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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