ERBIL, Iraq — A new report from Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is sounding the final warning bells for the world that Iraq’s Christians are continuing to leave in greater numbers than they are returning to their homeland on the Nineveh Plains in the aftermath of ISIS’ 2014 invasion and genocide.
Unless critical changes are made, Iraq’s Christians are on the trajectory to extinction after 2,000 years of witness to Jesus Christ in Iraq.
ACN estimates that 69% of Christians have thought about leaving Iraq as the security, economic and political situation takes its toll on them. Out of 102,000 Christians that called the Nineveh Plains home before ISIS’ invasion, there may be only 23,000 Christians by 2024 — unless the international community acts now.
But the situation contains hope so long as decisive action is taken without delay. Based on ACN’s report and conversations with Iraqi Christians and other key experts, the Register has found these five things can change the trajectory for Iraq’s Christians from leaving to returning and renewing peace and prosperity for Iraq.
Christians Need an Overhaul of Iraq’s Security and the State’s Sovereignty Over Its Territory Restored
Christians in Northern Iraq’s Nineveh Plains are caught amid a patchwork of ethno-religious factions where the Iraqi state has limited ability to project authority. If anything, what is happening to the Christians is an international bellwether for how weak the Iraqi state really is, and foreign actors such as Iran and Turkey are taking advantage of Iraq’s weak internal security.
“The present security system in Iraq is a complete failure,” Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil told the Register. Archbishop Warda said the Iraqi people — Christians, Yazidis and Muslims —suffer from this situation.
The immediate issue for the Christians of Nineveh are the Shabak militias backed by Iran. The Shabaks were also violently attacked and displaced by ISIS, but they have used the fight against ISIS to establish themselves in villages and homes that belonged to the Christians before ISIS invaded in 2014. Bartella, for example, an almost exclusively Christian village before ISIS, is now majority Shabak.
According to a new report from Aid to the Church in Need, 24% of Christians say they are negatively impacted by militia or hostile groups and report psychological trauma, theft, displacement, physical injury and extortion.
The militias, also collectively known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, are highly resistant to the Iraqi government reasserting state control over these territories with Iraq’s police and armed forces. They are also considered key in Iran’s strategy to build a land-based supply corridor to its regional ally Syria.
“These armed power factions must be permanently removed and replaced by professional security forces under actual government control, which includes proper representation from all members of Iraqi society,” Archbishop Warda said.
This is an area where the U.S. government could provide support. Steven Howard, national outreach director for In Defense of Christians (IDC), which advocates for the federal government on behalf of the Middle East’s Christians, told the Register that bipartisan legislation, spearheaded by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., would emphasize the need for “Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga ... to more fully integrate all communities, including religious minority communities, to counter current and future terrorist threats."
Reconciling Iraq’s national government with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is also key to the security picture. Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraq’s government have an uneasy standoff over the KRG’s aborted referendum for independence and attempts to extend the KRG’s territory further into the Nineveh Plains. This deteriorated relationship has served to benefit another player: Turkey, which has sent troops now 25 miles deep inside Iraq, establishing bases on what is sovereign Iraqi territory, and attacking Kurdish towns that it claims are bases for the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group that seeks to carve out land in Turkey for the repressed Kurdish minority. Turkey considers PKK a terrorist organization.
All in all, the new stream of IDPs (internally displaced persons) coming south from Turkey’s incursion threatens to send a “negative signal” to Christians that Iraq’s government is too weak to stop foreign nations that “do as they please,” according to Yousif Kalian, a program specialist for the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) who works on social cohesion and community reconciliation in Iraq’s Nineveh Province.
“That’s not going to be an encouraging sign,” Kalian said.
Of course, the last thing Christians need right now in Iraq is for the cold war between Iran and the U.S. to become hot in Iraq. That catastrophe could be the last straw.
Christians Need Action to Restore Justice and Root Out Rampant Corruption in Iraq
Iraq’s failures to establish security internally and at its borders plays into the next problem that is driving Christians to leave Iraq: The justice system has broken down, and corruption is completely out of control.
According to the ACN report, the militias exert a “mafia-like” influence in the territories they control and either tolerate or abet severe injustices against Christians. The ACN report identified many of the militias as carrying on extortion, arbitrary customs fees at checkpoints, tolerating squatters in Christian houses, putting up Shia Muslim shrines in front of Christian churches, blocking roads to churches, supporting or targeting boycotts of Christian businesses, illegally occupying or selling Christian land, and looking the other way at violent crimes against Christians.
