Patriarch Louis Sako of the Chaldean Catholic Church took the unprecedented move of cancelling Christmas celebrations in Iraq, following the violence unleashed upon regime protesters in Baghdad and elsewhere that left hundreds dead. “Morally and spiritually,” Cardinal Sako told Associated Press, “we cannot celebrate in such an atmosphere of tension … It’s not normal to celebrate our joy and happiness while others are dying.” Not even as Christians were targeted in Baghdad in the years following the 2003 invasion, or in response to ISIS, did Sako take such a step.
The protests, which began in October, represent a non-sectarian, popular yearning to overhaul the disastrous political system in Iraq. But they have been met with a brutal response the militias and security forces protecting that system. Writer Max J Joseph argues that “fear and uncertainty surrounding the risky situation on the ground led to the [Christmas] cancellations … Many people believe it’s too dangerous to be out in the streets and this fear is amplified among minorities.”
Genocidal violence and untrammelled land and property theft mean that the pre-2003 war population of more than a million Christians in Iraq – the vast majority of whom are ethnic Assyrians – is now down to fewer than 200,000.
The question of Christianity’s survival in Iraq is inseparable from political realities. ISIS persecution in 2014, which was classified by the Obama administration as genocide, resulted in the exodus of some 200,000 Christian Assyrians from their historic heartland in the Nineveh Plain. Rates of return are only significant in the villages guarded by the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), a local security force made up of Christian Assyrians from the various villages and denominations of the Plain. The NPU was an official partner in the Iraqi, American and international operation against ISIS, yet its long-term status remains unclear.
The project to turn the Nineveh Plain into a province, providing a measure of security and self-administration, was gaining political favour just before ISIS attacked. But Iraqi and international policy continues to enforce the pre-ISIS status quo in the Plain, including its partial occupation by the same Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Peshmerga forces that summarily abandoned Assyrians and Yazidis to ISIS in the summer of 2014.
Certain aspects of America’s USAID policy towards Christians have lately become more attuned to local needs. The Shlama Foundation, an aid organisation established to link the Chaldean Catholic Assyrian diaspora in America with their ancestral villages in northern Iraq, has received its first official US grant of a million dollars for a solar project. But without Iraqi and international commitment to security in the Nineveh Plain – which represents the final opportunity for a concentrated Assyrian presence anywhere in the region – aid can only have a limited impact. As Ranna Abro, a Shlama board member, put it to me: “We have been rebuilding every day after ISIS because we truly believe in our existence and a better future. But how long can we can keep our belief strong when our safety is threatened daily? No other rights can exist without the right to self-defence.”
Assyrians are under existential threat, as is their heritage – crucial to the history of the region and of Christianity itself. The coming period is likely to mark a final stage of decline, but the character of the protests – and the courage of the protesters, Christian Assyrians among them – is being greeted with hopeful encouragement.
“We might be witnessing a turning point for the country, and it is essential that Assyrians have a meaningful role in shaping a future Iraq in order to survive,” Reine Hanna, director of the US-based Assyrian Policy Institute, told me. “Whether Iraqi authorities will recognise the magnitude of this moment for the Assyrian population remains to be seen.”
Mardean Isaac has written for the Financial Times, the Awl, the Tablet and elsewhere. He is currently working on a novel