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The harsh truth about Iraqi Christianity

A church desecrated by ISIS: many Christians are afraid to return home

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has several categories to define the danger of extinction that various species face today. Using a percentage of population decline, the categories range from “vulnerable species” (a 30-50 per cent decline), to “critically endangered” (80-90 per cent) and finally to extinction.

In June Pope Francis announced his desire to visit Iraq sometime in 2020. The country has been home to a Christian community since apostolic times. Yet following the coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the removal of Saddam Hussein, the Christian population of Iraq has shrunk by 83 per cent, putting it in the category of “critically endangered”.

Only last month, on a visit to London, Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil, declared that the Christian population of Iraq was facing “extinction”. This is despite the defeat of ISIS and the liberation of the towns it had occupied on the Nineveh Plains, the traditional Christian heartland.

The wave of sectarian violence unleashed in Iraq following the defeat of Saddam hit the Christian minority in Iraq particularly savagely. Long before the genocidal violence of ISIS, Christians were being kidnapped, robbed and murdered by both Sunni and Shia groups. By 2014, even before the arrival of ISIS, the majority of Mosul’s Christian population had already removed themselves to the (as it seemed) safer environment of the Nineveh Plains, due to the increasing threats they faced at home. According to Archbishop Warda, the violence of ISIS was only the culmination of many years of persecution.

To date, less than half of the more than 120,000 Christians driven out of the Nineveh Plains by ISIS have returned to their homes, despite a programme of rebuilding and reconstruction which has progressed very slowly. Hungary, unique in the world as the only government with a specific ministry devoted to helping persecuted Christians, has been at the forefront of the rebuilding efforts since 2016, offering generous support to the Iraqi faithful.

Yet because of the continuing menace of ISIS, and other emerging threats, the Christian population continues to decline, with families leaving Iraq every week. Despite territorial defeat, ISIS fighters – both sleeper cells embedded in the population and larger groups still actively fighting – continue to present dangers.

Already this summer, what should have been one of the best harvests on the Nineveh Plains has been severely damaged by an ISIS campaign of crop and field burning. Attacks continue, with virtually no Christian families returning to live in Mosul, which is still considered too dangerous.

On a visit to Iraq this January, I was told that, despite a priest being appointed for a church in Mosul, he was not able to live in the city, and there is no resident bishop. Those who have returned to other liberated towns and villages face a new threat: Iran-backed Shia militias who, despite claims that the Iraqi army controls security in the so-called “disputed territory” of Nineveh, are, in fact, the real force. They have been harassing the Christian population, notably in the town of Bartella, with threats made against the local clergy and incidents of violence.

According to local sources, the much-vaunted help from the United States, through the USAID programme, is very sporadic. The steady dwindling of the Christian population of Iraq continues because of the lack of security and employment. Without jobs, families have no incentive to stay, and without security they will not stay.

Christians in the region feel forgotten by those who promised to do so much for them. Having lived through the genocide of 2014, they see little sign that, if the same happens again, the West will come to their aid. Media coverage of the threats to Iraq’s ancient Christian civilisation seems to be limited and infrequent.

So Western Christians can perhaps be forgiven for believing that all is well for Iraqi Christians following the “defeat” of ISIS.

However, many Christian leaders bear a considerable responsibility, whether through ignorance or indifference, for the “critically endangered” status of Iraq’s Christian population. Archbishop Warda was blunt in his criticism of Church leadership during his visit to Britain. The silence was due, he said, to “political correctness”, with clerics afraid to speak out for fear of being labelled Islamophobic. A phobia, of course, is an irrational fear: there is nothing irrational about the fears of Iraqi Christians.

A papal visit to Iraq next year would certainly bring hope and comfort to a Church which has survived nearly 2,000 years but which is now critically endangered. But it may be too late to save the Church of Iraq, and Pope Francis may preside not over a celebration of the rebirth of Christianity in Iraq, but rather a wake for a once vibrant culture.

An Iraqi bishop once told me that the world cares more about endangered frogs than persecuted Christians. If Christianity in Iraq disappears, “for the sake of not wanting to speak the truth to the persecutors,” said Archbishop Warda, “will the world be complicit in our elimination?”

Fr Benedict Kiely is the founder of Nasarean.org, which helps the persecuted Christians of the Middle East