“In the present system Christians and other religious minorities have no recourse to any legitimate forum which applies justice in a fair and impartial manner,” Archbishop Warda said, explaining that Christians’ only recourse for relief means they have to ally with one faction or the other, “depending on the matter at hand.”
Archbishop Warda said the Iraqi national and Kurdish regional governments must move beyond public statements about the importance of Christians and “act in a way to ensure that true and impartial justice actually exists.” What Christians have today, he said, is not justice, but “show tribunals controlled by sectarian power factions.”
But Iraqis also identify corruption as completely out of control, bleeding Iraq dry of state revenue and making their country a high-risk investment for the international business community. Iraqi reformist Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi (in office since May 2020) has begun operations to take on the corruption, starting with Iraq’s Diyala Province — a move which, The Associated Press reports, puts the government in direct conflict with the sectarian militias — and, once complete in Diyala, is expected to extend to the other provinces.
Kalian said respect for the rule of law and legal accountability is key for Christians to remain.
“They can’t live in an area where there’s no rule of law and no accountability,” he said. “If there’s no rule of law, they won’t feel safe enough to come back.”
But again, this goes back to the “complex issue” of security: who composes the security forces and who controls it.
“Whether it’s the army or the police, the people involved need to be professional; it needs to be inclusive of Christians, Yazidis and other minorities; and it must be under state control.”
Iraq’s Christians Need Freedom of Religion and Adequate Representation in Government
The high levels of corruption in Iraq and the sectarian power struggles go hand in hand. And in Iraq, a broad, youth-based popular protest movement has identified a major culprit that not only hurts Christians but all Iraqis: Article 2 of the 2005 Iraqi Constitution declares, “Islam is the official religion of the state and is a foundation source of legislation”; and, “No law may be enacted that contradicts the established provisions of Islam.”
Archbishop Warda said, “In practice, this article has effectively denied any true religious freedom in Iraq.” Furthermore, he added, it institutionalizes Sharia (Islamic law) “in all aspects of Iraqi society” and so makes the contested article the “cornerstone” of sectarian power factions that compete against each other in Iraq.
“From this failure to ensure separation of church and state has come nothing but civil violence and corruption,” he said. “This is a view of many Muslims, perhaps even the majority of them, and not just Christians.”
He pointed out the “enormous significance” of Iraq’s youth-driven protest movement (which endured despite brutal retaliation). This movement demanded, as part of its anti-corruption agenda, the elimination of the clause from the constitution that establishes Islam as the state religion.
At the same time, developing ways for Christians, Yazidis and other ethno-religious minorities to participate at every level of Iraq’s government and society will be key in guaranteeing religious freedom and respect.
Edward Clancy, director of outreach at Aid to the Church in Need in the U.S., told the Register that Christians need “guaranteed representation at the government level” to prevent them from becoming an afterthought. The Christian population has plummeted from 1.5 million before the U.S.’ 2003 invasion of Iraq to approximately 10%-15% of that number in 2020.
Clancy believes the international community needs to exert “diplomatic pressure” on the Iraqi government to implement this representation because the government has provided few signs that this will happen if left to its own devices.
USIP’s Kalian said the Iraqi government has taken some steps in the right direction that need to be encouraged. He pointed out that Iraq’s prime minister recently visited three Christian towns in the Al-Hamdaniya district of the Nineveh Plains, just outside of Mosul, meeting with the local bishop and government officials to hear the Christians’ major complaints and issues of concern.
“That is something that the U.S. government should encourage, connecting the Iraqi prime minister and Iraqi government to the Christians and other minorities,” he said, adding that the Christian feedback from the encounter was positive.
Kalian explained that having more Christians and members of ethno-religious minorities as government ministers, members of parliament and other Iraqi government positions, especially at the local district and subdistrict council levels, can help assure Christians and other ethno-religious minorities that they have a voice and their religious freedom can be secured.
Iraq’s Christians Need Real Economic Opportunity and Investment to Return to Iraq
If Iraqi Christians are to live in their home country, they need the Nineveh Plain to become a locus of economic investment that benefits not only them but all Iraq’s communities — otherwise, there is no chance of them returning and every chance of more people leaving.
