by David Mueller, political advocate for religious freedom in Iraq
Last year, the ojcos foundation was heavily confronted with the demands of persecuted religious minorities from Iraq that, in addition to humanitarian aid, they were particularly dependent on the solidarity of the churches and the political support of the German government and the European Union. This would be the only way to enable a reconciled life in peace and freedom. In order to help in this case, I became a full-time policy officer for freedom of religion from January 2018.
After in-depth familiarization with the historical and current situation, I traveled to Northern Iraq from March 6th to 14th, 2018 to get my own idea.
The first impression
Since the airport in Erbil was closed for international flights, we flew via Istanbul to Sirnak in southeastern Turkey. There we were picked up by car to be driven to northern Iraq. The border crossing then became the first encounter with the “Middle Eastern reality”: We needed six hours for the departure at the Turkish border, because the approximately 50 vehicles were not cleared for hours. The entry into Iraq (Kurdistan) then took up another hour of waiting time.
When driving through the countryside, I noticed the first (of many following) opposites: Instead of burnt-out vehicle wrecks, ruined houses and scorched earth I saw rural areas and wealthy neighborhoods in a standard that is common in other countries on the Mediterranean. There are whole tracts of land in the Kurdistan Autonomous Region that have not experienced any acts of war. And their mobile internet is far ahead of ours.
The destroyed cities of Christians and Yazidis
Our main contact in northern Iraq was Archdeacon Emanuel Youkhana, head of the CAPNI church humanitarian aid organization in Dohuk. This organization has been active in the region for many years and enjoys a great appreciation among the population. He provided us with a compact insight into the situation of persecuted Christians and religious minorities and also visited some of the destroyed cities in the Nineveh Plains, which have a millennium-old tradition, with us.
The founding of the city Nineveh by Nimrod is already reported on the first pages of the Bible. About 1,300 years later, the activities of the Prophet Jonah led to a renewal of the faith at this site. The Old Testament prophet Nahum also lived in Alqosh and his grave can still be visited today. Today, the majority of residents are still Christians, alongside Yazidis, Shabak and Turkmens.
At the inner Iraqi Kurdish border, it became already visible that we were coming to a former war zone. The military presence increased significantly and there were a lot more checkpoints. For many kilometers, the front line was present. An endless earth wall ran parallel to the several meters deep ditch through the country. In addition, there was an abandoned command post about every kilometer. It was not difficult to imagine the Kurdish defense struggle against the IS.
In most villages, the victory over the IS was already over a year ago. The refugee inhabitants could gradually return and begin the reconstruction work. However, the effects of Islamist terror on the buildings and on the people were still clearly visible.
Batnaya – For the approximately 5,000 inhabitants, there was no possibility of returning to their completely destroyed city.
Ba’ashiqa and Bahzany – Here we met with the mayor, priests and small business owners. They told us about their distrust amongst each other. The former coexistence of the various minorities no longer exists. Many families could not return because of the destruction. Moreover, there is great fear of the Muslim state power. No matter if Sunni or Shiite believers – the feeling of security must be restored. Not only here, we were heavily confronted with the demand for political support from Germany, the European Union and the international community.
Telskuf – A large military post of the Kurdish army blocked access to the city and controlled the main access road. Of the approximately 11,000 Christians, only about 3,500 returned. But despite the ongoing destruction, they had taken in about 1,600 internally displaced persons from the surrounding area. When I asked about the reason of the large military presence in the village, one referred to the very great uncertainty of the Christian inhabitants, some of whom had traumatic experiences. We saw countless houses in the city which were marked by the IS as “non-Muslim”. The inhabitants and their property were thus vulnerable to looting and abuse.
Alqosh – The Christian 40,000-inhabitant city has its roots in the Assyrian Empire. The local cathedral was built in the 5th century. The Rabban Hormizd Monastery was founded in the 7th century and was the seat of the Patriarchs until 1804. The troops of the IS were stopped here only a few kilometers in front of the city limits. In the city we saw a lot of Christian life, but again and again heard of the great fear and helplessness in the population.
The refugee situation
Although IS has officially been defeated in Iraq since the end of 2017, I was astonished to hear that more than 2 million internally displaced persons were still waiting to return home. Of these people, approximately 1 million lived in self-rented houses/flats, around 600,000 in camps and about 300,000 in host families.
