our hope is that this law will allow for an acceleration in the return of Iraqi Christians to their homeland, most especially to the Nineveh Plains,” Lalonde stated.  “And, that it encourages Canada to take a stand on the issue, just as did the governments of the European Union and the United States, having recognized the genocide that took place under the Islamic State and against Christian and Yezidi religious minorities in Iraq and in Syria.”

 

According to a statement issued by Rep. Smith, there is no time to waste in implementing the new law.  “Archbishop Warda, the head of Chaldean Catholic Church there, told me that ‘Christians in Iraq are still at the brink of extinction,” Smith stated on his website.  “HR 390 is vital to our survival…implementation must be full and fast. Otherwise, the help it provides will be too late for us.”

 

Demographics

 

According to the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report covering the events of 2017, 97% of the Iraqi population is Muslim.  “Shia Muslims, predominantly Arabs but also including Turkmen, Faili (Shi) Kurds, and others, constitute 55 to 60 percent of the population” of the country, which had a total population of 39 million in 2017.  Sunni Muslims compose 40% of the population, which include Sunni Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Sunni Turkmen.

 

“Christian leaders estimate there are fewer than 250,000 Christians remaining in the country,” the U.S. State Department report reveals.  “The Christian population has declined over the past 15 years from a pre-2002 population estimate of between 800,000 and 1.4 million persons.”

 

 Open Doors Canada reports that there are only 225,000 Christians left in Iraq.

 

According to Open Doors Canada, a nongovernmental organization that advocates on behalf of persecuted Christians, there are approximately, 225,000 Christians left in all of Iraq. 

 

Assyrians are the original indigenous people of Iraq, Syria, Iran, and parts of Turkey. They are not Arabs.  And their ancient community predates the establishment of Islam and even Christianity.  Many Assyrians still speak Aramaic, one of the languages likely spoken by Jesus Christ.

 

Many Iraqi Christians are of Assyrian ethnicity.  However, many prefer to self-identify by their Catholic rites or Protestant denominations.

 

Chaldean Catholics make up 60% of Iraq’s Christian population.  Approximately 20% of Iraqi Christians belong to the Assyrian Church of the East.  “The remainder are Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, and Anglican and other Protestants,” reports the State Department.  And there are also approximately 3,000 Iraqi evangelical Christians.

 

Under the Iraqi constitution, Islam is the official religion of the country.

 

Genocide

 

Were Christians in Iraq really victims of ethnic cleansing and/or genocide?  “Yes,” replied John Pontifex of the United Kingdom branch of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).  Citing Persecuted and Forgotten?--a 2017 report by the Christian nongovernmental organization—the ACN spokesperson stated that “Christians in Iraq were victims of genocide as defined by the Universal Declaration on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.”

 

According to ACN, the evidence of Islamic State attacks on Christians is consistent with an “intent to destroy in whole or in part the Christian community, and meets all the indicators set out by the convention any one of which is sufficient to be proof of genocide.” 

 

Likewise, genocide researcher and author Ewelina Ochab has no doubt as to the nature of the crimes perpetrated by the Islamic State.  “Christian minorities in Iraq have been subjected to genocide by Daesh,” she acknowledged, noting that the genocide has been recognized by the European Union, several parliaments, and a number of governments.

 

“However,” said Ochab, “no international court, or domestic court, to date, has prosecuted anyone for the crime of genocide perpetrated by Daesh against Christians, Yezidis or other religious minorities in Iraq or elsewhere.”

 

 According to genocide researcher and author Ewelina Ochab, Christians of Iraq were targets of genocide perpetrated by ISIS.

 

Ochab has been to Iraq to collect evidence of the genocide and to interview survivors.  For example, she met with displaced Christians in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region.  She also visited a number of liberated towns and villages that had previously been under ISIS occupation, including Quaragosh, Karamless, and Bartallah.

