Is there a future for Christians and religious minorities in Iraq?

A description of the situation by Dr. Philipp W. Hildmann and David Mueller

“We are very grateful for all the humanitarian aid we are receiving. But to return to Iraq or stay there, we need security and job opportunities. Who is concerned about a future for Christians, Yazidi and religious minorities in Iraq?” We hear this sentence again and again during our joint trip to Northern Iraq in autumn 2018.

Today’s Ninive plain has a millennia-old tradition: Already on the first pages the Bible reports about the foundation of the city of Ninive by Nimrod. More than 5000 years ago the Mesopotamian high culture was at home here. About 2500 years ago the activities of the prophet Jonah led to a renewal of the faith. Alqosh was also the home of the Old Testament prophet Nahum, whose tomb can still be visited today. In 363 A.D. Mar Mattei was built, which is still one of the oldest existing Christian monasteries in the world. Despite the conquest of the country by Muslims in the 7th century AD, most of its inhabitants are still Christians and Yazidi.

Like the Flood, the death squads of the terrorist militia “Islamic State” had invaded this part of the world in 2014 and committed unimaginable cruelties against all those who were not prepared to bow to their radical interpretation of Islam. For members of the ancient faith community of the Yazidis, whose roots go back to old times in Mesopotamia , there was basically no pardon as supposed devil worshippers. In a few weeks more than 5,000 men and boys fell victim to the Islamists. More than 400,000 Yazidis were expelled from their homeland, more than 7,000 of their wives and children were abducted and some are still missing today.

Monastery of St. Matthew (Mar Mattei)

The Christians, too, were a little better off. Their houses were systematically marked with green paint by Muslim neighbours for the approaching IS militias. The signs said: “Christians live here. Looting and raping desired.” Those who could flee fled. Those who did not manage it suffered exactly this fate and were often murdered. Of the almost 60,000 inhabitants of al-Hamdaniya, once the largest Christian city in the country, only 80 Christians survived the IS occupation in the city. The rest had fled or been murdered.

On our journey we meet many different people: Archbishops, members of parliament, employees from ministries and relief organizations, mayors, local priests, entrepreneurs and many ordinary people. They show us great openness, appreciation and gratitude that we come to their country and make our own impression on the ground. There is a great variety of humanitarian aid, but only a few are committed to a long-term political perspective for Christians and religious minorities.

However, rebuilding infrastructure without security for its inhabitants is not a real prospect. Christians and religious minorities fear that they will again become victims of internal Muslim conflicts. Shiite Iran has a great influence, Saudi Arabia supports the Sunnis and Turkey continues to fight the Kurds in the north. Even if the IS is formally defeated, its thinking is still widespread in many regions. The unrest in southern Iraq, which broke out at the end of our trip, shows how quickly the situation can escalate. There is a great fear of a resurgence of Muslim extremists, who could very quickly call for renewed fighting. Then everything would repeat itself.

In Bashiqa, for example, a small town near Mossul, the Christians there have rebuilt their devastated church themselves. Brother Daniel shows us the numerous bullet holes above his sanctuary, in the cross ornaments and commemorative plaques, which were left as a reminder for the descendants, as he explains. Although the IS burned down the olive groves around the village in order to permanently destroy the livelihood of the people, two thirds of the families have already returned. However, the coexistence of Christians, Yazidi and Muslims had become extremely difficult. After the experience it is almost impossible to build up new trust.

We also encounter these thoughts a few kilometers further on in al-Hamdaniya. We are standing in the burnt-out church Al-Tahira Al-Kubra, whose pictures went around the world and gained sad fame. The inner walls are still sooty black. They are covered with bullet holes. But here, too, renovation work has begun. Hammer blows echo through the nave. At the altar a freshly cleaned tabernacle shines almost unreally from the surrounding ashes. After the liberation in October 2016, about 21,000 refugees have returned to their destroyed city. Physical reconstruction has begun. But here, too, the wounds are deeper. Brother Amar welcomes us in the adjacent bishop’s seat. He explains to us how deep the caesura of the IS-rule is with the example of his father. He had worked his whole life as a teacher in the predominantly Muslim villages. From 2014 he had to experience that his own pupils had increasingly turned against him, the Christian teacher, and that some of them had even taken over leading positions in the IS terrorist militia. Here, as elsewhere, it is the apparent unwillingness of Muslims to confess to wrong they have committed or admitted, which massively hinders a reconciliation process in the eyes of Christians. “It will take a lot of time”, Brother Amar says with a deep sigh, “to solve these problems”.

We leave depressed and go to the confectioner of al-Hamdaniya. In former times he baked countless cakes for all Christian festivals in this pulsating city. Then the IS destroyed everything during his invasion. Now he is baking again. In a small, provisional backyard shop. Biscuits and cakes pile up. Baptisms, weddings, you can see the inscriptions on the lovingly designed sweets. The confectioner of al-Hamdaniya. A sweet sign of hope.

