America Comment

Iraq’s Christians are slowly coming home, but they face grave new threats

A member of a Christian militia genuflects before the altar at a church in Qaraqosh, Iraq (Getty)

The country's Christian community is still in mortal danger. They need our help more than ever

Saly and Rahma are like so many young American university students. In their second year at Catholic University, these two young women are serious students, thoughtful and articulate. They talk excitedly about their chosen majors and their plans for the future. Both twenty-somethings seem poised to become strong and competent professionals after completing their studies at Catholic University.

Here’s the key difference: Saly and Rahma’s Catholic University is the Catholic University in Erbil, Iraq.

Saly and Rahma and I spoke for almost two hours one day over the Internet via Whatsapp. The girls were joined by one of their professors (John) in a lecture room after their classes had ended for the day. David Trimble, Senior Fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute, had met them during a recent visit to Iraq. He connected us all, because, in a way – in our long, twilight struggle against global terrorism – Saly and Rahma are America’s future, too. The reason can be found in their past, and their courageous choices for the present.

Saly and Rahma come from Qaraqosh, a small town about 20 minutes outside of Erbil. It was, before 2014, a predominantly Christian community. Both women described idyllic childhoods. They were surrounded by loving parents and siblings as well as extended relatives and members of their faith community. “Before 2014, precious things existed in Qaraqosh,” Saly says. “Our celebrations were unifying and cooperative with relatives. We would gather even if there was no special event to celebrate.”

Of course, 2014 was the year that ISIS overran Qaraqosh. When the girls were still in high school, their families, along with most other Christians in Qaraqosh, fled to Erbil shortly before the militant group arrived. They did not know if they would return home in a few days or ever.

The exodus to Erbil changed everything, and Saly and Rahma were the lucky ones. They did not camp in open-air garden settlements or find shelter in local churches. Their fathers found homes to rent. Saly and 25 of her relatives count their blessings because of the two-bedroom house her dad rented. Saly’s father, Salim, reminded Saly and her four siblings every day about the importance of staying together despite all of the tension of their overcrowding. While both Saly and Rahma initially remained secluded, they eventually took advantage of courses in English, computers and cosmetology offered by aid agencies working in Erbil before enrolling in university studies. These opportunities were their lifelines.

Saly and Rahma’s families returned to Qaraqosh after U.S.-backed Iraqi troops and other forces liberated the town in December 2017. Only about half of the Christians families who fled have done so. Those who returned found their homes damaged by fire and vandalism. Some of their homes were even occupied by non-Christians from neighboring regions.  But they returned and have started to rebuild. Without private aid to rebuild their homes, Rahma says, “no one would have returned to this town.”

Yet, the young Iraqi Christians who survived ISIS and upheaval wrought by ISIS in 2014 now face a new challenge – returning home. To rebuild their towns and recover their cherished sense of community, security, and prosperity, they need the continued support of the U.S. government and private aid agencies.

Many of the young people who have returned have no work. They are bored. While still in their country, they share no part of its growth and recovery. The impact on their identity can be devastating. “A person has his personality through his work,” Saly said matter-of-factly.

The absence of economic opportunities is matched only by growing insecurity. This is the result of not only ISIS members who have been in hiding, but also the increasing presence of Iranian-backed militants. In response to this latter threat, the U.S. State Department recently advised Americans against traveling to Iraq and ordered its non-emergency employees to leave. Recognizing the heightened threat-risk of Iranian-backed militias who have gone unchecked is a needed step to thwart this new threat to Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities but also presents a challenge. Archbishop Bashar Warda, one of the most vocal advocates for persecuted and displaced Christians in Iraq, recently expressed grave concerns. “Having faced genocide at the hands of ISIS, our shattered communities have drawn immense hope from the promise of the American commitment to Iraqi minority communities,” he said.

Will the heightened threat to the safety and well-being of Americans visiting the region jeopardize Saly and Rahma’s dream for a good and happy life back in their hometown? Who will remain to help young people like Saly and Rahma rebuild their town and help them restore their once peaceful and safe community?

An answer – perhaps a prayer of sorts – came as we were ending our call.

“All of us are human, and we should feel for and help each other,” Rahma told me. “Christianity in Iraq will disappear without your help.”

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is Legal Advisor for The Catholic Association Foundation