Iraq’s Christians pray for help that never comes

Nearly a million have fled their divided country since the 2003 invasion and the West has failed to provide the support they deserve

Isak Rool Bello was employed as a plumber in Baghdad in 2004 when he was set upon by masked men who beat him with metal piping, breaking his left thighbone. “I was working for the US army, so militias punished me,” he explained, looking lost. His mother, three sisters and two brothers had been killed the year before, when a cruise missile fell on their family home. The neighbourhood was obliterated so their bodies could not be found. Isak fled Baghdad and was taken in by a Franciscan priest in Mosul, but a decade later fled again when Islamic State (IS) captured the troubled northern city. The priest has been granted asylum in France; Isak hoped for resettlement, and surgery on his leg, in Australia, Canada, or Germany. But after almost three years in limbo in Jordan his health failed, and in April he died. There are hundreds of Iraqi Christian refugee families in Amman. They apply for asylum and wait; they cannot earn a living. Many suffer ill-health. Local priests supported by small charities pay rents for sparsely-furnished flats. Scared to enter a UN refugee camp, they say they receive no UN aid.

Christians’ long-term future in Iraq has been thrown into question since the US-led 2003 invasion, which was followed by a chaos that crescendoed into the appearance of IS three years ago. Since the US intervention, three-quarters of Iraqi Christians have sought refuge abroad. There have also been complaints that they miss out on international aid and asylum places. Given the West’s role in Christians’ vulnerability, does it not have a particular responsibility to them?

Successive waves of violence across the country have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and caused widespread traumatisation. Some three million Iraqis are still displaced and the battle for Mosul drags on. A both/and approach is needed: making Iraq safe for its religious and ethnic minorities will only succeed in the context of making coexistance possible for all citiens, and Iraqi society will only flourish when all its members are included and valued.

For Iraqi Christians, the invasion was especially catastrophic. The rallying cry for resistance offered through the mosque — to oppose the “Crusaders” — scapegoated the small Christian minority. Coalition troops attending Iraqi churches, the US army taking over a Catholic seminary in Baghdad, or the arrival of Evangelical missionaries hardened opinion against Christians, making them vulnerable to kidnap and murder.

The coalition’s efforts to include minorities in the new Iraq backfired. The governing council it assembled — 13 Shia, five Sunni, a Turkman and a Christian — politicised sectarian identity.  The coalition assumed that the 2005 elections would exorcise Saddam’s toxic legacy, but sectarian divisions deepened and coalition troops were unprepared for the scale of the Sunni-Shia violence, and ill-equipped to safeguard civilians.

Western support of Iraq’s Christians has wavered. The Obama administration did not want to highlight the targeting of Christians, because it was committed to troop withdrawal and did not want to alienate Muslims. When two priests and around 40 worshippers were killed after al-Qaeda fighters stormed an evening Mass in Baghdad in 2010, the White House referred to it non-specifically, as a “senseless act of hostage-taking and violence”. Christians felt their violation had been minimised.

The role of the UN has come into question as some Christians, notably Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, claimed that camps run by its refugee agency, UNHCR, “are invariably run by Muslim officials who are often hostile to minorities” and are therefore avoided, along with the aid available there. Some Iraqi Christians claim they are discriminated against in applying for visas. While UNHCR denies both charges, the scale of its operations in Iraq ($547 million last year, but underfunded) makes verification difficult. The organisation’s reaction — denials rather than a pledge to investigate — have done little to assuage the concerns articulated by Lord Carey or the fears of Iraqi Christians. When Australia announced in 2015 it would prioritise victims of IS, namely minorities, in an intake of 12,000 refugees, it used its own processes, not UNHCR’s, to identify who should benefit.

The displacement of so many Iraqis and Syrians, marked out by IS because of their religion or ethnicity, has challenged a core aid principle. The Red Cross Code of Conduct, to which the big aid charities and donors such as Britain’s DfID, and USAID, adhere, stipulates that aid be given according to need, not creed. There is no room for short-term special treatment when a community is threatened with eradication, so for many displaced Christians the bulk of aid has come from small Western Christian charities.

Christians across the Middle East experience varying degrees of discrimination and violence — a legacy of Ottoman dhimmitude compounded by a lack of democracy and the rise of political Islam. After 2003 Christians in Iraq were seen as fifth columnists, and scapegoated. Insurgents bombed churches, and in 2006 al-Qaeda in Iraq systematically “cleansed” the Christian-majority Baghdad suburb of Dora. Many Christian-owned properties in Baghdad and Mosul have been appropriated or destroyed. In 2008 Mosul’s archbishop, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was kidnapped and found dead.

The post-invasion government of Nouri al-Maliki did not prioritise minorities, but shored up its own power base after decades of Shia marginalisation. The then-Chaldean Patriarch dismissed the trial and conviction of Rahho’s alleged kidnapper as “a charade”. Maliki so embittered Sunnis, by ignoring their concerns about soaring unemployment and poverty, that he is credited with enabling IS, which prides itself on having emptied whole regions of Christians,  to take root.

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.

Iraqi Muslims have begun helping to clear churches destroyed or damaged by IS, suggesting that the jihadists have not poisoned attitudes among the population as the Christians had feared. But such efforts must not destroy evidence of their crimes, which is being collated by a jumble of NGOs. Investigations of mass graves should be properly funded, co-ordinated at UN level, and should not be held up by politicking, or prioritise one community’s victims over another’s.

Youth unemployment in Iraq stands at 36 per cent, according to the World Bank, and thousands of young people have been drawn into militias. A mass employment drive in, for example, building could provide alternative livelihoods, accelerate reconstruction, and unite different communities. In addition. young atheists, secularists and political protesters should be free to challenge the Shia-led status quo. 

Initiatives such as the British Museum’s heritage management training scheme are to be commended — not only because Iraq’s rich archaeology should again be a source of identity and revenue for the country, but also because it trains Iraqis of all faiths to do the work. Britain’s training of Iraqi psychiatrists acknowledges the prevalence of traumatisation. As for IS, the failure of the international community to bring charges of genocide against the group for its treatment of Christians and Yezidis is regrettable. However, Iraqi judges are understood to be open to the UK-led suggestion of internationally supported special courts in Iraq. The international community can also aid Baghdad by prosecuting returning jihadists. Iraq’s special body to investigate IS’s crimes against Yezidis is welcome but needs to be accessible to all the group’s victims. In addition, the West must consistently challenge its Gulf allies over the funding of extremism, although in Britain our ever-increasing dependence on Arab investment makes this harder. Are we selling ourselves for 30 barrels of oil?

In the longer term, the Iraqi government must allow space for one national narrative to develop, supported by a free press, civil society and the arts. The goal should be an Iraqi identity that can withstand the tug of war between Islam’s two Vaticans, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Existing reconciliation initiatives should be encouraged, along with leaders with sufficient moral authority and distance from the government. Education should be reorganised to include pre-Islamic history to prevent the early denigration of non-Muslims and non-Arabs. One promising initiative is a training centre in Najaf run by the Al-Khoei Foundation that aims to “make defending minorities fashionable” by inviting community representatives to teach Shia imams about their creed. 

After the 2010 Haitian earthquake, NGOs pledged to “build back better”. The same is needed in Iraq — foundations of equal citizenship, and individuals and communities having no need to crowd each other for basic rights. The destruction of Iraq was achieved by a long dictatorship, a Western coalition with a sketchy vision and a global jihadist alliance with a destructive one. We should not be surprised if as many countries, and more ideas, are needed to rebuild it.  

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