 

Earlier this year, Ochab and co-author Pieter Omtzigt published an article in the Journal of Genocide Research entitled Bringing Daesh to Justice: What the International Community Can Do.

 

IDPs

 

How many displaced Christians are currently living in northern Iraq?  “The statistics, depending on who you talk to, are a bit conflictual,” replied the Ottawa based Carl Hetu, national director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) Canada. 

 

Hetu said that when ISIS arose in August 2014, approximately 120,000 Christians were forced to flee their homes.  Not only did the Christians vacate the northern city of Mosul, they also ran from the Nineveh Plain, the traditional homeland of ancient Christian communities. 

 

The Christians sought refuge in the Kurdish region, often referred to as Kurdistan.  Four years later, some Christians have returned to their villages on the Nineveh Plain, while others remain in Kurdistan.

 

 CNEWA Canada reports that 120,000 Christians fled their ancestral homes on the Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq in the summer of 2014.

 

After the military defeat of ISIS by an international coalition in the late summer of 2017, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) began to return home in large numbers.  However, the political situation in Iraq remains uncertain, creating additional problems for the Christian IDPs.

 

For example, in Sept. 2017, the Kurds held a referendum on independence from Iraq.  Around that time, approximately 10,000 IDPs returned to their homes, Hetu stated in a telephone interview. 

 

However, military skirmishes between Iraqi and Kurdish forces prompted many of the returning Christians to turn around and go back to Kurdistan, seeking safety.  Therefore, said Hetu, it is difficult to state with certainty how many Christians remain displaced within the country.

 

In addition, some of the IDPs eventually fled the country.  Of the 120,000 displaced Christians, “about 40,000 left Iraq,” Hetu said.  By the CNEWA Canada national director’s estimation, in the past year, about 40,000 of Christian IDPs have returned to their villages.

 

Security situation

 

Aid to the Church in Need has been closely following the plight of Christians on the Nineveh Plain, undertaking hundreds of humanitarian projects in northern Iraq, said Fr. Andrzej Halemba, who serves as director of projects for Aid to the Church in Need in the Middle East.  He is responsible for overseeing humanitarian efforts in 22 countries. 

 

Having met with Christian IDPs in northern Iraq, Fr. Halemba is a position to speak to their concerns.  And he said their top concern is security for their children.  And he found that the Christians, having lost everything, are deeply traumatized and always fear that ISIS could one day return.

 

“The fear is there,” Fr. Halemba said in a telephone interview from Könisgtein-Im-Taunus, Germany, where he was taking part in ACN meetings.  “But their courage is enough and they go back” to the Nineveh Plain,” he added. 

 

However, citing a survey he conducted, Fr. Halemba said that 2,000 families are hesitant to return for a number of reasons, including the damaged condition of their homes.  And some other Christian families are waiting for the school year in Kurdistan to end before returning to their villages on the Nineveh Plain.

 

Forced to struggle to survive in Erbil, Fr. Halemba said that many of the displaced Christians felt bitter and betrayed by the Government of Iraq, which offered them no assistance.  They also complained that they did not receive adequate assistance from the Kurdish government.  And they felt betrayed by their Muslim neighbours in northern Iraq.

 

What is the current security situation for Christians in northern Iraq?  “The security situation has improved but there are still major concerns,” replied Aid to the Church in Need’s John Pontifex.  “ACN staff visiting the region have had reported to them that Daesh militants are still in the region but have ‘melted into the background’, abandoning their religious dress and shaving off their long beards etc.”

 

  Aid to the Church in Need reports that Christians in northern Iraq still find themselves in a precarious position, as tensions between between the Iraqi government and Kurdistan threaten to escalate. 

 

Nevertheless, Christians still find themselves in a precarious position in northern Iraq.  Pontifex explained that “the Nineveh region straddles the disputed border between federal Iraq and the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan and conflict erupted in the area a year ago when the Kurdistan government held a referendum on independence in September 2017.”

