John L. Allen Jr.
Christian children prayed during Mass at the St. Joseph Cathedral in Ankawa, Erbil, in northern Iraq last December. (Credit: AP Photo/Bram Janssen.)
A recent independence vote in Kurdistan has created the threat of new conflict in northern Iraq, and raised questions about whether this is the right time to be trying to rebuild the Christian presence in the Nineveh Plains. Ask Middle East Christians that question, however, and they’ll reply, ‘When exactly would the right time be?’
ROME – Fair warning: This isn’t exactly the most original insight you’re likely to stumble across in your Sunday reading. However, it bears saying out loud anyway, because it has immediate consequences for one of the world’s most creative and systematic efforts to aid suffering Christians. If the project succeeds, there’s new hope everywhere; if it tanks, well, you don’t need me to spell out what that would mean.
The insight is this: The psychology of people who live amid war and chaos all the time, as opposed to those who don’t, is quite different.
The effort I’m referring to is the Nineveh Plains Reconstruction Project, a joint project of the three major Christian churches in northern Iraq – the Chaldean Catholic church, the Syriac Catholic church and the Syriac Orthodox church – to rebuild a series of historically Christian villages and towns in the region.
Sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need and backed by a variety of public and private actors, including the government of Hungary and the Knights of Columbus, the idea is to try to help roughly 100,000 Christians driven from their homes in the Nineveh Plains by ISIS in 2014 to rebuild their lives, thereby preserving the Christian presence in the region.
So far, enough rebuilding has been carried out to allow roughly 17 percent of those displaced Christians to go home, and Aid to the Church in Need has launched an ambitious “Marshall Plan” to get the rest of the work done and to help rebuild the communities in which those returning Christians hope to put down roots. They’re trying to raise $250 million for it, hoping some of that total will come from the $1.4 billion in the 2018 U.S. budget earmarked for support of genocide victims in Iraq and Syria.
It’s a creative, serious undertaking, and on Thursday organizers and sponsors gathered at Rome’s Lateran University to present it to the world. The event drew high-level Vatican backing, including the presence of Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State; Italian Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, the president of Aid to the Church in Need; and Archbishop Alberto Ortega Martin, the papal ambassador in Iraq.
I covered the event, and Crux is planning to travel to the Nineveh Plains in the near future to try to capture the stories of some of these Christians struggling to come home. On Thursday, I brought one key question to the people I met: What’s the impact of the Sept. 25th independence vote in Kurdistan going to be on your ability to get this done?
RELATED: Kurdish vote won’t slow push to help Nineveh Christians, organizers say
Some 93 percent of Kurds voted to separate from Iraq, leading to closed borders and airports and threats of crippling oil pipeline shutdowns by Turkey, and raising the specter of new conflict in precisely the area where the reconstruction project is going on. (The Nineveh Plains overlap the border between Iraq and Kurdish-controlled territory, with some villages and towns on one side of the line and some on the other.)
My practical, American instinct was two-fold:
If borders are closed and relations between Iraq and Kurdistan unravel, then logistically, how can the project go forward? How do you get materials and personnel back and forth, how can you guarantee that work conditions will be secure, and how do you know that whatever you rebuild today won’t just be knocked down again tomorrow?
If the shadow of new conflict hangs over the Nineveh Plains, how do you persuade Christians to come back in the first place? Why would they? (As another American attending the event put it to me afterwards, “I don’t know about this thing … would you put your wife and kids in that place?”)
Mainly, what I picked up in response was that the questions reveal I just don’t quite get the Middle East.
One participant, for instance, told me that he’d just come from a meeting in which Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako of Baghdad was asked what the uncertainty means. In reply, Sako told the group that he’s 69 years old, and he’s only known nine years of peace in his life. A cleric from the region got up to say he’s only 41, and he hasn’t known peace at all – during every one of those 41 years, his life has been defined by some form of violent conflict.
The clear message was that in the Middle East, if you sit around and wait for the “right moment” to try to get something done, the most likely result is that you’ll never do anything.
Sarkis Boghjalian, executive director of Aid to the Church in Need, broke it down for me.
Boghjalian, an Armenian, told me that my question about the impact of the Kurdish vote on the viability of the reconstruction effort is perfectly legitimate, but at the same time, he told me, I have to accept that it’s going to seem puzzling and almost silly to most of the people to whom I was directing it.
The Christians of the Middle East, he said, have learned to accept that they live on the brink of chaos pretty much all the time, and they’ve become extraordinarily artful about getting things done anyway. To them, asking if we should wait for guarantees of peace and stability before moving forward is almost as ridiculous as asking an American contractor if construction shouldn’t be delayed until the law of gravity is suspended, so workers can simply float to the upper floors of their site.
Bottom line: The threat of war, of things falling part, is normality in the Middle East. If you can’t work under those conditions, then you can’t work at all.
Of course, nobody’s in denial about what the worst-case scenario, which is the outbreak of a regional war, would mean.
“If there’s major conflict, that’s the end for the Christians there. They won’t wait around to see this movie one more time,” said Stephen Rasche, a counselor to the Archdiocese of Erbil who serves as coordinator of the reconstruction effort.
However, pretty much everyone agrees that living with the prospect of worst-case scenarios is just the price of doing business in this part of the world, and one can’t be paralyzed by them. As a result, the Nineveh Plains Reconstruction Project is moving full-steam ahead, and it’s doing it right now.
The American in me, I suppose, still can’t help wondering if the conditions are right. My Christian side, however, will be praying hard that it doesn’t matter.