Iraqi priest: “Bartella is the epicenter”, but threats also involve Karamles and Qaraqosh. A “demographic distortion” plan is underway, orchestrated by Shiite leaders and supporters in Baghdad. The Iraqi Church rejects armed response and continues in dialogue. We need an institutional police force open to Christians too.
Karamles (AsiaNews) – There is no peace for Christians in northern Iraq. If, on the one hand, the memory of the violence perpetrated by Islamic State jihadists (SI, ex Isis) is still alive, in recent weeks another threat is shadowing the future of the community: the Shiite militias linked to the Shabak, who are in fact hindering Christians return to the Nineveh plain.
The epicenter of this new chapter of anti-Christian persecution is Bartella, increasingly drapped with banners depicting the militia battles against Isis as well as saints and sacred figures of the Shiite tradition.
“Bartella is a problem, a special case”, says Paolo Thabit Mekko, head of the Christian community in Karamles, speaking to AsiaNews. “In recent years – he continues – the presence of Shabak has increased dramatically and Christians are afraid to return. At least 600 families who have fled in the IS era are still in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, and have no prospect of return at the moment. There is a real demographic upheaval in the city, which began in 2003 after the US invasion and which has accelerated in the last period “.
The presence of local Shiite militias, adds Don Paolo, “creates unease and the prospects for the future arouse anger and concern”. The priest sees a behind-the-scenes attempt to “change the demographics of the area”, according to some a “design” orchestrated by the Shiite leadership and maneuvered from the outside, with the complicity of a part “of the Shabak politicians and exponents in Baghdad who support them “.
Until 30 years ago, the population of Bartella was entirely Christian. The demographic changes of the last decades have turned the composition upside down, ending up dividing it in half between Christians and Shabak, a largely Shiite Muslim ethnic group. When the Islamic State (SI, former Isis) conquered much of northern Iraq, including the Nineveh Plain, the entire population of Bartella left the area due to persecution by Sunni radicals.
Today, two years after the ousting of the “Caliphate” jihadists, less than a third of the original 3800 families that populated the town have returned. Most of them are still in exile and there is fear of returning due to persecution, threats and intimidation perpetrated by some members of the Shabak community, which presides over the Shiite militias that control the area.
Following the expulsion of Isis, confessional divisions, militias and armed groups are emerging with increasing strength, trying to get hold of growing sections of territory in northern Iraq, above all in the plain of Nineveh, which was once almost entirely Christian. Qusay Abbas, a member of the Shabaks in Parliament, said the attacks were the work of a small, unrepresentative minority.
But the stories (and complaints) from Bartella and other towns in the area tell another truth: That the Shiite militias are trying – most of the time by force – to eliminate the Christian component. In fact the cases of sexual attacks, thefts, threats and violence against private individuals is becoming more and more frequent. Recently, an ethnic Shabak man fired bullets in the air for over an hour in front of a church in the town.
“What is happening to Bartella – underlines Don Paolo – is repeated, albeit to a lesser extent, in other areas of the plain such as Karamles and Qaraqosh. We are facing a movement that seeks to expand “.
“A council of the sages of the Nineveh plain – he continues – which includes Christians, Arabs, shabaks has initiated dialogue and is trying to resolve the situation. Unfortunately there are no official agreements and there is no way to apply the rare agreements between the parties “.
In this context the Iraqi Church remains firm on the refusal to create a Christian armed militia and strengthens the initiatives of meeting and confrontation. “The situation remains delicate – concludes the priest – and Christians are afraid. One of the solutions that can be followed, and which we hope, is the establishment of an official, institutional police force, within which Christians can also contribute to enlisting the protection of law and order”.