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Persecuted Iraqi Christians returning to damaged villages to celebrate Christmas


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.