An uphill struggle for Iraq’s Christians
IN THEORY, this year should have been a time when the fortunes of Iraq’s Christian community, one of world’s most beleaguered religious minorities, at last changed for the better. Instead, say members of the community and people supporting them, it is proving to be a time of agonising dilemmas.
The number of Christians in Iraq has plunged from perhaps 1.3m before the 2003 war to barely 250,000 now, and the great majority of those who remain are living in the relative safety of the country’s Kurdish-controlled north. At least 100,000 had to flee their homes and seek Kurdish protection in 2014 after Islamic State (IS) swept through their ancestral lands. But last year quite a lot of that territory, including some historically Christian towns, was wrested from IS control. A protracted, bloody struggle for control of Mosul, the regional capital, is grinding on (see article), but hard-pressed religious minorities hope and assume that IS will eventually be driven out. All that creates the possibility at least of a collective return.
But to put it mildly, that won’t be easy or cheap. At least 12,000 displaced Christian families are being supported in temporary accommodation by religious charities, mostly in Ainkawa, a Christian district in the city of Erbil. A survey published this week by Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic charity, found that nearly 90% of these displaced people were interested in going back and 40% were keen to return as soon as possible. But the same study, which looked at 12 mainly Christian towns and villages, found that nearly 12,000 homes had been damaged and 700 destroyed completely. The cost of repairing the damage could exceed $200m. Recent images of the once-flourishing Christian town of Qaraqosh, recaptured six months ago, show scenes resembling an uninhabitable ruin.
Stephen Rasche, an adviser to the Catholic archdiocese of Erbil, said in London last week that another problem was looming: a real risk of humanitarian assistance to the temporary residents of Erbil running out. If that happens, a long and costly effort to keep some Christians in their ancestral lands, and give them hope of living sustainably, may collapse, triggering a fresh and perhaps final surge of emigration.
But Iraqi Christians and their international supporters, including an upwardly mobile and industrious diaspora, are persisting. Bashar Warda, the Catholic archbishop of Erbil, told a visiting journalist earlier this month that among his people there was a strong determination to return and make a viable living in their traditional homelands. The first priority, he said, was ensuring adequate material conditions; fixing places of worship, however culturally important, could come later:
The vision we have is this: first houses, proper shelter, public services, and then we will think of churches. If you have nice churches without people, what will you do with those churches? First I think we should have…faithful people, then they will take care of the churches. We don’t have to worry about that [now]….
As an example of a modest success story, the archbishop cited the village of Telskuf were 120 families had returned and were busy renovating their homes with help from the church and other agencies.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that prospects for Christians returning look somewhat brighter in localities that were recaptured from IS by Kurdish forces and much less good in settlements where IS was driven out by the Iraqi army in co-operation with often-chaotic mixtures of militias.
And that in turn raises an awkward question. Iraq’s Christians, in the north and elsewhere, used to be connected to their Arab Muslim neighbours through a dense and well-established network of relationships. But since the advances of IS in 2014, those relationships of trust have disintegrated, and won’t be easy to reconstitute. By contrast, ties between Christians and their Kurdish protectors have grown closer. Some may conclude that if there is any future at all for Christians in Iraq, it is exclusively under Kurdish administration in the far north.
But Martin Manna, director of the Michigan-based Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce and an influential figure in Iraq’s Christian diaspora, says his members won’t give up on Iraq proper. They will continue to lobby for better treatment by Iraq’s central government, even though once-strong Christian communities in Baghdad and Basra have dwindled to near-extinction. In co-operation with Christian groups inside Iraq, the diaspora would support the idea of the Nineveh Plain, the area adjacent to Mosul, becoming a separate province, safe for religious minorities. They would also criticise moves by Baghdad which hurt Christians, such as a law demanding that the children of interfaith marriages be Muslim.
But the immediate task, Mr Manna acknowledges, is reconstruction in the north: working with the local churches and humanitarian agencies to fund and rebuild the areas trashed by IS. Given that he speaks for nearly 4,000 Iraqi-American entrepreneurs, from supermarket-owners to real-estate brokers, that doesn’t seem completely unrealistic. Whether they live in Detroit or Erbil, religious communities that have survived for nearly 2,000 years can draw on some powerful reserves of tenacity and energy, and they will need every drop.