The Dilemma of the Iraqi Christians

Due to ISIS occupation of Iraq, all Christian religious leaders across the Middle East advocate swift action by the international community to save the displaced Christians, prevent their emigration from their country, and rid it of their occupiers. If the present scenario persists, we will be responsible for having inflicted a deadly blow to the multiculturality of the Iraqi identity. The new Iraqi generation is entrusted with the construction of a better future in the framework of a consolidation of Christian-Islamic relations, building bridges of peace between religions.

Since the emergence of the modern Iraqi state from and on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, the Iraqi Christians started to have a ray of hope and experience some religious freedom and active civil participation in public life, based on the new principles of citizenship, nationalism and secularism adopted by the new government in building new institutions for the country. All that made the Iraqi Christians more interactive and the first among others to absorb the changes, being significantly instrumental in rolling the wheel of development.

The Christian leaders, ministers, and technocrats played a pivotal role in establishing the state on civil bases, and many other Christians were prominent artists and intellectuals with a unique distinction. They exercised their responsibilities without pressures nor being marginalized, and gained the respect of both governors and governed thanks to their wisdom, high moral richness and experience, integrity and ethics.

Nevertheless, they have been waiting until these very days to have their full rights, in terms of freedom of belief and cult. The new Iraqi constitution ensures their equality in rights and duties in the same way as their fellow citizens, and its articles provide them with all the benefits related to minorities. Yet no ad hoc legislation on Christians has hitherto been approved by the successive Iraqi parliaments despite their importance. As long as such rules will not see the light and continue to be delayed or obstructed, Christians will not obtain their rights and freedom.  

What is most important for Iraqi Christians is to have a new secular Iraq that balances between the respect of other religions and the civil rights implementation, because they strongly believe that religion can be separated from the state. As Iraqi Christians use to say “religion is for God and the state is for all”. Therefore, the enactment of the relevant constitutional provisions is the only certain guarantee to gain their full citizenship and to dispel this feeling of being discriminated and treated unfairly.

The most feared thing among Iraqi Christians and other minorities is the growing religious trend within Islam linked to the takfiri extremist ideologies. The takfiris do not recognize nor respect other religions or even Muslims who follow other doctrines, and resent liberal democratic principles, behaviors, and laws, which they contradict with their wrong way of interpreting the Islamic Shariah law. They consider the Christians as kuffar (non-believers), blasphemous, and a fifth column allied to Western Christians in the fight against Islam, although it is known that the West has never attached any importance to the eastern Arab Christians. They received some consideration only when immediate Western strategic interests were concerned, while being the first to pay the high price of the Western reckless policies in the region.

Our Christians suffered like all the Iraqi people in the last decades of the twentieth century due to the authoritarian regime. They tasted the evil of the dictatorial rule, resulting in bitter sufferings and violations of human rights, and watched their countrymen die in disastrous wars of aggressions. Iraq’s wealth was repeatedly exposed to endless conflicts which brought with them international sanctions, embargoes, and, consequently, misery, misfortune, bad health services, and corruption.

When nationalism proved unable to serve the regime’s goals, the Christians were surprised by the drastic shift from the secular (Baathist) regime to the so-called plan B (Religious Campaign). The then Iraqi leader attributed to himself the title of God’s slave and believer, falsely claiming his descent to the family of Prophet Mohammed in order to win over the population against the anti-regime movements emerging out of the failure of the Baathist ideology.

All these contradictions sparked the rebellion and anger that led to the revolution in March 1991, known as shaabania. The regime was on the verge of being overwhelmed by the crisis, and in reaction let Islamic extremist groups enter the country with the support of some regional governments, so as to keep the population under control. Such groups started to brainwash the new generation, giving out high amounts of money. Over time, the extremists succeeded in turning the fundamentalist incubators they had established into terrorist groups, particularly in the western area of Iraq. Terrorists were assured that they would have been the last to be eliminated in the event of a fall of the regime.

The Iraqi Christians did not welcome these changes and started to get alarmed. Moreover, the embargo inflicted by the international community severely worsened the economic situation, and as a consequence a large number of Christians, especially among the intellectuals and the most educated people, opted to leave the country, giving birth to a massive wave of emigration – most probably the biggest flow of Iraqis who left the country with no return.

