By David Müller, Political advocate for religious freedom in Iraq
“When you are serious about Iraq you need to come twice a year.”
After my first visit to Iraq in March 2018 it soon became clear, how important regular visits would be. Personal encounter is essential for people there and of enormous significance. In oriental lifestyle shared time is very important and often helps establish new contacts or spontaneous meetings.
Consequently I travelled again from July 9th to 15th to Northern Iraq. I was pleased to have Uwe Heimowski, political officer of German Evangelical Alliance, as co-traveller and multiplier on the issue “religious freedom in Iraq”. Christians and religious minorities there need much more support, strategic as well as practical.
With the fantastic help of local relief organisations, CAPNI in Dohuk and “Al Raja & Al Salam for Civil Rights” in Erbil, we were able to get deep insights in the current situation. We travelled through Dohuk region, Erbil region and Niniveh plain. During these few days we were able to meet 25 individual people to hear their stories and learn their views: church officials as well as Yazidi leaders, politicians (parliamentarians, ministry staff and mayors), leaders of different relief organisations and local ministers of younger Christian congregations.
What has changed?
First thing I noticed compared to March where considerably fewer armoured vehicles and less military at the checkpoints. Political tension and uncertainties after the independence referendum of the Kurds seem to have decreased. Because of that we were able to enter the country via Erbil Airport, last time it had been closed for international flights. This should not blind us to the fact that below the surface there is still great instability which within short time could provoke military action.
When revisiting places like Telskuf (Tesqopa) and Bahzani I was surprised how fast reconstruction works can go on. Destruction and need is still enormous but the desire to regain a normal townscape is visible everywhere.
When meeting the Syrian Catholic archbishop of Karakosch (al-Hamdaniya), Boutros Moshe, we were asked for further support. Bashar Warda, Chaldean Catholic archbishop of von Erbil, spoke about his political efforts to raise money for the infrastructure of the Christian villages of Niniveh plains. Again we were very impressed by the dedication, the quality and depth of the Assyrian archdeacon Emanuel Youkhana and his relief organisation CAPNI for the restoration of normal life. Their slogan is: “To keep the hope alive”.
What does daily life look like?
Everyday life of the christians is still shaped by a lack of prospects. While many of the displaced people would like to go back to what for centuries has been their home, those who have actually come back find a dramatically difficult situation. The International Organisation for Migration reports in June 26th, 2018, that there are “only” two million internal displaced persons left. But return has slowed down, as the challenges are significant: lack of employment or other means to provide a living, followed by inappropriate means to deal with suffered human rights abuse, also lack of safety and free movement.
We have spent a full day in the Christian village of Telskuf (Tesqopa) in the Niniveh plain. The stories they tell, be it the car mechanic, the owner of a small ironing business or the hairdresser, are all similar. They had to escape rashly, even several times from the still inhabitable neighbouring village Batnaya to the borders of the country and where able to come back only to this place. They are grateful for microcredits from christian relief organisations which allow them to sustain their families on a low level. But many family members are seriously ill or would need expensive treatment. Each day means fighting for survival. It is impossible to understand the effect of traumatising experiences. Most of them can’t possibly know what impact these will have in the long run and how long regeneration will take.
All families have numerous relatives already living abroad. This seems a strong “pull-factor” adding up to the above mentioned “push-factors”.
In spite of all hardship the christian population seems mostly positive. This is witnessed by the raising of crosses, the renovation of churches and re-establishing of services, the visual repair of war damage and demonstratively trying to organise a normal life.
To the contrary most Yazidi I met, I found greatly resigned and hopeless. Whether talking to Bahzad Suleiman, a spiritual leader and member of the highest religious council of the Yazidi in Bahzani, or a young family father living since four years in the camp and knowing that his home, Sindschar, west of Mosul, is still controlled by terrorists.
It is four years now since the genocide of the Yazidi in Iraq. For many Muslim they are “devil worshippers” and in the eyes of ISIS they have no right to even exist, contrary to Christians who “at least” could convert. Up to today 3.000 women are held as hostages and thousands of refugees wait in camps for the possibility of returning.
Which demands do I bring home?
People in Iraq are very grateful for all humanitarian help they receive. Germanys activities are highly appreciated. Active support of rebuilding the infrastructure is obvious in many places. Arming the Kurdish Peschmerga to defend villages with religious minorities has saved the life of thousands. Over and over again people thanked me for the German commitment.
Rebuilding of infrastructure without a chance to live or at least to survive isn’t a real perspective. Christians and religious minorities are afraid to again become victims of inter-Muslim confrontations. Shiite Iran has great influence while Saudi-Arabia supports the Sunnites and in the north Turkey fights the Kurds. Although ISIS is formally defeated their thinking is still widespread. The riots in the south of Iraq towards the end of our stay show how fast the situation can worsen again. There is great anxiety that Muslim extremists might become stronger, again call for war and everything starts anew.
Nearly all Christians and Yazidi we have met asked Germany and the European Union to watch carefully the governments of Iraq and of Iraq-Kurdistan and demand religious freedom even stronger. Following statement by a regional citizen makes it very clear: “If you don’t do anything, it will not be long and we will come as refugees. That will cost even more.”
Religious minorities need obvious signs of support. The pure presence of German and European organisations, businesses and political agencies would strengthen the safety of the region. When will the first town ask for a partnership with a Christian village in the Niniveh plain? That would be a strong sign saying “You are not alone” as well as “We watch what is going on in the region”.
Additionally needed is an inter-Iraq discussion on causes and future prevention of ISIS-terror. The different movements of Islam must face the argument. There is an urgent need for public debate.
Current school curricula have an important part here: The time of the early high cultures in Mesopotamia, where the Christian churches were founded, is widely ignored. In Iraqi schoolbooks its history begins only with the rise of the Islam many centuries later.
On the background of colonisation and mistakes in development activities there are good reasons for us being very careful. But the message from persecuted christians and religious minorities in Iraq is clear:
“Don’t forget us and help
so that we can help ourselves!”