During the visit to the Yazidi refugee camp in Khanke, which was established in 2014, we saw about 17,000 people who lived in tented accommodation and faced an uncertain future. Short-term shelter became a medium-term home for most. Therefore, children’s education was established, students had the opportunity to complete their degree programs locally, and people sought work to finance their survival. It was financially possible for many to rent their own living space in the city. The high demand, however, quickly led to new problems due to rising rents. The further poor job situation made it impossible for many to provide for themselves. In addition, there were major communication problems between the mostly Arab-speaking internally displaced persons and the often Kurdish-speaking locals. It is not surprising that at some point many people wondered if moving to another country would a better option. Above all Germany seemed for many to be a guarantee for a decent, safe and good live.
The second part of the trip was spent in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Here, we also spent one night in the camp “Ankawa 2” to show the people and helpers there our appreciation of their life and work. At this site we also heard unimaginable stories of terror, death, suffering and expulsion. Above all, people wanted hope, security and reconstruction of the infrastructure. Again, there was an urgent call for political influence.
Kurds, Iraq & politics
Even though the complex political situation is not familiar to me in every detail, the meetings with various members of parliament as well as political and church decision-makers were very enlightening. In addition to the oriental-dramatic nature of communication, ethnic and religious minority issues played a very important role.
Following the Kurdish independence referendum, the situation between the Kurdistan Autonomous Region and the Iraqi central government was strained. While Kurds complained that they did not receive enough money from Baghdad to pay their salaries, the central Iraqi side told us about the profitable illegal oil trade of the Kurds with Turkey and the gross disregard for Iraqi entry regulations.
We also learned that many ethnic minority issues overlap with the situation of religious minorities. Armenian or Assyrian ethnic groups, for example, also belong to the Christian minority. To make matters worse, these belong to different churches, such as the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church or the Armenian Catholic Church and younger protestant communities.
Everyone we met appreciated our interest in the concrete political dimension to resolve the current situation. Christians on the ground are grateful that Kurdish soldiers have defended their towns and villages in recent years and that the majority of Christian refugees found shelter in the Kurdistan region. However, they also said that the Kurds would lose out in their conflict with the (also Muslim) Iraqi central government. The strengthening of the Nineveh Plain as a province in the federal structure of Iraq would be seen as an important solution. For the stabilization of security and the support of the reconstruction of infrastructure and administration one relies on the help of Germany, the EU, the USA and the international community. The history and life of minorities must also be included in the Iraqi curriculum.
Living as a Christian
The discussions with various Christians who told us about their personal lives were very impressive. The raging Islamist IS terror marks a terrible culmination of the persecution of Christians. But also in general, life as a Christian in a Muslim country is not free from repression.
Especially Muslims who become Christians would be in a very threatening situation as Islamic law demands the death penalty for this “apostasy from Islam”. Nevertheless, in recent years, there has been a growing number of people who are disappointed by their Muslim confreres, no longer are gaining hope from Islam and turning to the God of the Bible instead. They would usually live their faith inconspicuously to protect their lives and that of their family. However, they lack the necessary training and support for the formation of networks at the grass roots. The way of thinking shaped by authority structures complicates this. Unfortunately, foreign Christian organizations do not focus on this issue either.
In my opinion, Iraq is in a critical phase of transition. The government is weak and the various anti-IS fighters are now trying to build their own power position. The numerous population groups also primarily demand their own rights. The destroyed trust among each other leads to a great disruption and often more inner turmoil than togetherness.
It is now important to create the conditions for the reconstruction of the country and the return of the civilian population to the partly severely damaged cities. There is a lot of humanitarian aid, but it does not meet totally the needs which are currently required. The support of the Iraqi administration and the security forces is still very improvable and requires strong partners.
Refugees at home and abroad as well as the inhabitants of the destroyed areas now need visible signs of sympathy and concrete support. If it is not possible to stabilize the country in the near future, to improve the security situation and the feeling of security and to create infrastructure and jobs, more and more refugees will head to the West – with disastrous consequences for the region and an inevitable aggravation of the situation in Germany and Europe. We should not sit around and wait for this misery!