Iraq lost hundreds of thousands of its finest sons profession-wise, like high skilled technicians, physicians, as well as intellectuals, who offered their services to other host countries. Thus, also the Iraqi church had to endure the loss of the best elements of the Iraqi Christian community, and could do nothing to prevent it.

The remaining Christians were the elderly people and those who still had some business ties, or were just waiting for the immigration papers to be ready in order to leave the country for the “family reunion”, as they were used to term it. Others Christians, though, had to stay against their will waiting for a better future to come.

As of late, the exodus of the Iraqi Christians was also an outcome of the regime strategy of nationalizing all health institutions and schools belonging to the church. The same Christian institutions that used to provide humanitarian services for all citizens, without exception, and represented a manifestation of coexistence between the two religions, were being repressed by the regime.

When the Iraqis saw the light of freedom on 9th April 2003, the Christians hoped again to be finally treated as equals, all the more so when they saw their fellow Christians taking part in the Iraqi Governing Council. However, they wished to achieve their rights without the help of foreign interventions. The  international coalition spurred the resistance to the occupation of the country, binding together the defeated Baathists and terrorists groups. The Iraqi innocent people were targeted in markets, squares, state infrastructures and institutions, without exception of Churches nor Mosques.

By making use of systemic destructive methods, the terrorists’ project aimed and still aims to undermine the democratic experience of pluralism in Iraq, which represented a glimmer of hope through the Arab Spring to liberate the Arab people’s will and to achieve freedom, justice, and dignity − a long sought dream.

The Arab people were ruled by unjust traditional systems and inherited regimes, where their will was confiscated. The terrorist organizations and their supporters, who backed them up with money, weapons, religious declarations (Fatwas), and manpower, initiated a chain of bloody crimes against our people, including the Christians. These latter were subjected to their terror and innumerable attacks, like the terrible sinful attack on the Church of the Lady of Salvation in Baghdad in 2010, which killed more than 50 worshippers during the mass with two young priests, and the kidnapping and murder of Bishop Faraj Rahho, born in Mosul.

The brutal attacks created a desperate reality in the country that forced hundreds of thousands Christians to flee after selling their properties, estates, and belongings, resuming another wave of new immigration abroad which was facilitated by the intervention of some Western countries.

His Holiness the former Pope Benedict XVI, together with the Middle Eastern archbishops, warned the international community about the increasing migration of the Christian population due to the harsh living conditions in Iraq. To raise awareness on the Iraqi Christian predicament a Middle East Synod was summoned by the Pontiff on October 10-14, 2010. Among other important decisions, the Synod issued a strong appeal to the Governments and people of the region as well as to the international community, calling for a halt of violence against the Christians and of their emigration from Iraq, the cradle of civilizations and religions of which they are historic components.

From October 2010 until 9th June 2014, calm was restored and just isolated incidents occurred. That is why five hundred thousand Christians decided to remain in their homeland, following the Holy See and the bishops’ recommendation not to be influenced by the events and to keep on their faith and stay in Iraq to share the suffering and hope with their co-citizens, looking to a better future with God’s help.

As a consequence of the past tragic events, the national Government doubled the security measures to protect monasteries, churches. and Christian-populated areas. The Government was supported by prominent Islamic religious references, especially the Iraqi Imam Al Sistani, while some political blocs offered their spiritual backing to their beloved Christians and their solidarity in good and bad times.

The leadership of the Kurdistan Region showed an admirable response in embracing all the Christian families endangered by terrorism. A coordination with the central government was created on the basis of mutual mechanisms to re-integrate the refugees in the system and the state’s administration and institutions. The refugees were given a pension and salaries from local banks, and the Ministry of Displaced and Migration provided financial grants and ensured that the Iraqi ration cards were distributed to all the unfortunate Christian families in the region as temporary measures to be enacted until when the situation will not allow them to return to Baghdad and other important cities.

Regrettably, what happened on 10th June 2014 is equivalent to a humanitarian earthquake, a dreadful disaster for the Iraqi Christians which has never been taken in due consideration by the international community. The Christians of Mosul woke up and found the streets replete with the ISIS black flags, announcing the establishment of the Islamic State and giving them an ultimatum of few hours: either to convert to Islam or pay the jizya or to be killed by their swords thirsty of blood. This fate was not an option to the Yazidi nor to the Shabak, the Sheaa or the Turkmen, and they were killed instantly.