The mayor of the Christian village of Baqofa, first mentioned in the 7th century AD. What perspective should he give to his fellow citizens?

The everyday life of Christians in the country is still marked by a great lack of perspective. While on the one hand many displaced people want to return to their millennia-old homeland, those who have returned experience a dramatically bad situation. The International Organization for Migration reports in its report of 28 February 2019 that there are “only” 1.75 million internally displaced persons left in Iraq. But the return is slowing down, as the following significant challenges are faced on the ground: lack of access to employment and opportunities to earn a living, followed by the lack of opportunities to deal with the human rights violations suffered and the lack of security and freedom of movement.

It also does not simplify the situation that many questions of ethnic minorities overlap with the situation of religious minorities. Armenian or Assyrian ethnic groups, for example, also belong to the Christian minority. A further complicating factor is that 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, as well as younger Evangelical Churches.

In the city of Dohuk outside the destroyed areas we meet Emanuel Youkhana, the director of the Christian aid organization CAPNI. He organizes programs for the reconstruction of destroyed villages, business start-ups, health projects and much more. An impressive rock of confidence. Even though the number of Christians has fallen in recent years to only 0.3 percent of the total population, he believes that Christians are of immense importance for Iraq. Christianity has existed here for almost 2000 years and has provided a social added value in this whole time. In the future we Christians will be needed even more. “While many others are building walls, the church can build bridges. While many preach hatred, the Church can preach peace and love. Despite their small number, Christians must therefore become more present in society again. Before the war, they would have offered the best schools and hospitals for everyone, not just for Christians. These institutions must now be rebuilt. “We have much to do and much to give. We are children of hope!”

In the search for answers as to what long-term aid might look like, we also meet various Members of Parliament. We keep asking them how a meaningful operation that does not violate the territorial integrity and political autonomy of Iraq should look. Despite, or precisely because of, the persecution and discrimination suffered, it is important for Christians to make their symbolism visible to the public. The demonstrative erection of crosses, the restoration of churches and the public performance of church services testify to this. That is why the support is right and strong. In addition, the current curricula play an important role: the time of the advanced cultures of Mesopotamia, in which also the Christian churches have their roots, is completely ignored. Iraq’s history in textbooks only begins with the appearance of Islam long later. An Iraqi pupil does not hear a single word about Christians, Jews, Yazidis or Mandeans during his school career. Also we Europeans mostly see Iraq as a Muslim country and have forgotten its original roots. We must therefore ensure, in Iraq and in our own country, that these historical facts are communicated again in a perceptible way.

In addition, there are many human rights violations against which we must speak more strongly. Here are a few examples:

  • Islamization of minors: If one parent is a Muslim or converted to the Muslim faith, the minor children automatically become Muslims. A free choice from the age of majority, which would not be a contradiction to Sharia law, is rejected by the state.
  • In many places in the Kurdistan-Iraq region Christians do not suffer persecution. But the legal system treats them mostly as second-class people.
  • The Constitution only partially recognizes the various minorities.
  • The prosecution of former IS members is very slow.
What are we doing for a peaceful future of religious minorities in Iraq?

Iraq is in a critical transitional phase. The government is weak, and the various anti-IS fighters are now trying to expand their own positions of power. The various population groups are also primarily demanding their own rights. The destroyed trust among each other leads to a great inner turmoil and often to more opposition than cooperation. It is now important to create the conditions for the reconstruction of the country and the return of the civilian population to the cities, some of which have been severely destroyed. A great deal of humanitarian aid is being provided, but it does not cover the current needs. Support for the Iraqi administration and security forces is still very much in need of development and needs strong partners.

Refugees and Internal Displaced Persons as well as the inhabitants of the destroyed areas now need visible signs of sympathy and concrete support. If it is not possible in the near future to stabilize the country, improve the security situation and the feeling of security, create infrastructure and jobs, further streams of refugees will break out towards the West – with devastating consequences for the region and an inevitable aggravation of the situation in Germany and Europe. We should not wait and see what new misery will result from this!

Dr. Philipp W. Hildmann is Head of Strategy Development and Policy Issues at Hanns-Seidel-Foundation in Munich since 2018. Hanns-Seidel-Foundation works worldwide on behalf of democracy, peace and development. He is a member of the European Academy of Sciences and of the Evangelical state synod. His research focuses on politics and religion, intercultural dialogue and human rights as well as the history of literature and ideas in the 19th and 20th centuries.

David Müller is the political advocate for religious freedom in Iraq of the non-profit ojcos foundation. He draws the attention of politicians, churches and media in Germany and Europe to the human rights situation in Iraq and advocates a long-term perspective for the lives and lasting security of the many minorities in the country. In addition, he is an honorary member of various political committees.