After ISIS, the cradle of Christianity is still fraught with chaos and danger

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by Ewelina U. Ochab and Alexander W. Titus
Instability and the lack of a consistent security force have prevented many Iraqi Christians from returning to their homes. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
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Christians have found a new hope for a future in Iraq as the remaining pockets of Islamic State fighters continue to be defeated by Iraqi security and Peshmerga forces.

However, considering the current state of the Nineveh Plains as they have been left by the fanatics known locally as Daesh, the region may not be ready for Iraqi Christians to return. The Nineveh Plains, considered by many as the cradle of Christianity, is home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Rebuilding the Nineveh Plains will require an estimated $200 million. Moreover, instability and the lack of a consistent security force have prevented many Iraqi Christians from returning to their homes.

Even though some NGO representatives and government officials want to establish a “safe zone: in the Nineveh Plains, many of the presented proposals refer to quasi or fully autonomous governorate rather than a traditional safe zone. Traditionally, safe zones are set up as secured and contained areas to protect a vulnerable population from violence and forced displacement and have nothing to do with self-governance.
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The notion of an autonomous or quasi-autonomous region is recognized in Article 119 of the Iraqi Constitution. But the establishment of such a governorate could be dangerous for Iraq’s future. Considering that Kurds, Christians, and Yazidis would each like to establish their own state, this would effectively break up Iraq and significantly weaken the central government. The nature of Iraq’s fragmentation is religious, not regional, and an artificially imposed regional fragmentation would only make matters more complicated.

Still, as Iraqi Christians have been subjected to years of discrimination and persecution, including by their Muslim neighbors, many of them have no trust in any solution other than a separated and fully protected area. While the wishes of this vulnerable population should be respected, the U.S. should instead focus its mission on stabilizing Iraq as a whole. The Nineveh Plains remain an unstable conflict zone. Remaining pockets of radical Islamic fighters and an unreliable security force pose the greatest challenges to long-term stability for Christians in Iraq. The U.S. must play a more proactive role in promoting stability to defend the indigenous Christian population in the region.

Iraq has remained an unstable and unsafe country ever since the removal of Saddam Hussein. The subsequent dysfunctional governments failed to adequately protect the indigenous Christian population and address day-to-day persecution. Theft, stabbings, murder, and violence became a frequent occurrence of life for Iraqi Christians. This reign of terror continued until the end of the Iraqi insurgency in 2011.

And just as Iraqi Christians thought their long nightmare was over, ISIS swept over the Iraqi border from Syria and quickly gained control of large swathes of territory, forcing over 120,000 Christians to flee from Mosul in July 2014 and many more to flee again from the Nineveh Plains in August 2014. ISIS gave Christians a brutal ultimatum: convert to Islam, pay a religious tax, flee, or be killed. They marked Christian homes with the Arabic letter “n” for Nazarene, to distinguish them homes from homes of their Muslim neighbors and expose them to later targeting.

In two years of rule, ISIS destroyed Christian villages and towns and removed all signs of Christianity ever being present in the area.

Although ISIS is now on it back foot, life in the Nineveh Plains remains bleak for the Christian population. Security efforts are currently split between Iraqi security forces on the southern end and the Kurdish Peshmerga to the north. This is not the solution to promote long-term stability in a region where the title of “enforcer” has changed hands so many times. Many Iraqi Christians are wary of returning to the area to rebuild their homes because of fear that chaos will break out again. And indeed, in October 2017, with clashes between Iraqi and Kurdish armies forcing Christians in towns like Teleskof to flee their homes yet again, their skepticism seems warranted.

Ewelina U. Ochab is a human rights advocate and author of the book “Never Again: Legal Responses to a Broken Promise in the Middle East.” Alexander W. Titus is a Fellow with The Public Interest Fellowship in Washington, DC.

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