 

According to Ewelina Ochab, reconstruction of Christian communities in northern Iraq is ongoing.  Citing the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, she stated that over 40% of damaged houses have been restored. 

 

“This allowed over 45% of families to return to Nineveh Plains. Of course, there is still a long way to go” said Ochab, author of Never Again: Legal Responses to a Broken Promise in the Middle East.

 

According to Pontifex, “about 45,000 Christians have now returned from displacement in Kurdish northern Iraq--mostly Erbil, the capital--to Nineveh.”  And he said that “this equates to about 8,000 families, which is the figure Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil gave to a delegation from Aid to the Church in Need who visited the region about a month ago.”

 

However, Pontifex reports that “very few families have returned to Mosul, which is still considered unsafe.”

 

According to Monica Ratra, a representative of Open Doors Canada, a Christian NGO that advocates on behalf of persecuted Christians around the globe, “the situation of Christians in Kurdistan is reasonably stable but this is not yet the case in Mosul and Nineveh Plain.”

 

For example, Ratra stated in an email that Christians from Mosul remain “highly apprehensive of their Muslim neighbours whom they suspect of having been complicit” in the Islamic State occupation of the city and in the expulsion of Christians.  “Until that concern is addressed, the Christians will not return,” she said.

 

According to CNEWA’s Carl Hetu, some displaced Christians have attempted to return to their homes in Mosul only to find that their houses have been confiscated “by their neighbours and they refuse to give them back.”  He estimates that about 350 homes “that belong legally to Christians are still in the hands of local Muslims that refuse to give them back.”

 

“Of course, those Christian families cannot go back to their homes,” he added.

 

Similarly, the Barnabas Fund, a United Kingdom-based charity that assists persecuted Christians around the world, alleges that hundreds of Christian homes on the Nineveh Plain are being occupied and/or have been seized by Muslims.  Referring to an Iraqi news report, the Christian NGO claims that “properties have been transferred under false names and sold.” 

 

In addition, the Barnabas Fund website states that “many Christian properties had already been seized by Islamic State terrorists when they overran Mosul and the Nineveh Plains in 2014.”

 

The Barnabas Fund acknowledges that the Iraqi government is either rebuilding or restoring churches that were targeted by ISIS during the three year occupation of Nineveh.  “Around 40 churches were damaged and 15 destroyed,” according to the NGO’s website.  “But even if Christians brave enough to return have a place to worship, many no longer have a home to go back to.”

 

 Many Christian homes on Nineveh Plain were damaged or destroyed during the ISIS occupation.  Photo credit:  Ewelina Ochab.

 

Other displaced Christians have returned to their villages and towns only to find that they have been badly damaged by ISIS, making them uninhabitable.  And they have no choice but to go back to the Kurdistan region. 

 

One of the programs Aid to the Church in Need has undertaken, in conjunction with other humanitarian organizations, is the restoration of Christian homes on the Nineveh Plain. 

 

According to Monica Ratra, “Christians have recently faced harassment from Kurds.”  And she reports that “Kurdish authorities and citizens have been involved in the so-called demographic engineering policies or 'Kurdification' for the Nineveh Plain and other parts of Kurdistan.”  This process involves the purchase or confiscation of Christian lands, “thus, changing the identity of historic Christian enclaves/villages, resulting in the emptying of Iraq from its Christian minority.”

 

Some Christians have returned to the city of Quarosh, which was not too badly damaged, Hetu said.  And he noted that some Christians returned to their villages to find them undamaged.

 

However, Open Doors Canada reports that “Christians can also face harassment and attacks from Shia militias.”  For example, the human rights group alleges that Christian women in Qaraqosh were sexually harassed by Shia militias.

 

“So what we see happening right now, is about 40,000 Iraqi Christians out of the 120,000 are still in the Kurdistan, and they do not intend to go back to their villages,” Hetu stated.

