Five years after ISIS forces stormed Christian villages in Northern Iraq, forcing thousands to flee overnight, the militants have been suppressed, but the situation of Christians remains precarious and, according to one local, their future in Iraq is still at risk.

“Much of the future for Christians in Nineveh hangs in the balance in the coming weeks pending clarity as to whether the Hashd militias will actually withdraw, as had been formally requested by Baghdad, or if the Iraqi government will back down and allow the Hashd units in Nineveh to stay and continue to exercise their control over the region,” Steve Rasche told Crux.

“If the latter,” he said, “it is a very bleak prospect for the Christians there.”

Rasche is based in Erbil and is a member of the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, which is dedicated to rebuilding Christian villages in northern Iraq.

Formally incorporated into Iraq’s armed forces in 2016 following a parliamentary bill, the Hashd militias, almost entirely Shi’ite, were formed in 2014 by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shi’ite religious authority in Iraq, when ISIS attacked the Nineveh Plains.

On Aug. 6, 2014, ISIS overran numerous Christian communities on the Nineveh Plains, north of Mosul, including the city of Qaraqosh, once considered to be the “Christian capital” of Iraq. Some 120,000 Christians were forced to flee overnight, many of them with just the clothes on their backs.

Most found refuge in and around Erbil, capital of Kurdistan or Kurdish Iraq, living in camps supported by the Catholic Church.

In the fall of 2016, Iraqi forces alongside their allies retook the territory and so far, some 40,000 Christians have returned to the Nineveh Plains. Others have decided to remain in Erbil, while many have emigrated, and a great number are still contemplating whether they should stay or go.

In the fight against ISIS, Hashd forces assisted Iraqi military forces in their 2016-2017 offensive to overthrow ISIS, backed by a U.S.-led airpower coalition. The Iraqi city of Mosul, for two years a major ISIS stronghold in Northern Iraq, was reclaimed in the summer of 2017, and Hashd forces have remained ever since.

Since then, the group, which has received funding from Iran, has come under fire for causing more problems than they are solving, particularly for Christians in the area.

According to Al-Jazeera, Hashd leader Waad Qado, also known as Abu Jaafar al-Shabaki, was recently sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for alleged human rights abuses and corruption, including allegations that he extracted money from the village of Bartella, whose citizens are a mix of Christians and ethnic Shabakis, through kidnappings, extortion and illegal arrests.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who has held office since 2018, has faced pressure to crack down on Iranian-backed groups following a recent series of rocket attacks against U.S. military targets in Iraq.

On July 31, Abdul-Mahdi ordered that Hashd forces withdraw from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain as part of a wider plan aimed at further integrating the militia into Iraq’s defense forces. However, Hashd commander and National Security Advisor Falih al-Fayadh asked for a two-month extension.

A new deadline was set for Aug. 5; however, it remains uncertain whether Hashd units will actually withdraw, or whether they will remain at large in the area, despite Baghdad’s efforts to reign them in.

In Mosul, protesters in favor of maintaining the Hashd presence in Mosul blocked the road to Erbil, signaling the difficulties Iraq’s central government will face in any attempt to crack down on the militia.

Speaking to Crux, Archbishop Bashar Warda, Chaldean archbishop of Erbil, said reconstruction is moving along, but more attention ought to be given to livelihood programs aimed at providing jobs, clothing and education, since “there is a high correlation between no livelihood programs and people leaving.”

“The issue of security and trust are far more challenging in a country torn apart through sectarianism,” he said, adding that Iraqis in general, and not only Christians, are afraid and need support from the central government.

“Fear breeds mistrust, instability, discontent, rumors and unnecessary hatred,” Warda said, noting that while one community might be in favor of a militia, its presence can breed mistrust in another.

“In a country that has been torn apart by war for decades, such factors need to be addressed and controlled by the central government to ease the minds of all communities,” he said. “That is the key role of the government to look after he concerns and interest of all communities including the minorities. A strong central government will build trust and hope for all.”

Currently there are numerous rumors that ISIS is gaining new strength and that local militias are going beyond their mandate from the government’s armed forces, he said, alluding to the Hashd.

Warda said the tensions over Hashd are causing “huge concern” in villages on the Nineveh Plains. “It is incredibly destabilizing not only for the communities but making international aid agencies hold back on their aid programs,” he said, adding, “We cannot afford such a scenario, as Iraq as a whole needs to win the confidence of the international community.”

He insisted that Iraq has a wealth of culture and history, but said the country has “thrown this away in war and corruption” spanning decades.

“Let us not be a country whose promised future never arrives. We need to strive for hope for honesty, peace and reconciliation,” he said

Father Roni Momika, a Syriac Catholic priest from Qaraqosh ordained in an Erbil refugee camp after ISIS conquered his village in 2014, said he believes a papal visit would help give Christians hope and the strength to stay, despite ongoing strife in the region.

“This visit will give power to our people, to the Church here,” Momika told Crux, noting how Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin visited northern Iraq last December, stopping in Qaraqosh.

“People were very happy that the Vatican was asking and taking care of them, and that they haven’t lost (track of) them,” he said, explaining that a papal visit that doesn’t include stops in Qaraqosh or any other part of northern Iraq would be pointless, since most Christians live in the north.

Pope Francis has often voiced his desire to visit Iraq. He has faced pressure from local church leaders to make a trip sometime in the coming year, and Parolin’s visit was interpreted as a sign that a papal trip could be in the making.

However, fresh uncertainty in the region, in large part due to the instability caused by debate over how to handle the Hashd forces, has raised questions as to whether security conditions would allow for a papal visit in the current climate.

Should Francis choose to visit, “It would give us a lot (of hope) to stay here, because the Nineveh Plain is our place and it is our history,” Momika said. He acknowledged that there are still a lot of problems in the region, but he insisted that the pope’s presence would “give peace to all of these people; not only to the Christians, but to everyone who is living in the Nineveh Plain.”

Momika, who runs a women’s group in Qaraqosh with some 1,500 members, said most of the 27,000 people who returned to the village live in peace - something he attributes in part to a local Christian militia formed in the fight against ISIS which is still active, dedicated to protecting Qaraqosh.

“There is no reason to think that the pope would be in danger, no,” he said, adding that the visit “would make the Catholic Church very strong here.”

Reconstruction is still ongoing, and many churches and houses that were burned still stand as charred reminders of the destruction ISIS left in its wake. However, Momika said that life has continued for those who returned, and they are doing their best to continue as normal.

“For us Christians who are in the Nineveh Plain, we are very happy,” and are “waiting for Pope Francis to come here to bless this city,” he said.

“It’s a last chance for us,” he said. “We want to live in Qaraqosh. Even if there are a lot of challenges and problems, we trust that God is with us.”

In his comments to Crux, Warda said that “we hope and pray” that Pope Francis will visit Iraq soon.

“The fruits would be enormous, not only for the Christians but for Iraq in general,” he said, explaining that a papal visit would grab the world’s attention, shining a spotlight on Iraq, which he said “needs this and not to be hidden away in fear and working in silos of mistrust.”

“We have to move forward as country and embrace a world that to all extents and purposes wants to embrace us. It is very hard to embrace a country that is continually at odds with itself and in perpetual sectarian war,” Warda said.

“Let this not happen, and not leave Iraq to the greed and power mongering of the few against the wishes of the many who want peace and reconciliation.”