The Iraqi prime minister has encouraged Christians displaced by ISIS to come home—but are the conditions right for a safe return? Catholic leaders and aid agencies say without stability and economic support, one of the world’s oldest Christian communities could become “a museum Church.”
After a meeting on Aug. 9 with Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphaei I Sako, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazemi encouraged Christians, who fled their homes in Northern Iraq after ISIS invaded the region in 2014, to return home.
“Iraq is the country for everyone, and that Christians are the original children of the country,” Al-Kazemi said in a statement following the meeting, as reported by AINA.
He added that “everyone is a partner in building the future of Iraq,” and that “[w]e are serious about providing assistance to our Christian families and solving their problems. We are glad that Christians will return to Iraq and contribute to its reconstruction.”
After ISIS invaded Northern Iraq in 2014, killing and displacing hundreds of thousands of Yazidis, Christians, and other minorities, the U.S., declared that genocide had taken place. The terror group was eventually driven out of the region, with its last territorial stronghold of Raqqa falling in 2017.
However, many Christians and Yazidis have yet to return home in the wake of ISIS.
Archbishop Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil, told CNA on Friday that serious economic and security obstacles to a safe return persist.
Iranian-backed Shia militia groups in Northern Iraq are cited as the prime reason many internally-displaced Christians have not yet resettled.
Hallam Ferguson, the senior deputy assistant administrator for the Middle East bureau of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) told reporters on a conference call earlier this week that some towns such as Teleskov have seen “a lot of returns” while other towns such as Batnaya and Bartala “have seen much lower returns.”
Archbishop Warda called the presence of armed militias “a malignant cancer” that are “at the root of much of the corruption and never-ending civil unrest” in the country, “and the minorities continue to be abused in the middle.”
He confirmed reports of physical violence or harassment of Christians, militia-armed checkpoints, and businesses requiring the backing of militias.
Certain local industries such as scrap metal are dominated by militia groups, Edward Clancy, director of outreach for Aid to the Church in Need, told CNA.
All this insecurity affects the economic stability of the region at a time when Iraq is already in a precarious state, Warda told CNA. “How can the minorities confidently rebuild when so often our efforts are stolen from underneath us as soon as they show promise?” he asked.
In Iraq, “the entire economy is in a desperate situation due to internal conflict, civil unrest, continuing corruption and now the crushing impact of the covid pandemic,” he said. And for Christians who have already left Iraq, he noted that “we cannot realistically say that we expect these people to return at any time in the near future.”
Some of those displaced by ISIS have moved multiple times, making them even more reticent to return home, Clancy said.
Even in villages such as Teleskov where many Christians returned home, “every week we have two, three families leaving,” Father Salar Kajo, a Chaldean Catholic priest of the town, told CNA in 2019.
As the Nineveh Plain Reconstruction Committee planned for the resettlement of the region after ISIS, a high number of internally-displaced Christians initially said they wanted to return home, Clancy said. However, as the concerns grew sharper, over time that number dwindled. Eventually, only one-third of Christians “truly had enough of a gumption” to return home because of the economic and security concerns.
If not “given something that helps them stay,” said Clancy, there will be “such a small minority” that remain.
And perhaps even more concerning is the exodus of young people from Iraq, he said. While unemployment might be high among the general populace, it is multiple times higher among Christians, and even higher for young Christians.
If the young Christians do not return home, then Christianity in Iraq would essentially have no future, warned Clancy. “It would just become a museum Church,” he said.
The future of Iraq must include its ethnic and religious minorities, and the elimination of militias, Archbishop Warda said.
“The international community must understand that this requires their continued close attention to the plight of the remaining minorities in Iraq,” he said.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Prime Minister Al-Kazemi met with Secretary of State Pompeo and President Trump, while in town for the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue.
On a conference call with reporters earlier in the week in advance of the visit, an administration official was asked about the militias, and said that the U.S. must work with Iraq to ensure “the right composite mixture of security forces in the right ratios and in the right places.”
In a joint press conference on Thursday, Trump was asked about the end of militias in Iraq and the country’s stability. He answered that “we’re helping where we can,” and that Iraq is “a separate country.” He added that “we were there, and now we’re getting out,” and touted “very big oil deals.”