The Iraqi Christians in Mosul, with distress and sorrow, watched their Assyrian, Syriac and Chaldean heritage and manuscripts being destroyed by ISIS overnight. They saw with their own eyes barbaric acts like the bombing of their shrines and symbols of faith, their women and children horrified, their houses and possessions looted, their elderly and priests humiliated. They were all thrown out in the street with nothing but their own clothes. They started walking towards an unknown destiny, hungry, thirsty, and wounded, hardly standing on their feet. It is a tragic disaster that brings us back in history and recalls the genocide of the Armenian Christians leaving their houses in a panic, being displaced to different neighboring cities in search of a shelter to save themselves.

Yes, it is a catastrophe. Those people had not committed any crime in their life; on the contrary, they have enriched the Iraqi past and present history with their creativity, achievements, and peaceful values. But now they have to face such a fate and an unknown end, despite the fact that until yesterday their generous work had enhanced the Iraqi public welfare.

His Holiness Pope Francis was extremely distressed hearing the horrifying news of the crimes committed in Iraq, and fearful about the future of the Iraqi religious minorities, the dispersal of their heritage and the loss of their religious and civilization history. To lift some of their sorrow and suffering, besides his repeated appeals to prayer towards the faithful, he instructed the Caritas organization and the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum” to  act immediately by sending aid to the displaced, helping  more than 2.550 families.

Moreover, the Pontiff sent His Eminence Cardinal Filoni as personal envoy to Iraq on 12 August 2014. Cardinal Filoni’s mission was to check the situation by his own eyes and to distribute humanitarian assistance to displaced families, assuring the Holy See’s spiritual closeness. He met with spiritual leaders and governmental representatives, joining them during  gatherings and events.

Through the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, His Holiness Pope Francis also appealed to the Islamic religious leaders to ensure that their voices rise up in condemning those crimes and that the perpetrators were not given any reason to legitimize their terrorists acts.

His Holiness also appealed to the United Nations and its Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, urging them to carry out their humanitarian obligations towards the Iraqi minorities in distress, and to unite to all the religious leaders of the Middle Eastern churches, on top of them the Iraqi Patriarch Sako in his continued request to save the Iraqi Christians from this slow genocide. Terrorism persists to expose them to a ruthless series of violence led by blind bigotry. Patriarch Sako is fervently requesting the international community, the European Union, the Arab League and all those of good will to clear the planes of Nineveh from the grip of the ISIS criminals.

The planes of Nineveh consist of 13 villages that must be protected by establishing a tight security zone enabling the displaced Christian families (amounting to 150 thousand people) to return to their homes and churches, and to prepare themselves for a wider mission to liberate Mosul from evil. A compensation for the moral and material damages they have undergone should then be granted to them.

Regrettably, no concrete and serious action has been taken thus far to address the suffering of the Iraqi Christians, neither by the central government in Baghdad, nor by that in Arbil, where no plan of liberation of Mosul and Nineveh’s surrounding has been contemplated. They merely focused on the liberation of Mosul’s dam and of the cities of Tel Uskuf and Batnaya, with the backing of the US drones and air strikes. The main aim of the military operation was to defend the Region of Kurdistan and to prevent the ISIS advance towards Arbil, while protecting the interests of the American fleet.

On the other hand, the Christian bishops would like to see a coordination between the central government and Erbil to solve the problem with the help of both the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga. Further disappointments have concerned the slowness in the welcoming of the displaced families in the region and the scarce quantity of the humanitarian aids they received. The grants of one million dinars provided by the Government was not enough to accomplish the mission as promised.

The constant delays in the payment of the employees’ salaries and pensions, as well as of their families ration are to be added to the poor health care service, especially for the disabled and the elderly with chronic diseases. Moreover, as there was no objection by the displaced families to be moved to the central and southern governorates, where some relatives and acquaintances could host them until better times, the Iraqi airlines provided only few flights.

And we do not have to forget that refugee camps need potable water, electricity, and other services, particularly schooling. Indeed, it is necessary to provide the students with educational activities and teachers.

The Iraqi bishops and Christians appreciated the words of love and compassion that Imam Al Sistani pronounced when a Christian delegation headed by Patriarch Sako paid visit to him in Najaf on 9 August 2014: “We are part of you and you are a part of us. We feel pain when you are hurt and rejoice when you are happy”. These words are still engraved in their hearts and live in their conscience.

