When Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike in Baghdad, Iraq’s Christians had good reason to be afraid. Although they were not implicated in the political fall-out which followed, they quickly began to realise that, were the security situation to remain destabilised, it could have fatal consequences for the survival of one of the world’s oldest churches.
All the more so when, a few days later, Iran retaliated with ballistic missile strikes against US targets, including attacks on an airbase in Erbil, the capital of semi-autonomous Kurdish northern Iraq.
Erbil has been a refuge for Christians escaping the horrors of ISIS during the militants’ occupation of Mosul and the nearby Nineveh Plains, home to some of the oldest Church communities dating back to earliest times. Such attacks have underlined the precarious state of Iraq’s now tiny Christian community, which continues to reel from an exodus triggered by genocidal persecution.
According to research by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), within a generation, Iraq’s Christians have declined by 90 per cent to below 250,000. Some reports suggest that the actual figure may be lower than 120,000.
Were the Iran crisis to become protracted, bishops from the region believe that the consequences for Iraqi Christians would be potentially catastrophic.
Within 24 hours of the Iran strike on the airbases, Erbil’s Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda released a statement saying: “The current tensions are threatening the serious fragility of the communities, which are tired of war and the tragic consequences of it.”
Describing Christians as “victims and endless collateral damage”, the archbishop said that his flock “have continually suffered far too much and can no longer face an unknown future”.
From Baghdad, where Soleimani was killed and where another retaliatory missile strike took place, came a similar message from Auxiliary Bishop Shlemon Warduni of the Patriarchate of Babylon. He said that a new war in Iraq would be terrible for the Christian community, underlining that the weakest often pay the highest price in situations of armed conflict.
And yet, Christians in Iraq have showed remarkable resilience in the face of some of the worst persecution in the modern era. When ISIS seized Mosul and the Nineveh Plains in the summer of 2014, forcing out the region’s entire Christian population, such was the devastation that it was arguably doubtful that a once thriving community could ever recover.
But recover it did, and in the months that followed the ousting of ISIS in late 2016 the faithful began to return. In Qaraqosh, the largest of Nineveh’s Christian towns, half of its Christians have now gone back, helped by organisations such as ACN repairing homes, churches and other centres.
But however quick the recovery, the fragility of the newly re-established Christian communities is beyond doubt.
Warning of the threat of a “second genocide” against Christians and other minorities in the region, Fr Andrzej Halemba, ACN’s Middle East projects coordinator, last month spoke of a “genocidal mentality”. He reflected reports that the ISIS occupation had awakened a fresh enthusiasm for hardline “Caliphate” Islamism among some Muslim communities in the region.
On trips I and other ACN staff have made to Iraq, Church leaders and lay alike have spoken of their fears of “shaved beards”, former ISIS members who have integrated with the local population, quietly stirring up resentment against the returning Christian communities.
The latest Middle East crisis brings into focus a second threat facing Christians in Iraq: reports from Nineveh and elsewhere in the country have highlighted the threat from militia made up of Shabak, a mainly Shia ethnic group loyal to Iran.
Christian leaders have increasingly highlighted concerns about the growing power and presence of the Shabak and other militia, especially in Nineveh towns. These areas were mainly Christian before the ISIS invasion. In the years since, numbers of Shia have increased, with control rapidly shifting in the Shabak’s favour.
Church groups visiting the region have reported that, as one commentator put it, “many of the militias are clearly following orders issued in Tehran”.
Intelligence from within Iraq suggests that Christians could become a proxy target for militia groups which unjustly perceive the faithful as committed to the US and an unwanted quasi-Western influence.
In the wake of the assassination of General Soleimani, Peter Burns, director of government relations and policy of the advocacy group In Defense of Christians, cited concerns that minorities in the region faced the “increased possibility of counter-attacks”.
The threat that the Shia militia may be mobilised in a battle of wills between major powers is coupled with another problem, again with profound implications for Christians: the risk of the militants stirring up conflict with the Sunni groups at a time when the ISIS problem simply refuses to go away.
Caught in the middle, Christians are concerned that they have little recourse to the law, and have expressed fears that a plan to give Islamic clerics voting rights at the Federal Supreme Court could lead to the country becoming a theocracy.
The proposed change would involve four Islamic clerics sitting as part of the Federal Supreme Court’s 13-member judiciary – with all decisions requiring the support of at least three of the four Islamic jurists.
Reports from senior Iraqi Christian clergy have highlighted alleged government unwillingness to track down the perpetrators of acts of violence targeting Christians in areas of Nineveh under federal control.
One such was a gun attack on a Palm Sunday procession in the Nineveh town of Bartella, which forced Christians to abandon the traditional ceremonial start to Holy Week.
Of the 3,800 Christian families living in the town before the 2014 ISIS invasion, fewer than a third have returned.
The Shabak-Shia militias, which control the town’s security, are accused of harassing Christians. Reports stated that the militants fired guns in front of Bartella’s St George’s Church for at least an hour and threatened its priest, Fr Behnam Benoka.
Marking the fifth anniversary of the ISIS invasion of Mosul and Nineveh last August, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako, leader of Iraq’s largest Christian community, said: “[Ours] has always been a Church of martyrs throughout its long history.” Resilience and regrowth have been as much a part of that story as fabled narratives of bloodshed and heroism. And yet the threat of extinction looms ever larger for Iraq’s Christian community. There are only so many knocks it can take.
When considering its next moves, the international community addressing this latest Middle East crisis should heed this warning: that the most enduring consequence of their actions – intended or otherwise – could be to cut the thread on which hangs the last vestiges of Christianity in Iraq.
It is this that lies behind the haunting words of Syriac Catholic Archbishop Nathaniel Nizar Semaan of Hadiab-Erbil. Speaking to me barely 48 hours after the missile attack on the Erbil airbase, he said: “Any conflict and tension such as what we have seen over these past days makes us lose trust in the situation in Iraq. We hope that we are not going to reach that point where we will have to leave. We hope that we will never reach that point.”
John Pontifex is head of press and information at Aid to the Church in Need (UK)