In fact, unless the economic situation is dramatically reversed, the Nineveh Plains region is expected to see another third of its Christians emigrate from Iraq by 2024, according to Aid to the Church in Need.
Again, Iranian-backed militias and rampant corruption are playing a key role in preventing the Nineveh Plains from experiencing an economic transformation as a commercial intersection between four countries in the region: Syria, Jordan, Iran and Turkey.
ACN’s Clancy explained that Christians have traditionally formed a great deal of Iraq’s educated, professional and entrepreneurial business sectors. Iraq needs them back — not abroad in other countries — for a national rebound, but the militias have effectively locked them out. Clancy pointed out that sectarian militias are also monopolizing the scrap-metal industries, a common post-war resource, excluding Christians from access to the metal and from participation in the industry.
Overall, the ACN report states the economy for Christians in the Nineveh Plains is rated as “bad to very bad.”
And for young people who are looking to get married and form families, the unemployment figures are terrible. Unemployment among 26- to 35-year-olds is 39% for men and 41% for women; likewise, unemployment for 16- to 25-year-olds is 62% for men and 72% for women.
Such high unemployment is putting the ability to marry and form families out of reach for Iraq’s rising generation. Clancy said that depriving a people of the means to have children is among the “key components of genocide.”
He also said there has to be “international pressure” from not only the U.S., but coalitions of countries, such as the European Union, as well as multinational corporations, in order to provide the impetus needed for Iraq’s government to regain control and provide the security that will help foster economic opportunity.
“Otherwise, nothing will change,” he said.
Archbishop Warda said the economic investment in the historic Christian villages and towns of the Nineveh Plains is key; without it, Christians will lose the mainstay of their culture and identity.
“It is critically important that we find ways to continue supporting and developing viable livelihoods and economies in these areas,” he said.
IDC’s Howard said faith-based humanitarian aid from U.S. Agency for International Development should continue as “crucial for sustaining [indigenous Christian] presence in Iraq.”
USIP’s Kalian said Christians will return if they see a stable and inclusive economy. Eliminating bureaucratic hurdles to investment, engaging the Iraqi Christian diaspora community, and making sure that all the ethno-religious communities of Northern Iraq, despite the tensions, see a rebound in the province are all key steps toward ensuring that Christian Iraqis return to their homeland.
But Iraq’s Christians right now need to see “visible signs of community resuscitation” in order to start returning, let alone stay.
“People have had so much taken from them; unless they have visible signs that things are improving, I don’t think they’ll stay,” Kalian said.
That is why the construction of Maryamana (Mother Mary) Hospital in Ankawa, heralded as a state-of-the-art health facility, and the presence of the Catholic University of Erbil are positive signs.
“People see a state-of-the-art hospital providing jobs and attracting business, and it’s a sign to them that ‘we’re here to stay,’” he said, empowering Christians to return.
“Things like that will encourage people to stay because it’s a sign that ‘we’re growing and building and not just enduring suffering.’”
Christians, Both in Iraq and the U.S., Need to Believe They Have a Continuing Mission in Iraq
Christians have been in Iraq since the Gospel was embraced by first-century Assyrian communities, who received it from St. Thomas the Apostle and his disciples. But perhaps the most fundamental thing that needs to change for Iraq’s Christians to remain and return is for all Christians to believe Iraq’s Christians have a vital and irreplaceable role in Iraq.
“I believe that this mission is clear — that the Christians of Iraq must continually show, to themselves and to their neighbors, that they can truly be the salt of the earth, the peacemakers and peace-builders that this fractured country so desperately needs,” Archbishop Warda said.
ACN’s Clancy said Christians have traditionally been the teachers, doctors, professionals and entrepreneurs “who help serve all the people” in Iraq. He also noted that Christians were the first ones to translate Greek texts into Arabic after the seventh-century Arab conquest of Iraq.
“Christians have always been a mediating, powerful force in Iraq,” he said, adding that they will provide the region and the world a continued source of vigilance against the return of ISIS and other such groups.
Clancy said people need to pray for Iraq, not forget the persecuted people there, and encourage their governments to do all in their power to set things right.
“For what’s left, we have to act now.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.