 

Of the returning Christian IDPs, approximately 25,650 Christians “have returned to Qaraqosh, the largest Christian town in the Nineveh region,” Pontifex said.  “This represents 46 percent of the total number living there before the 2014 invasion by Daesh.”

 

The ACN representative reports that some Christians are staying on in Erbil.  According to Pontifex, these Christians have “integrated well” into Kurdish society, having secured jobs and learned to speak Kurdish, “a very different language to their native Arabic.”

 

In addition, he reports that many of the displaced Christians “have made that transition from living in Nineveh, which is a rural district with an emphasis on farming etc., and have now become town dwellers, working in shops and offices.”

 

Culture shock

 

What impact has the displacement of Christians had on their culture?  “Enormous,” replied Fr. Halemba.  The Christians had lived in small villages in rural areas before they had to flee for their lives and seek safe haven in Erbil, which is a significant urban centre.  And this has induced culture shock in the IDPs.

 

“When you are from the village and are suddenly in the big town, like Erbil, you are exposed to new facilities,” explained the priest.  In particular, the young people are exposed to a much more exciting new life in the urban centre.

 

“The women who are dressed traditionally in Quaragosh, they couldn’t dress the same way in Erbil,” Fr. Halemba stated.  So the women had to take on a new identity, as well.

 

From cinemas to shops, the displaced Christians experienced a new way of living that was very different from their traditional way of life.  “And some of them wanted to stay” in the urban centres, Fr. Halemba said, echoing Pontifex.

 

“If you find a job in town, you’d be very much reluctant to go back to your village,” said the priest.  “For some people, they stay in Erbil or Dohuk.”

 

Christmas 2018

 

“Right now as we are leading toward Christmas, there are contested areas, particularly in the Nineveh Plain,” warned CNEWA Canada’s Carl Hetu.  “The border between the Kurdistan province and the Iraqi state is right through many Iraqi Christian villages.”  And he said that the Kurds are trying to buy up lands that the Christians fled in 2014.  “And the same thing is happening with the Shia-led government who is trying to buy all the land,” he added.

 

“So the Christians are stuck in-between, because they are under the gun,” Hetu said of the land dispute that is gripping the Nineveh Plain.  “And that’s why right now, many are not going back to their villages, because the fear of more conflict between the Kurds and the state of Iraq.”

 

According to CNEWA Canada, there is a small Christian minority in Baghdad.  “And they are going to be very quiet at Christmas, because they don’t want to attract any attention from anybody,” Hetu said.

 

 “I can tell you that it will be a joyful, joyful Christmas for them despite the difficulties,” Fr. Halemba said of Iraqi Christians returning to the Nineveh Plain.

 

But it will be a different story in the Kurdish region, where Christians will celebrate a pleasant Christmas.  “That might be the only place in Iraq, where the Christians will live a normal Christmas,” Hetu said.  “Everywhere else is going to be a pretty timid Christmas.”

 

“We should not forget that these people treasure their culture and religion and ceremonies,” Fr. Halemba explained.  And they want to return to their churches to celebrate Christmas.  And ACN and other organizations have helped to renovate some churches on the Nineveh Plain, he said.

 

“I can tell you that it will be a joyful, joyful Christmas for them despite the difficulties” Fr. Halemba declared.

 

Christmas and beyond

 

What must the community of nations do to ensure that the ancient Christian community survives in Iraq?  “Apart from reconstruction, the international community needs to put more pressure on the Iraqi government to ensure that the rights of Iraqi Christian minorities, and of other religious minorities, are adequately protected by law and also adequately implemented,” replied Ewelina Ochab.

 

The genocide expert said that she has been advocating, in concert with Aid to the Church in Need, for the establishment of “a new mechanism of a Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief or on Minority Rights to be an independent arbiter on the situation of religious minorities in Iraq and to address any issues that need to be resolved.”

