Geoffrey P. Johnston
Iraqi children pose for a picture with a man dressed as Santa Claus who distributed gifts in a rundown neighbourhood in the central shrine city of Najaf, on Thursday. (Haidar Hamdani/Getty Images)
Christmas is a season of hope and joy for Christians around the world, but for Christians in Iraq, Christmas is also a time of insecurity and apprehension.
Despite the defeat of the Islamic State, Iraqi Christians have yet to recover from the genocidal campaign waged by the Islamist force that displaced much of the country’s Christian population. And the future of the Christian community’s future in Iraq remains far from certain.
The Barnabas Fund, a United Kingdom-based Christian humanitarian non-governmental organization, is on the ground in Iraq assisting Christians. The Whig-Standard submitted a series of questions to the NGO about the situation in the country.
“We have a sensitive role working with parties and groups on the ground, so I’m afraid that we can’t always be very full in our responses,” a spokesperson for the Barnabas Fund explained in an email.
“Christians in Iraq and especially northern Iraq find themselves in a difficult situation as Christmas approaches,” a statement issued to the Whig-Standard. reads. “Christians remain at high risk.”
According to the United Kingdom branch of Aid to the Church in Need, the Christian community in Iraq remains in a “precarious position” in the aftermath of the genocide perpetrated by ISIS and years of persecution. Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity that assists persecuted and impoverished Christians.
“Northern Iraq, particularly the Nineveh Plains, is the hub of Christianity in Iraq. However, there are some Christians scattered throughout Baghdad and the south of the country,” the United Kingdom office of ACN stated in an email.
Earlier this year, Open Doors, a Christian non-governmental organization that monitors religious freedom and advocates on behalf of the persecuted church, released its World Watch List 2019, ranking the 50 most oppressive countries for Christians. Iraq is ranked 13th on the list.
“In Iraq, the territorial defeat of ISIS reduced the level of persecution across the country,” the report notes. “However, threats from extremist groups make it difficult for returning Christians to feel safe and secure.”
A U.S. Congressional hearing on the struggle of religious minorities to remain in Iraq was held in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26, 2019. The hearing was conducted by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
During his opening remarks, USCIRF chair Tony Perkins offered a blunt assessment of the state of religious freedom in Iraq, declaring that “recent years have been especially unkind to Iraq’s religious minorities.” Perkins noted that “the mid-2000s displaced a massive swath of the country’s Christian population and slashed it from roughly one and a half million to an estimated 200,000 at present.”
The situation seriously deteriorated in 2014 with the rise of the Islamic State — also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh. “The terrorist group perpetrated horrific atrocities against religious and ethnic minorities in northwest Iraq, focused on the areas of Sinjar and the Nineveh Plain. ISIS chased Christians from their towns, executed Yazidi men, and abducted 6,000 Yazidi women and children into sexual slavery,” Perkins stated.
The purpose of the Congressional hearing was to determine if the situation in Iraq has improved enough to permit persecuted groups to return to their homes and survive, Perkins stated.
A representative of the Assyrian Policy Institute appeared before the Congressional hearing to outline the challenges faced by the ancient Christian group’s plight. “Assyrians have endured profound discrimination and targeted violence, both for their Christian faith as well as their distinct ethnic identity, rooted in the ancient history of Iraq,” Reine Hanna testified.
Aid to the Church in Need estimates that there were approximately 260,000 Christians in Iraq in 2014 before ISIS seized the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq, the traditional homeland of Assyrians, Chaldeans and other Christian groups. The rise of ISIS forced a mass Christian exodus.
The Catholic NGO estimates that there are between 120,000 and 150,000 Christians left in Iraq today. There are a number of denominations and Catholic Rites in Iraq, including the Assyrian Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Armenian Orthodox Church.
According to Monica Ratra, a spokesperson for Open Doors Canada, Islamist violence remains a “constant threat” in Iraq. Although ISIS has been defeated, Ratra warns that the group’s extremist ideology remains influential.
“People live in fear,” Ratra said in an email. “Christian minorities especially don’t feel safe, which is why large numbers of the minority people groups have fled to safer countries.”
Barrier to return
The return of Christian refugees and internally displaced persons to the Nineveh Plains is being hindered by a lack of security. For example, Aid to the Church in Need reports that local Kurdish militias in northern Iraq are allegedly stealing Christian lands. ACN reports that there are “accounts of at least 350 Christian-owned properties being illegally seized.”
The Open Doors representative confirmed that “some of the houses of those who fled to escape Islamic State have been illegally occupied.” However, Ratra stated that “Christians are slowly coming back in areas like the Nineveh Plains.”
“Lack of security remains the primary barrier to returns,” Hallam H. Ferguson told the Congressional hearing. Ferguson, a senior official with the U.S. Agency for International Development, stated that Iranian-backed militias “terrorize those families brave enough to have returned, extort local businesses, and openly pledge allegiance to Iran.”
“Christian returns to towns like Batanaya and Telkaif have reached only one to two per cent because of persecution by these militias,” Ferguson continued. “In Bartela, the Christian community is under siege by the 30th Brigade (one of the militias) that routinely resorts to anti-Christian rhetoric and puts up placards of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni at entrances the town.”
Similarly, Aid to the Church in Need confirms that Christians “face a new threat in the form of Iranian-backed militia groups who entered Iraq to fight Daesh.” One such group, known as Hashd, joined the battle against ISIS and is now entrenched in the northern city of Mosul, once home to tens of thousands of Christians.
The Barnabas Fund corroborated that “in the Plains of Nineveh, many of the villages are being occupied by Shia militias.” And the NGO says it is concerned about “the failure of the authorities” to protect Christian villages.
While the U.S. government has applied sanctions against the leaders of the Iranian-backed militias under the authority of the Magnitsky Act, “they continue to operate with impunity in many areas, with the authorities seemingly unable or unwilling to confront them,” Ferguson testified.
“In discussion with political leaders, we have raised our concerns about why the Christian community is not being protected,” the Barnabas Fund revealed in an email.
“Today, security in the Nineveh Plain remains divided between KRG Peshmerga forces, Iranian-backed militias known as Brigade 30 and Brigade 50, Iraqi Army forces, and the NPU (the Assyrian Nineveh Plain Protection Units),” Hanna testified.
Aid to the Church in Need is engaged in reconstruction efforts in northern Iraq in co-operation with the Chaldean Catholic Church, Syriac Orthodox Church and Syriac Orthodox Church. Together they form the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee. According to the Catholic charity, it has assisted 9,230 Christian families to return to their villages.
However, ACN reports that church leaders in Iraq are concerned by the lack of international assistance, noting that reconstruction funds are coming mostly from private donors. “Having said that, in late October 2019, USAID, in association with the Government of Hungary, announced new construction projects for the Christian-majority town of Qaraqosh in the Nineveh Plains as well as for the Yazidi-majority Sinjar area,” the ACN reports.
Will Christians in Iraq celebrate Christmas this year? The answer is “yes,” according to Aid to the Church in Need. However, the charity points out Christmas celebrations will not be public in order to demonstrate solidarity with protesters killed or wounded during recent anti-government demonstrations. ACN notes that the head of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq, Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, has declared there won’t be any decorated Christmas trees in churches or in the streets.
However, the Barnabas Fund reports that Christians will be “free to publicly celebrate Christmas in some places such as Erbil and elsewhere in the Kurdish region.” And the NGO revealed that its representatives have engaged in “high-level meetings” with Kurdish officials and were “reassured that Christians are largely secure and safe in the semi-autonomous region” during the Christmas season.
Follow Geoffrey P. Johnston on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.