Father Benham Benoka (Edward Pentin photo)
A Syriac Catholic priest in the Northern Iraqi town of Bartella tells the Register of recent efforts to threaten Christians so they leave the region, and why security, jobs and a greater Christian presence are needed there more than ever.
Although ISIS have, at least visibly, been driven out of Iraq, the country’s Christians continue to be intimidated by Muslim militants who would rather Christians quit Iraq, even though the Church there dates back to the first century.
A clear example of this was seen two weeks ago when Shabak militia, a mainly Shia Muslim militant group, fired shots into the air around the Catholic church in the once predominantly Christian town of Bartella on the Nineveh Plain, about 15 miles east of Mosul.
When the town’s Syriac Catholic priest, Father Benham Benoka, told them to stop, a militiaman held a gun to his face and threatened him. No local authorities came to Father Benoka’s or the Church’s aid, despite such use of firearms being illegal in Iraq.
Earlier this year, I traveled with Father Benedict Kiely, founder of the charity Nasarean.org for persecuted Christians, to Bartella and met Father Benoka who told us then that the Shabak, being supported by the Iraqi government, had been able to buy up once-Christian owned properties and now dominated the town.
“We’re completely vulnerable,” Father Benoka told us. “What’s going to happen in the future? Who can guarantee us a permanent presence here on the Nineveh Plains? Who can guarantee peace and security?”
But now the situation appears to have worsened. In this Dec. 18 phone interview with the Register, Father Benoka explained the increasingly precarious situation facing Christians there, that Christian emigrants from Iraq will never return while such insecurity continues, and that many Iraqi Muslims are intent on making sure they won’t. “Every single Christian thinks Christians have no rights as citizens of this country,” he said. But he welcomed the Trump administration’s recent help for Iraqi Christians, saying it is better late than never.
Father Benoka, what kind of intimidation are you and other Christians facing in Bartella?
The problem is that the Shabak, especially the members of the Popular Mobilization Forces, are not controlled in the region. Nobody can control them, not even governmental bodies in Bartella, nor the mayor of the city. So when they have the opportunity, they shoot their guns into the sky beside our Catholic church in Bartella. That happened two weeks ago. I called everyone in the city — the mayor, the police, security. The same happened in Qaraqosh and Mosul, too, but nobody was able to control or stop the shooting. Then these people started threatening me and the people of my church. When we tried to ask them to stop shooting, they didn’t. Up to this day, no one has been able to tell me the names of those who were shooting. Not just men but also women were shooting.
So this is a form of intimidation: shooting around the church?
And what do they want from that?
When I asked them why they were shooting, they just said they were celebrating. When they are happy, they celebrate in this way. But in Iraq, this kind of shooting is forbidden by law but I’m wondering why the police didn’t respond or stop them. They also went shooting in Qaraqosh but no one was able to stop them there, either. When some security officers tried to stop them, they threatened them by saying they would go to their security office and kill them.
Do you think the police didn’t come because the militiamen were just celebrating, they didn’t see them as a threat against you?
They pretend this is the case, but now everyone is asking that if the government won’t protect us, who will? If the government or the local government are not able to protect us, because the PMF belongs to the government, or someone else doesn’t protect us, then it would be better to flee the country.
The problem is that the Shabak are not controlled, and no one is able to control them. Now we Christians and the churches in our cities are not able to protect ourselves, and the government isn’t able to protect us, either.
Do you see them as potentially as dangerous as ISIS in their threat to the Christians?
You know, ISIS were Muslims and these guys are Muslims. ISIS were Sunni, these people are Shia, but all are Muslims. Everybody hates the Church, everybody hates Christians, and want them out of their historical places.
So they intimidate you to get you out?
Yes, for sure this kind of intimidatory behavior will make our people afraid, and then they will start thinking of leaving the city. All of us have started asking ourselves, “Who will be able to protect us if the government won’t?” Also no Christian, even the Church, can take legal action against such persons.
So there’s basically a kind of lawlessness there?
Yes, every single Christian thinks Christians have no rights as citizens of this country.
What could be done to improve the situation?
Christian cities like Bartella are not governed by Christians but by Muslims, so firstly, we want to govern our cities with Christian people. Secondly, we have to have Christian police nearby so they can protect us. Now, all the soldiers, the police, are Muslims and are not able to protect us. The third thing is the demographic shift. This is terrible here in our cities, especially in Bartella. The power is in the hands of the Shabak and the Muslims, and we have no rights in our cities. This is how they’re trying to change the demographics in the city.
Are Christians who left in 2014 when ISIS invaded nevertheless coming back?
Yes we have 1,250 Christian families who have come back to Bartella but the others are still living in Kurdistan because of this issue: first security, second the demographic shift, and third, a lack of jobs.
How many Christians who used to live there continue to live outside Bartella?
We have more than 500 families still living in Kurdistan.
What’s your reaction to President Trump signing Dec. 11 the Iraq and Syria Genocide and Relief Accountability Act which clears the way for aid to reach Christians and minorities in Iraq?
We think that’s the right decision. It should have happened a little sooner, but we understand that maybe they couldn’t do it before now. Now everyone has to work in order to bring to full rights to Christians and Yazidis as normal citizens of the country. Secondly, to help Christians and Yazidis to live in the country, and thirdly, we have to govern our cities ourselves. Why have non -Christians govern a Christian city?
See also Father Kiely’s Dec. 18 report on the current situation in Iraq.
The Chaldean Patriarchate announced Dec. 18 that the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, will be celebrating Christmas in Iraq, from Dec. 24 to 28.
In Baghdad, Cardinal Parolin will meet representatives of the government and the Cardinal Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, Raphael Louis Sako.
While there he will visit the Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation where dozens of worshipers and two priests were slaughtered by a terrorist commando in 2010.
On Dec. 26, Cardinal Parolin will travel to Erbil where he will meet representatives of the government of the autonomous province of Iraqi Kurdistan. While there, he will visit the Syriac Catholic Patriarch, Igniatus Yousef III Yonan, and celebrate a Mass in Qaraqosh before returning to Rome.