 

Meanwhile, CNEWA Canada is calling for diplomatic efforts from the United Nations, Canada, Europe, and others to work closely with the Iraqi government to settle the ongoing land disputes as well as the political and ethnic power struggles.  According to Hetu, using diplomacy and dialogue to help make Iraq a prosperous and peaceful country “is the only way for Christians to survive in Iraq.”

 

If there are more wars in Iraq, the remaining Christians will leave, Hetu warned.  “They are totally vulnerable and unprotected.”

 

In addition, Christians in Iraq need financial assistance to help them rebuild their homes and shops and infrastructure.  Hetu praised the government of Hungary for providing aid to Iraqi Christians.  “We need things like that from our own government,” he said of Canada. 

 

“There is nothing wrong with helping Christians,” Hetu continued.  “On the contrary, the Christians have been a major contributor to the social life of Iraq over the centuries.  So, it is already a big loss that they are gone.  So the idea is that financial aid will help Christians to remain.”

 

Joy to the world

 

Will Christians in Iraq celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ this year?  “They will,” answered John Pontifex.  “The churches in Nineveh – many of them still awaiting repair – are likely to be packed.”

 

 Many of the churches on the Nineveh Plain damaged during the ISIS occupation are in need of restoration.  Photo credit:  Ewelina Ochab.

 

This Christmas, Aid to the Church in Need will provide Christmas presents for the Christian children.  And Pontifex said that “celebrations are likely to be more pronounced because for many it’s their first Christmas back home.”

 

Christmas 2017 marked the first time in four years that Christmas mass was celebrated in Mosul.  “Heavy security was needed,” observed Pontifex.  “More Christmas services are expected in Mosul this year.”

 

Open Doors Canada’s Monica Ratra agrees that Iraqi Christians will celebrate Christmas.  “They will, indeed.”  And she points out that “Christmas is an important day for all denominations.”

 

In northern Iraq, continued Ratra, some of the churches destroyed by the Islamic State have been restored, “and Christians are getting ready to celebrate their return home this Christmas.”  In fact, Open Doors has helped to restore over 1,000 Christian homes in Qaraqosh and other Christian towns. 

 

What assistance is CNEWA delivering to Iraqi Christians this Christmas?  “For us, it’s an ongoing thing, over the last several years,” Carl Hetu said of the Catholic charity’s efforts in Iraq.  “Our approach is always threefold.”

 

First, CNEWA provides basic humanitarian assistance for displaced Christians living in Erbil, where families dwell in portable shelters that resemble shipping containers.  “We’re still helping those families with basic necessities,” said the CNEWA Canada leader.

 

Many of the Christian IDPs have health problems, so CNEWA also offers health services--via mobile health clinics.

 

Second, the displaced children require education.  “We have helped and contributed over the last several years to make sure that the Christian kids and the Yezidi kids and others will go to school regularly on a daily level, to have a sense of normalcy, despite the fact that they live in camps.”

 

Now that some Christians are returning home, CNEWA has transferred some of those assistance programs to villages on the Nineveh Plain, including education and health care services.

 

Third, CNEWA provides pastoral support for Iraqi Christians, helping to nourish their faith by providing programs for children and laypeople. 

 

Over the last four decades, CNEWA’s approach has been to help the Christians to take their place within Iraqi society.

 

“Aid to the Church in Need’s main work in Iraq has been to provide emergency help – food, medicine, shelter – to families in displacement in Erbil and elsewhere in Kurdish northern Iraq,” explained John Pontifex.  “Now, 45 percent of families are back in the ancient Nineveh towns and villages following the expulsion of Daesh (ISIS) and ACN is repairing burnt houses and desecrated churches, orphanages, convents, parish halls and other vital buildings.”

 

“We are providing Mass stipends for priests and support for Sisters such as those with whom the Prince of Wales has met, including Sr. Nazek Matty, who gave her testimony at the service last week and who is now back in Qaraqosh, the largest Christian town in Nineveh,” said Pontifex.

