Suffocating the Christian existence in the Nineveh Plains

  • Written by:

Ano Jawhar Abdoka
The descendants of Babylon and Assyria, the grandsons Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar, Sargon, Ashurbanipal, Shamiram and AssirHadun are suffering from continuing genocide carried out by extremists under the eyes of the whole world. One of the most ancient Christian communities, the faithful of the Church of the East, established by Saints Peter and Tomas the disciples of our almighty Lord Jesus Christ, the Chaldean, Syriac, and Assyrian Churches members, who still pray and speak in Christ’s language are suffocating in their historic lands in the Nineveh Plains.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad in 2003, more than 1.5 million Christians were living in Mesopotamia, now known as Iraq, but that changed dramatically as soon as the terrorist and extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda, Islamic State Militants, and armed criminal militias in Baghdad and south of Iraq targeted Christians on identity because according to them, these Christians have the same faith of the ”crusader invaders.” 

As a result of this, in Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul 1350 Christians were killed, thousands more kidnapped, tortured, humiliated, and 111 churches were attacked, and many churches and monasteries were closed, so the vast majority of Christians were internally displaced to the secure and stable Kurdistan region, and relatively secure Nineveh Plains, or migrated outside of the country.

The Nineveh Plains, the historic Christian stronghold, then became the new target and focus of political Islamic extremists  and terrorists following the major attacks on Christians in Basra, Baghdad and Mosul. On 02/05/2010 the buses carrying Christian students were attacked, resulting in the death of  many civilians, including one female student and wounding more than 103. Worse than the terrorist attacks, organized attempts started to alter the demographic formula in Nineveh Plain supported by proxies of a regional power in order to reduce the Christian influence as the area’s historical majority. In the last recognized census in 1957 Christians represented up to 60% of the Nineveh Plains population, and represented 3.1% of the whole population of Iraq.  

In 2014, more than 14, 5000 Christians lived on the Nineveh Plains. When ISIS attacked the Christian towns and villages, 90% of Christians fled to the Kurdistan region, where the President of Kurdistan Region Masoud Barzani opened the doors of the region to Christians and famously said: ” Either all together, Muslims and Christians live in freedom, and equality, or we will all die fighting”, and the government used all the capabilities to help the Christians, even there was no budget coming from Baghdad at that time.

The KRG directly supported the building of 5 new churches in Kurdistan, and Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani granted the local churches in Kurdistan lands to build monasteries, churches, schools, universities, hospitals, and other projects by a size exceeding that of San Marino, Monaco, and the Vatican combined, a policy which is further strengthened by current Prime Minister Masrour Barzani. A very tiny number of Christians that remained fled to Kirkuk and Baghdad. The terrorists of the so-called Islamic State destroyed most of the houses, businesses, infrastructure, and churches of the Nineveh Plains. Since the exodus of the Christians from the area, 30% immigrated abroad , 35% returned to their villages after the military defeat of ISIS, and up to 35% are still living in the Kurdistan region, mostly in Ankawa, Erbil, and Dohuk according to different local  clergymen and NGO estimates. 

Even though many internal actors such as the Chaldean, Assyrian, Syriac, and Evangelical Churches, KRG, NGOs, and international actors such as USAID, Aid to the Church in Need, Hungary, Samaritan Purse, SOS, Knights of Columbus, and others have offered important assistance towards reconstruction in the Nineveh Plains, the vast majority of Christians are not returning. 

Every week, between 4-6 families flee the Nineveh Plains to the Kurdistan Region or go abroad, according to several local clergymen and local official estimates. As a result, hundreds of newly reconstructed houses lie empty.

Why? Because Christians do not feel safe at all.

 Why? Because of the uncontrolled militias that are more powerful than the Iraqi authority in the Nineveh Plains.

As a result of the weakness of the former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and a strategic mistake by Brett McGurk (the former US Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) the control of  ISIS over Nineveh Plain was replaced by the control of militias whom are proxies of a regional actor that have tried for years to alter the demography of this territory.

