Geoffrey P. Johnston Geoffrey P. Johnston
Iraqi Christians attend a mass at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in the predominantly Christian Iraqi town of Qaraqosh (also known as Hamdaniya), some 30 kilometres from Mosul in July 2017. (Afin Hamed/Getty Images)
Despite having endured years of violent persecution and terrible hardships, many Iraqi Christians are returning to their villages once occupied by terrorists to joyfully celebrate Christmas in their damaged and ransacked churches.
Earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law a piece of legislation that will assist the survivors of genocide perpetrated by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and Daesh. The legislation, put forward by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), is also designed to help bring the perpetrators to justice.
According to Smith’s congressional website, “less than 200,000 Christians remain in Iraq, down from 1.4 million in 2002 and 500,000 in 2013, before ISIS swept through the region on its genocidal campaign.” And the website points out that “many of the remaining Christians in Iraq are displaced, mostly in Erbil in the Kurdistan region, and need assistance to return to their homes and stay in Iraq.”
Under the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act, the U.S. government is authorized to fund organizations that are providing “humanitarian, stabilization, and recovery aid on the ground to genocide survivors from religious and ethnic minorities.”
Were Christians in Iraq really victims of ethnic cleansing and/or genocide?
“Yes,” John Pontifex of the United Kingdom branch of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) replied. Citing a 2017 report by the Christian non-governmental organization, the ACN spokesperson stated that “Christians in Iraq were victims of genocide as defined by the Universal Declaration on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.”
Likewise, genocide researcher and author Ewelina Ochab has no doubt as to the nature of the crimes perpetrated by the Islamic State. “Christian minorities in Iraq have been subjected to genocide by Daesh,” she acknowledged, noting that the genocide has been recognized by the European Union, several parliaments and a number of governments.
“However,” Ochab said, “no international court, or domestic court, to date, has prosecuted anyone for the crime of genocide perpetrated by Daesh against Christians, Yezidis or other religious minorities in Iraq or elsewhere.”
Ochab has been to Iraq to collect evidence of genocide and to interview survivors. For example, she met with displaced Christians in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. She also visited a number of liberated towns and villages that had previously been under ISIS occupation, including Quaragosh, Karamless and Bartallah.
How many displaced Christians are currently living in northern Iraq?
“The statistics, depending on who you talk to, are a bit conflictual,” the Ottawa-based Carl Hetu, national director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) Canada, replied.
Hetu said that when ISIS arose in August 2014, approximately 120,000 Christians were forced to flee their homes. Not only did the Christians vacate the northern city of Mosul, they also ran from the Nineveh Plain, the traditional homeland of many Christian communities.
The Christians sought refuge in the Kurdish region, often referred to as Kurdistan. Four years later, some Christians have returned to their villages on the Nineveh Plain, while others remain in Kurdistan.
Aid to the Church in Need has been closely following the plight of Iraqi Christians, undertaking hundreds of humanitarian projects in northern Iraq, said Fr. Andrzej Halemba, who serves as director of projects for Aid to the Church in Need’s Middle Eastern department.
Having met with internally displaced persons (IDPs) in northern Iraq, Halemba is in a position to speak to Christians’ concerns. And he said their top concern is for the safety of their children. He also learned that the Christians fear that ISIS could one day return.
“The fear is there,” Halemba said in a telephone interview from Könisgtein-Im-Taunus, Germany, where he was taking part in ACN meetings.
“The security situation has improved, but there are still major concerns,” Pontifex stated. “ACN staff visiting the region have had reported to them that Daesh militants are still in the region but have ‘melted into the background,’ abandoning their religious dress and shaving off their long beards, etc.”
According to Ochab, reconstruction of Christian communities in northern Iraq is ongoing. Citing the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, Ochab stated that more than 40 per cent of damaged houses have been restored. “This allowed over 45 per cent of families to return to the Nineveh Plain. Of course, there is still a long way to go,” said Ochab, author of Never Again: Legal Responses to a Broken Promise in the Middle East.
According to Pontifex, “about 45,000 Christians have now returned from displacement in Kurdish northern Iraq — mostly Erbil, the capital — to Nineveh.” However, he reports that “very few families have returned to Mosul, which is still considered unsafe.”
According to Monica Ratra, a representative of Open Doors Canada, a Christian NGO that advocates on behalf of persecuted Christians around the globe, “the situation of Christians in Kurdistan is reasonably stable, but this is not yet the case in Mosul and Nineveh Plain.”
Ratra stated in an email that Christians from Mosul remain “highly apprehensive of their Muslim neighbours whom they suspect of having been complicit” in the Islamic State occupation of the city and in the expulsion of Christians. “Until that concern is addressed, the Christians will not return,” she said.
According to CNEWA’s Carl Hetu, some displaced Christians have attempted to return to their homes in Mosul only to find that their houses have been confiscated “by their neighbours and they refuse to give them back.”
“Right now as we are leading toward Christmas, there are contested areas, particularly in the Nineveh Plain,” Hetu warned. “The border between the Kurdistan province and the Iraqi state is right through many Iraqi Christian villages.” And he said the Kurds are trying to buy up lands that the Christians fled in 2014. “And the same thing is happening with the Shia-led government who is trying to buy all the land,” he added.
“So the Christians are stuck in between,” Hetu said of the land dispute that is gripping the Nineveh Plain. “And that’s why right now, many are not going back to their villages, because the fear of more conflict between the Kurds and the state of Iraq.”
According to CNEWA, there is a small Christian minority in Baghdad. “And they are going to be very quiet at Christmas, because they don’t want to attract any attention from anybody,” Hetu said.
But it will be a different story in the Kurdish region, where Christians will celebrate a pleasant Christmas. “That might be the only place in Iraq where the Christians will live a normal Christmas,” he said. “Everywhere else is going to be a pretty timid Christmas.”
“We should not forget that these people treasure their culture and religion and ceremonies,” Halemba said. And he said they want to return to their churches to celebrate Christmas.
“I can tell you that it will be a joyful, joyful Christmas for them despite the difficulties.”
Justice and diplomacy
What must the community of nations do to ensure that the Christian community survives in Iraq?
“Apart from reconstruction, the international community needs to put more pressure on the Iraqi government to ensure that the rights of Iraqi Christian minorities, and of other religious minorities, are adequately protected by law and also adequately implemented,” Ochab replied.
The genocide expert said she has been advocating, in concert with Aid to the Church in Need, for the establishment of “a new mechanism of a special envoy on freedom of religion or belief or on minority rights to be an independent arbiter on the situation of religious minorities in Iraq and to address any issues that need to be resolved.”
Meanwhile, CNEWA is calling for diplomatic efforts from the United Nations, Canada, Europe and others to work closely with the Iraqi government to settle the ongoing land disputes as well as the political and ethnic power struggles. According to Hetu, using diplomacy and dialogue to help make Iraq a prosperous and peaceful country “is the only way for Christians to survive in Iraq.”
Celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ
Christmas 2017 marked the first time in four years that Christmas mass was celebrated in Mosul. “Heavy security was needed,” John Pontifex said. “More Christmas services are expected in Mosul this year.”
“The churches in Nineveh — many of them still awaiting repair — are likely to be packed,” he predicted.
Open Doors Canada’s Monica Ratra agrees that Iraqi Christians will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
“Christmas is an important day for all denominations,” she said.