 

Declining Christian population

 

 “Since 2003, the Christians have lived a great ordeal, because of the great instability in Iraq,” Hetu said of the turmoil that ensued after a U.S.-led invasion deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.  “They’ve been left without protection” from al Qaida, criminal gangs, and Muslims, Hetu said of the Christians of Iraq.  “Nobody would defend them,” he added.

 

“Most of them left Iraq.  Many are still stranded in Jordan and in Lebanon.  But most of them are all over the world, and one of the places they came was Canada.”

 

In all of Iraq, there are about 250,000 left in Iraq by CNEWA’s calculation.  “In 2014, about half of that number were displaced,” Hetu said for emphasis.

 

However, Aid to the Church in Need reports that fewer than 200,000 Christians remain in Iraq.  John Pontifex concedes that “exact figures are difficult to obtain, at least in part because of so many are displaced and therefore difficult to account for.”

 

How many more years will Christians celebrate Christmas in Iraq?  Do they have a future in Iraq?  “I believe they were going through difficulties over the centuries,” answered Fr. Halemba.  “And we should not forget the Nineveh Plain is the place where the blood of Christians was spilled many times over.  It’s not the first time, it’s not the last time, probably.”

 

Yet the Christian community has always managed to survive, the priest added.  Although some Christians will leave Iraq, “definitely there will be a community that stays there.”

 

Fr. Halemba recalled meeting an Iraqi Christian businessman who told him that thugs had beaten him up three times and demanded that he leave Iraq.  But the businessman told the thugs:  ‘No, you can kill me, but I’m not leaving Iraq.'  And that is an example of the Christian determination to remain in Iraq, the priest said.

 

In order to stay in Iraq, Christians need physical security.  But they also need economic opportunities.  “They don’t want to be beggars,” Fr. Halemba said of the Christians.  “They want to work in the fields, in the shops.  And they need help to revive what they had before.”

 

 Rebuilding and restoring damaged Christian infrastructure on the Nineveh Plain is "a mammoth task", according to Fr. Halemba. Photo credit:  Ewelina Ochab.

 

The priest appeals to international organizations to help with the renovations of Christian homes.  And he also appeals for international assistance with education for the Christians and other minority communities.  “Through education, we can bridge the groups who are divided,” he said.

 

Finally, he appeals to the community of nations for small economic development projects, loans and grants, to help the Christians get back on their feet.

 

“Definitely, it’s a mammoth task,” Fr. Halemba said of efforts to restore the Christian community.

 

Ensuring the future

 

Are there potential threats that could put the Christians at risk again?  “I do believe that there is such a risk,” replied genocide researcher Ewelina Ochab. 

 

“Daesh was the extreme manifestation of the problems that religious minorities in Iraq have been subjected to for many years,” she continued.  “However, the terror group was not the only problem. Indeed, even before the Daesh's genocidal campaign, it was known and well reported that Christian minorities in Iraq were not safe.”

 

Ochab said that Sunni groups targeted Christians and churches.  And she said that “it was known and well-reported that Iraqi Christians were subjected to threats, kidnappings, attacks on their homes and assassination even in 2011, 2012.” 

 

In addition, the genocide researcher said that “authorities in central and southern Iraq were unable to provide effective protection for Christians and other religious minorities.”

 

It is important to address these issues head on.  “These are the issues that need to be scrutinized and addressed. It is not enough to kill, catch and prosecute Daesh fighters and talk about the future for minorities in Iraq, as the issues are more deeply rooted,” Ochab said. 

 

“Only by addressing all challenges that Christians minorities, and other religious minorities, faced in Iraq over the years, and especially since 2003, will it be possible to ensure future for religious minorities in Iraq.”

 

Geoffrey P. Johnston is an independent Canadian journalist.  He specializes in international affairs, human rights, humanitarian crises, and international religious freedom.  Follow him on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston

 

Note:  This article was updated on Dec. 19, 2018.

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