ROME — One year ago, Inés San Martín of Crux and I took a reporting trip to the Nineveh Plains of northern Iraq, where local Christians are struggling to rebuild their homes in the wake of destruction caused by a brutal ISIS occupation.
A couple of months later, Elise Harris of Crux also visited northern Iraq, getting to some of the places San Martín and I weren’t able to go, including the city of Mosul, where, at the time, there was hope of a Christian return from exile, too.
What all of us came away with was a deep sense of hope. We were astounded by the resilience and the determination of the Christians we met, stirred by the sense that perhaps Christianity has a future in the region after all.
One year later we find ourselves wondering if we were naïve, watching conditions deteriorate and Christians once again in peril.
Recently Archbishop Najib Mikhael Moussa of Mosul, appointed by Pope Francis in 2018, conceded that very few Christians are actually returning to the battered city.
Moussa told EuroNews that only about 30 Christian families, just 10 percent of the pre-ISIS Christian population of the city, have come back, due both to security fears and to the lack of economic opportunities.
Recently, a contact in Iraq who facilitated our travel a year ago said Harris was lucky to have seen Mosul when she did, because he definitely wouldn’t recommend such a trip today.
“The power of the militias is growing all the time,” he said, referring to Kurdish and Iranian-backed armed groups who often serve as the de facto governments in some parts of northern Iraq.
The May 13 election of Mansour Mareid al-Jubouri as the new provincial governor further alarmed many religious minorities in the area, since he’s seen as backed by those militias politically and financially. He’s an active member of the Ataa movement, led by Popular Mobilization Forces leader Faleh al-Fayyad, which includes militias loyal to Iran.
Many Iraqi Christians are convinced they’re witnessing an Iranian-sponsored push for what they call “demographic change,” meaning Shiite colonization of historically Christian towns in the area.
This effort, combined with the militias’ hostile behavior, they say, threatens both government and private investment in northern Iraq, threatening the viability of Christian and Yazidi communities returning home.
In several traditionally Christian villages of the Nineveh Plains — such as Telesqof, where rebuilding has been financed by the government of Hungary, and Karemlesh, where support has come from the Knights of Columbus — things look better, as a significant share of Christian homes have already been restored and a higher percentage of the pre-ISIS population has returned.
Even in those relatively secure enclaves, however, things still feel fragile and tenuous and fear is a daily reality. When we asked a year ago if people were confident they’d still be in those villages 10 years from now, or if a new wave of violence could still drive them out, virtually no one was willing to say they felt sure.
Further, the international support for rebuilding hasn’t been quite as massive as some appear to think.
This spring, Archbishop Bashar Warda in the Kurish capital of Erbil, whose archdiocese became ground zero for refugees fleeing ISIS in 2014, was forced to try to quash rumors that he was suddenly swimming in American money after the Trump administration announced it would provide grants directly to religious entities in the region with the best chance of putting the funds to work for the people for whom it was intended.
“People think that the Church, or our archdiocese, has directly received hundreds of millions of dollars in American aid, and they are demanding that we explain how we spent it,” Warda said at the time, insisting this just isn’t the case. At the time, the only U.S. aid he’d actually received was $350,000 for rubble-clearing equipment.
Recently I spoke to a longtime activist on behalf of Iraqi Christians who said that although media outlets conventionally report Iraq’s Christian population has dropped to around 250,000 from a high of 1.5 million before the 2003 U.S. invasion, the real numbers are likely much lower.
His prediction is that the Christian community will drop all the way to around 30,000 people, clustered in a mere handful of the wider set of villages that were in Christian hands prior to ISIS. Already, he said, the village of Batnaya is lost to the militias, and he believes more will follow either because of attrition, outright compulsion, or both.
Before ISIS, Batnaya was a bustling town with some 800 Christian families, but today only 350 of its previous families even remain in the country. Though technically free from ISIS, it’s located in a “no man’s land,” trapped on the wrong side of a border between Kurdish “peshmerga” (“fighting group”) forces and Shiite militias backed by Iran.
In his late May interview with EuroNews, Moussa confidently asserted that Christianity in Iraq “will not and will never die.”
Taken literally, he’s probably right. There always will be some sort of Christian toehold in Iraq, one of the most ancient Christian communities in the world, where the roots of the Catholic faith reach all the way back to the era of the apostles.
Yet there’s an important difference between survival and thriving. One year ago, hope for the latter at least seemed to have a fighting chance in terms of Iraqi Christians; right now, the former seems the more plausible scenario, unless, of course, the international community steps up its involvement considerably, and that right soon.
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