Interview with David Mueller, political advocate for religious freedom in Iraq
David, in October you were in northern Iraq for the third time this year. What is the dominant theme of Christians and religious minorities there?
That’s very different. In the destroyed Christian cities, of course, the theme of reconstruction and concern for daily living dominates. The internally displaced people in the camps ask themselves whether there is still a future for them in their homeland, and the Christians in the large cities of the Kurdistan-Iraq region live in the tension between a Muslim-dominated environment and the “paradisiacal” advertising messages of the western world in the social networks.
What is their greatest concern?
They fear that they will once again become victims of internal Muslim conflicts. Militia controlled by different interests are still active. Shiite Iran has great influence, Saudi Arabia supports the Sunnis and Turkey continues to fight the Kurds. Even though ISIS is formally defeated, their thinking is still widespread in many regions. The state is weak and often unable to enforce the law. The situation can escalate again at any time. The Christians fear a renewed strengthening of Muslim extremists, who could very quickly again call to battle. Then everything would repeat itself.
How is your commitment seen on site?
I meet lots of different people: Archbishops, members of parliament, staff from government departments and relief organizations, mayors, local priests, businessmen and many ordinary citizens. They offer me great openness, appreciation and gratitude that I come to their country and make my own picture on the spot. There are numerous relief organisations around but only few address a long-term political solution for Christians and religious minorities. Those Iraqis that feel forgotten by the world are encouraged by my presence and those bearing responsibility are grateful for a partner from Germany.
Unfortunately, in Germany we have a one-dimensional and distorted picture of the situation in Iraq, the situation of persecuted Christians and religious minorities there. Too few are regularly on site and give us a balanced view. My dialogue partners in Iraq are very aware of that. They are very grateful for my presence, pleased by my numerous questions und my genuine interest in a long-term solution.
In addition to your involvement in Iraq, there are many other relief organizations that support reconstruction. What do you see?
True, there is quite a wave of financial aid, from an international relief organization to regional german churches, all grateful accepted. But that can lead to problems on a structural level.
There is enormous suffering and need and therefore numerous ways to help. However, cultural competence and knowledge of the local situation are crucial for effective support. Well-intentioned, but not knowledgeable money can also run the risk of strengthening unhealthy financial structures.
As the government cares only little about rebuilding, numerous churches and church relief organizations support their Iraqi brothers in faith with sometimes substantial means. The attitude towards public authorities is mostly distrustful. But the local priests know their flock and are very active. However, this one-sidedness can lead to new difficulties. Priests whose main task is to spiritually guide their church, gradually become managers of local politics. I have also been told that several Christian churches find it hard to help beyond their denomination.
What should change?
In general I would advise anyone to support bigger local organizations. They know the situation on site and have the cultural competence needed for price negotiations. I highly recommend two local organisations with which we cooperate: “Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq (CAPNI)” from Dohuk led by Archdeacon Emanuel Youkhana and “Al Raja & Al Salam for Civil Rights (HPJ)” from Erbil.
The political and civil forces of Niniveh plains need support in establishing a strong self-government. Next to church organizations strong parties, mayors, associations and interest groups are needed. So far they are more or less non-existent. But they know about Germany’s competence here and strongly request our help.
What helps Christians to live their faith freely?
Despite or just because of the persecution and discrimination suffered, it is important for Christians to show their symbols in public. This is illustrated by demonstratively erecting Christian crosses, rebuilding churches and holding public services. To support that is necessary and already takes place.
But the great Muslim majority overlooks the millenarian biblical heritage of the country from the times before Islam around the seventh century A.C. In the region known as Mesopotamia, from the fourth millennium B.C. some of the earliest high cultures of mankind existed. Abraham was born and many prophets lived there, like Daniel in Babylonian times, Jonah in Niniveh and Nahum in Alqosh. All this is not mentioned in the official curricula. No Iraqi student will hear a word about Christians, Jews, Yazidis or Mandaeans during all his school career.
We Europeans too mostly consider Iraq as a Muslim country and have forgotten the roots. It is our duty to make sure that the knowledge of these historical facts is spread, in Iraq as well as in Europe.
There are also lots of human rights abuses that we ought to speak out firmly. Some examples:
- Islamization of minors: Is a parent Muslim or converts to Islam, underage children automatically become Muslim too. A free choice from the age of majority, which is not even contrary to sharia, is refused by the Government.
- The different minorities are not acknowledged in the constitution.
- Law enforcement of former IS-members takes place only slowly.
What can we do as Christians here in Germany?
For Iraqi Christians faith and prayer are fundamental and vital. Whenever I put this question nearly everybody asks for prayer. To know that we pray for them and their trust into its strength helps the believers enormously.
Also we should continue with humanitarian and politically help. Each Euro here should be balanced by another Euro there. The ojcos-foundation operates on both levels too.
I recommend to obtain information on the current situation and to ask your local member of the German Bundestag what is done on the political level. On our website www.ojcos-stiftung.de/irak/english we have some recent publications. I am also regularly on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to report about my work. I am pleased by whichever way of contacting.
For almost a year now you have been working for the ojcos-foundation. Whom do you meet in Germany and what commitment do you see?
I regularly talk to Members of Parliament and their staff and let them know what I have learned. I also exchange views with the church actors working in Iraq or religious freedom.
Churches and Christian organizations provide a lot of humanitarian support, but they are rarely involved in engaging in a long-term political perspective.
The political commitment of the German government is currently focused on stabilizing the country, building capacity, reducing the causes of migration and improving perspectives on site.
What encourages you in all the hardship that dominates there?
Even though there is a lot of migration there still are numerous people working for a safe and peaceful future for Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq. They support my work, open doors and confirm regularly how important our ministry is. This cooperation really encourages me.
Thank you for the interview.
Questions by Konstantin Mascher, Vice Chairman of ojcos-stiftung.