However, Iraqi Christians tend to blame other Islamic parties, whether in Iraq or outside, for their failure in condemning the ISIS horrible crimes against them. They expect the issuing of clear fatwas explicitly prohibiting the scattering of Christian blood and honor, likewise the supply of money to those criminals. They expect an intensive campaign by Al Azhar and other prominent Islamic doctrine centers during the Friday sermons in all mosques of Arab and Muslim countries. They expect intellectuals and media throughout the world, together with the heads of tribal groups and the organizations of the civil society in Iraq to express their support, including by voluntary contributions, blood donations, and advocacy activities. Solidarity may be of great help to strengthen the national identity in the Iraqi Christians and to convince them that their fate is the same as the one of their countrymen.

Any failure by the government or people in showing their good will and enthusiasm in accomplishing these duties will deteriorate the situation further, increasing the feelings of frustration and bitterness that are accompanying the Christians of Iraq in their darkest age.

At the same time, the Iraqi Christians have to resist to the temptation of migrating to Western countries, which have significantly opened their borders.

If this scenario persists (God forbid), we will be responsible for committing the “mercy bullet” on the multiculturality of the Iraqi identity. All Iraq’s historical religious coexistence and tolerance will be gone forever and will be wasted. The feature and respect that Iraq obtained in the human family will be demolished. Remorse will not help after the sword will have done its killing.

It is regrettable that the 216 Iraqi Christians who took refuge in Amman, Jordan, were provided with shelter, food, water, and medical services by the local Caritas in coordination with other Jordanian co-sponsors, just pending the completion of the asylum procedures to emigrate to European countries.

A representative of the Syrian Catholic church in Jordan, Father Nour Al Qass Moussa, is currently working with the Jordanian government to facilitate the arrival of the Iraqi Christians to Jordan, expressed his disappointment at their relocation in a third country. He also criticized the US limited air strikes that were carried out only to defend and protect its short term interests in the Region of Kurdistan, and not to protect and save the Iraqi Christians.

The data of the third and last wave of Christians’ emigration from Iraq confirm the existence of a consensus among the Christian immigrants to return to Iraq even if stability will be restored, and they do not even want to settle in other Arab states due to the fragility of the security situation throughout the broader region. 

The Christian curia in the Middle East predicted such a situation on the occasion of a meeting organized in Beirut last August 7th in support of the Iraqi Christians. Prior, regrets towards the Islamic and Arab world for the “shameful” crimes committed against its own people had been expressed by the Egyptian Catholic Patriarchate on 18th August 2013. Based on these statements, the main exponents of the Christian clergy in the Middle East went to Arbil on 20th August 2014. The group was headed by the Maronite Patriarch Al Rai, the Melkite Patriarch Laham, the Assyrian Catholic Yunnan, and the Assyrians Orthodox Afram II.

They were all received by Patriarch Sako to carry out an inspection tour and meet with Iraqi Christians in the Region of Kurdistan. After accomplishing their mission, the group of Christian leaders held a press conference and concluded that only a swift action by the UN Security Council can save the displaced Christians, prevent the migration flow from Iraq, and rid the country of their occupiers.

The leaders also appealed to His Holiness Pope Francis for a more influential effort in urging the international community to stop the ISIS criminals and to provide the Iraqi Christians with international protection. They also reiterated their resentment for the cold reaction from the Islamic states towards the atrocious crimes against humanity committed in Iraq, violating all God’s divine laws.

In order to overcome this crisis and to prevent other Iraqi Christians from migrating and heavy losses from occurring, all individuals, religious organizations, independent entities, ministries, government and parliamentary committees, must stand together to find an effective mechanism to sustain the displaced community and arrange joint programs to keep the bonds between the population who was forced to leave their homeland and the one inside the country. They must promote new means of dialogue and assume a leading role in bringing the Western Christians and the Eastern Muslims closer.

Our immigrant generation is capable and adequate to represent the Iraqi tradition, enriched by the mentalities and cultures of the West. This new generation, armed with knowledge and history, is entrusted with the construction of a better future in the framework of a consolidation of Christian-Islamic relations, building bridges of peace between religions.