McGurk and Al-Abadi presented the Nineveh Plains on a silver platter to militias that are systematically emptying the area of Christians. Al-Abadi and McGurk did not have any clear military vision for the post- war and liberation in Nineveh Plains, Sinjar, and even Mosul, so after liberation, the militias, most of them proxies, took control on the ground without any reaction from both Al-Abadi and McGurk.

Today, militias related to Hashd al-Shaabi do not listen to the local authorities, they undermine every authority, harass Christians, and monopolise every aspect of life in the Nineveh Plains. They legitimised their presence by the excuse of the presence and establishment of a small military group for one of the Assyrian Christian parties (ADM) because they receive their salaries from the same source, this small military group cannot affect the security equation at all, and the bigger militias such as Battalion 50 and 30 can cripple it whenever they want. 

An example is the actions of the Babiliyon Battalion against the NPU in Alhamdaniya Bkhdeda in July 2017, attacking NPU headquarters and taking control of them, which resulted in the NPU abandoning their offices and headquarters until interference by the government in Baghdad resolved the problem.

So what is the solution to the security dilemma in the Nineveh Plains? Without resolving this problem, Christian numbers are dwindling dramatically.

The obvious solution is by taking a brave decision, by demilitarising the Nineveh Plains of all uncontrolled militias and proxies and letting the true people of the Nineveh Plains protect their towns and cities by themselves. 

Another important issue, who can do this? The Iraqi government.

Of course even if they want this they can’t do it because those militias do not listen to them as seen in the last attempt by the Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi when he issued an order to withdraw militias from Nineveh Plains in July 2019, before withdrawing after several days. 

If we cannot rely on the Iraqi authorities, what is the solution?

The more realistic solution is a collective one. 

The best solution to protect Christians and other minorities such as Yezidis, Kakais, Shabaks, and others in the Nineveh Plains, and also Sinjar, is by an international decision with national implications.

Why? Because what is happening is done not only by internal actors, but by regional actors and their proxies, and it must be dealt with as such.

As previously mentioned both McGurk and Abadi presented Nineveh Plain on a silver platter to militias. Adil Abdul-Mahdi tried to correct the fault of the previous Iraqi Prime Minister and he could not, so now it is the responsibility of the new US envoy and the US government to take responsibility, correct their previous faults and protect the Christians and other minorities in the Nineveh Plains and Sinjar who are suffering dearly because of a strategic mistake made by one of the most influential US government officials in the region.

The US administration can influence an international decision in the UN Security Council for a collective initiative by the Coalition troops, the Iraqi army, and the Peshmerga to take responsibility of the security situation in the Nineveh Plains, especially outside the towns and at check points, with continuous UNAMI supervision. 

Following this is the integration of  young Christians, Yezidis, Kakais, and Shabaks within the police forces to provide security within their towns, and to get rid of all the militias, all of them without any exceptions, all militias need to be integrated within the formal security forces according the Iraqi constitution, which are the Iraqi army and security forces, and the Peshmerga forces.   

What happened to the Iraqi Jews in 1948 is happing to Christians now, and more aggressively, but with all the atrocious committed against the Iraqi Jews at that time, at least the Jews had a country to go to. 

The Christians of the Chaldean, Assyrian, and Syriac Churches ( The Chaldean Assyrian Syriacs, or Sorayee ) have no country other than their ancestral lands:Mesopotamia, Beth Nahrin, the Land of Assyria and Babylon, now known as Iraq.  If they leave, they will enter demise generation after generation in the diaspora, and the world will lose one of its most ancient communities and nations.

So let us wait and see what the world that said:”Never Again” to the Jewish Holocaust, will do to prevent the suffocation of the Christian existence in the Nineveh Plains. What will the free democratic world do to stop the ongoing genocide against Christians in Iraq? 

Ano Abdoka is a Christian politician and current KRG Minister of Transportation and Communication. This article reflects his personal opinion and not that of the KRG.