The Assault on Christians, and Hope, in Iraq

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As the Islamic State campaign continues, despairing refugees look to start over elsewhere.
Iraqi Christians who fled the violence in Mosul attend an Easter mass in Arbil, in northern Iraq. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
Erbil, Iraq ,As in so many urban centers across the Middle East, the marketplace in Erbil before the mosques’ calls to prayer is a whirlwind of bright colors and noisy, animated bargaining. On the fringe of the town square, opposite the antediluvian citadel, stands the Bazaar Nishtiman, a vast mall that hosts a plethora of cheap-denim stores on its lower levels—and 150 Christian refugee families in the upper levels.
The mall’s owner, a Christian, has given the refugees permission to use the converted stalls for as long as they need shelter. Last June thousands of Christian refugees fled to Iraqi Kurdistan from Mosul, Qaraqosh and other villages on the Nineveh Plain following the advance of Islamic State. Conversations with some of these displaced Christians reveal a common, striking theme: The greatest threat to the future of Christianity in Iraq is no longer Islamic State assault but the evaporation of hope.
Followers of Christ recall their savior’s warning that they will face persecution, and they recall St. Paul’s teaching that suffering produces endurance and character. Most Christians in the Middle East retain their spiritual hope, but they are losing their temporal hope: They fear that they will never return to their ancestral lands, and that the Christian presence in the region might disappear.
Iraq is home to one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world, some of whose members still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. But their numbers have plummeted to around 200,000 from 1.5 million before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. A Christian exodus, if it isn’t reversed, would be a devastating loss for Iraq. Iraqi Christians are well-organized, and for years they’ve tended to the educational, cultural and social needs of the wider society.
Christians have also historically helped stabilize the volatile region. “Christians have always played a key role in building our societies and defending our nations,” Jordan’sKing Abdullah has said. “There is no Iraq without Christians,” says Iraqi Prime MinisterHaider al-Abadi.
Iraqi Christians’ fear of and mistrust toward their Muslim neighbors is palpable. Many tell me that soon after they made their initial journey north, they received telephone calls from their former neighbors telling them that there was no longer any threat, that they could return home. Upon doing so, however, they quickly fell into the hands of Islamic State and had their possessions stolen before being sent off into exile again.
Christians now feel betrayed by their neighbors, who, they insist, are fully subscribed to Islamic State’s ideology. One Assyrian Christian tells me, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State, “Even if Daesh is driven out, how can we return to a place where there is so much hatred for us? They are Daesh, just without the balaclavas.”
Yet many Christian refugees also reject proposals for international military protection within a secure zone on the Nineveh Plain. Christians seem to long to fulfill their Biblical calling to be “salt and light,” a living witness of the faith, integrated into society. Neither are they inclined to remain in semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdish president,Masoud Barzani, has opened his region for all those fleeing Islamic State and even suggested that Kurds, who are predominantly Muslim, are free to convert to Christianity.
Even so, Christians have received a frosty reception from much of the Kurdish population. There is the lingering memory of the centuries of persecution suffered by the Christian communities at the hands of their Kurdish neighbors, including the Kurdish complicity in the Assyrian and Armenian genocides a century ago.
Reconciling the Iraqi Church with the rest of Iraq will be a most challenging task. The Christian community must be empowered and supported to articulate a strategic vision for its own future and to find a political voice. Standing apart from Sunnis and Shiites, it can one day even reprise its reconciliatory role. But these are distant prospects so long as the security threat, and the sense of mistrust and hopelessness, remain.
Back at the refugee mall, some have found new purpose and satisfaction through initiatives to support their fellow exiles. I saw well-organized projects for food distribution and enrolling displaced students in school. One businessman from Qaraqosh told me how his new charitable activities in exile have reawakened him spiritually. His travails, he said, “are a blessing from God.”
Meanwhile, many of the young adults have left for France, the U.S. and elsewhere. They admit they would prefer to stay in the country of their birth and continue the church’s ancient presence in Iraqi culture, but they see no future in the Middle East. Others gain spiritual succor from the Christian hope of “another country”—one without death, mourning, crying or pain—while others can only despair.
Mr. Windsor is a political advocate and strategist at Middle East Concern.
Joseph T. Kassab