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IS is the most visible culprit in Christians’ expulsion — its lightning strike in 2014 resulted in more than 100,000 mostly non-Sunni inhabitants of Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh plains fleeing to the Kurdish region. Christians were among IS’s murder victims and sex slaves; the jihadists desecrated churches, destroyed homes and displaced whole communities.

It does not help the Christians that all the nations squabbling over influence in Iraq — Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf states — have poor to appalling records on religious coexistence, so none will be urging Baghdad to look after its minorities. Maliki’s successor, the technocrat Haider Al-Abadi, is  still failing to clamp down on hate speech or articulate an Iraqi identity based on citizenship. Many Iraqi Christians have taken the only option apparently left them: to leave. Up to 800,000 have emigrated since 2003, leaving only 200,000-300,000 today. Does responsibility for this lie with the coalition nations, with the extremists, or with the émigrés? That debate is academic, like the question of whether their exodus is a good thing. Safety has come at the expense of the weakened communities left behind.   

Western nations have compounded the vulnerability of Iraqi Christians through their naivety as well as their political adventures. But Iraqi leaders have also failed to grasp opportunities for greater inclusivity.

Where do Iraqi Christians go from here? They say they want equality rather than favouritism. International support in the short term should be given according to their needs; looking to the future, the Iraqi government should treat the Christians as integral to the country. Making Iraq safe for Christians needs to happen in the context of making it safe for all citizens. Big aid donors need to investigate the claims that aid is not reaching vulnerable Christians, and examine whether principles are being wrongly applied, or are too inflexible, to safeguard public trust.

Similarly, the rules on resettlement should more accurately reflect the needs they are designed to meet. Issuing endless visas risks aiding the jihadists by draining the region of its non-Muslims. However, UNHCR has no category for communities threatened with eradication. This crisis has highlighted a case for minority communities to be resettled together, to facilitate preservation of cultural heritage. At the same time, Western governments should offer more resettlement places.

Iraqi Christians who have been granted asylum in the West must not be threatened with return until IS has been defeated and security restored. Rebuilding Christian villages in the Nineveh plains has only just begun, with local bishops appealing to Western governments and institutions for some US$262 million. It would be better to allow refugees to study or work in the meantime. Catholic universities in the US, Hungary and Australia are offering scholarships to young Iraqi Christians. Meanwhile, prosecution of those who have stolen and resold Christians’ properties would demonstrate that Christians are still part of the country’s fabric. Though Baghdad has become more segregated since its ethnic cleansing, the ideal would be for Christians to be able to live among their Muslim neighbours again. An alternative favoured by some Christians — to create an internationally-guarded enclave for minorities in the north — would mark an end to Iraq as we know it, and increase minorities’ vulnerability. Absorbing the Christian militias, Yezidi militias and Shia Popular Mobilisation Units into the Iraqi army would aid integration. And a clampdown on hate speech by political and religious leaders is long overdue.

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