Just when a glimmer of hope was beginning to emerge for the battered and bruised Christians of Iraq who have suffered so much over the past three years, a new crisis has emerged. It may be the final blow for their future in a country they have occupied since the time of the Apostles.
Driven from their towns and villages at the hands of ISIS — only the latest and certainly not the last manifestation of the centuries-long persecution of native Christians by Islamist terror — Christians were slowly starting to believe they might return.
The vast majority are still in exile as “IDPs,” or internally displaced persons, mainly in the Kurdish city of Erbil. With the defeat of the Caliphate, it was hoped that Christians, and other religious minorities targeted by the Islamists, notably the Yazidis, could return to their ancestral homes. (Important distinction: While the physical Islamic State may be in retreat, both the ideology and many of the population who supported ISIS are far from defeat.)
Many Christians are still fearful for two principal reasons: They have no one to protect them, and they fear their neighbors, who sided with ISIS and betrayed them. Adding to this is the reality that many of their houses are destroyed or burned, littered with IEDs — and there is no water, electricity, or other infrastructure. It becomes clear why many of the Christians I have spoken to during my visits since 2015 wish to leave Iraq and live in freedom, many hoping for a welcome from President Donald Trump.
However, the desire to live in the land of their ancestors since biblical times still burns strongly in the hearts of these Christians — people who have stayed through the bloodshed unleashed by the fall of Saddam Hussein, which culminated in the genocide perpetrated by ISIS. However, a suffering people can only take so many blows to their hope — as Scripture says, “a people without hope perish.”
The latest blow, and perhaps the final one, was the reaction to the referendum in Kurdistan on independence from Iraq, which took place last week. Immediately, Turkey and Iran imposed an effective blockade on landlocked Kurdistan — and the Iraqi central government in Baghdad (which is virtually a proxy of Iran) closed the airport in Erbil to all international flights. I was due to be there visiting with the Christian community last Friday — but could not get into Erbil.
So serious is the situation that, in a dramatic move, five of the most senior Catholic and Orthodox bishops in the region (among them the Catholic Archbishop of Erbil and the Orthodox Archbishop of Mosul, himself a refugee) issued a powerful statement this week.
They appealed to the international community to help them, an appeal they have made many times before, and they asked for protection. The bishops stated the referendum had created in the Christian population a “state of fear” — extraordinary words for a community that has experienced so much horror already.
The bishops described their flock as a “vulnerable community.” This is almost an understatement for a population that was once more than two million and now numbers less than 200,000 Christians in the whole of Iraq.
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A particular focus for the bishops’ concern, and a key to any future for the Christians in the region, is the status of the Nineveh Plains. Unfortunately, this is an area of contention with the Kurdish authorities who, as the bishops have said, “received us and supported our displaced persons.”
As one Catholic priest said to me, “[We] are totally weak, with no one to defend us.”
The Nineveh Plains, and other areas known as the “disputed territories,” are being claimed by the Kurds as their territory. Yet they have never been Kurdish. As one resident of a Christian town said to me, “If it’s Kurdish, where are the Kurdish cemeteries?”
The Iraqi central government has no intention of relinquishing the Nineveh Plains. And their allies in Iran are quickly establishing a presence in the area, reinforcing their plans for a “Shia crescent” from Tehran to the shores of the Mediterranean in Lebanon.
In the middle of this land grab and the jostling for power between opposing forces are the “little flock” of Christians, the ancient residents of the Nineveh Plains.
They are, as one Syriac Catholic priest said to me, “totally weak, with no one to defend us.”
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Why is the U.S. government continuing the failed policies of the Obama administration? Why is the Trump administration allowing Iran to grow ever stronger in the region because of a commitment to the state of Iraq — which no longer in reality exists?
The Christian population — which the bishops fear will all eventually leave due to the uncertainty and will not get (unless by a miracle) a “protected region” in the Nineveh Plains — may have to adjust to the realpolitik of a Kurdish State. But the U.S. should work with real allies, not with barely disguised enemies.
Unless the U.S. dramatically intervenes, we might witness the death of Christianity in Iraq on President Trump’s watch. Vice President Mike Pence said at a conference this past May that President Trump was committed to “defending Christians.” For the little flock of Christians in Iraq surrounded by so many wolves, that promise is starting to sound a little hollow.