UN panel discusses challenges in repatriating Nineveh Plain residents in wake of ISIS
The Kurds of northern Iraq provided protection and shelter to thousands of Christians at the height of the Islamic State crisis. Now that ISIS’ attempt to establish a “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria has apparently been thwarted, Christians are striving to go back to the homes they fled when the jihadist group advanced.
But the same Kurdish government that extended a helping hand then may now be presenting an obstacle to the hopes of preserving a Christian presence in Iraq, speakers at the United Nations said this week.
Participants in a panel discussion on “Preserving Pluralism and Diversity in the Nineveh Region” described how the conflict between the Iraqi central government and its military and the independence-minded Kurds of northern Iraq is impeding recovery efforts for Christians. The panel was convened November 30 by the Holy See Mission to the UN and moderated by the Vatican’s representative at the world body, Archbishop Bernardito Auza.
Stephen M. Rasche, director and legal counsel of the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, which is rebuilding homes for thousands of Iraqi Christians, said that his organization has been able to return over 4,000 families to their homes so far. But the standoff between the semi-autonomous Kurdish government and the military forces of Iraq threatens to derail any future success. The conflict has “carved Nineveh in half and made towns in which we need to work inaccessible,” he said.
Moreover, the economic viability of the region and its ability to sustain recovery efforts is “being halted due to the inability of its inhabitants and workers to travel between towns,” Rasche said. “Nineveh is a collection of towns, all of which are interdependent on each other. With this artificial border that continues to run through Nineveh, it disrupts all of the ability for the organic, historical economies to take root again.”
The uncertain status of the Nineveh region has left several towns “open to real risk of inhabitation by others from outside, thereby creating new sources of potential violence and conflict,” said Rasche, who lives in Erbil.
In an interview later, Rasche described those potential occupiers as “non-Christians that have designs on moving into these historical Christian homes.” He declined to be more specific.
“When Nineveh was liberated, it was liberated from two different directions: from the North by the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and from the South by the Iraqi forces,” he said. The Peshmerga forces “came in as a result of the liberation and ended up in control of a number of towns in the Nineveh Plain. Those towns had historically been within Iraqi control up until 2014. … They had not been part of the Kurdistan region. Now there’s a dispute between the Kurdistan government and the Iraqi central government in Baghdad as to who should have control and authority over those towns.”
The Nineveh Reconstruction Committee is an association of the three principal Christian Churches in the Nineveh Plain that are working together to facilitate the return of survivors. It has been supported by grants from the Knights, Aid to the Church in Need, and the government of Hungary, among others.
Joining Rasche on the panel were Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil, who has overseen humanitarian aid to internally displaced Christians in the Iraqi Kurdistan region since the summer of 2014; Father Salar Kajo, a pastor in several Christian towns of the Nineveh Plain; Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, and Edward Clancy of Aid to the Church in Need.
Also participating in the discussion were the permanent representatives to the United Nations from Iraq, Hungary and Poland.
Father Kajo said that many Christian IDPs felt encouraged to return home after towns on the Nineveh Plain began to be liberated in the fall of 2016. Nearly 1,000 families have returned to the town of Teleskof, for example. But the conflict between Baghdad and the Kurds needs to be resolved if that is to continue.
“One month ago, these two forces began fighting just outside Teleskof,” Father Kajo said. “Mortar rounds and heavy gunfire came into the town. Innocent children were wounded, and the families which had begun to repair their lives, once again were forced to run away. We were told by the military forces on the night of Sept. 25 that we must all leave the town because the next day heavy fighting would begin. But [I] and the leaders of the church community, we refused to go. We would not give up our town to destruction once again.”
He said that because of an intervention of the US government, “both sides entered into a ceasefire, and the town was not destroyed.”
“But as I speak to you today, these two opposing forces are still facing each other only half a kilometer from our town. Soldiers hold defensive positions inside our civilian homes,” said the priest, who is vicar general of the Diocese of Al Qosh.
He testified that people who have moved back into the town are “deeply afraid of more violence. They sleep with suitcases already packed. They have stopped working on their homes, and they only buy small amounts of food.”
The permanent representative of Iraq to the UN, Mohammed Hussein Moh’d Ali Bahr AlUloom, insisted in his presentation that Iraq is committed to preserve the diversity the region has known historically. After all, Iraq is surrounded by nations that are of Turkish, Persian and Arab cultures. He said his country is embarking on a rebuilding project that will include efforts to foster national unity, that must include Kurds, Christians, Shia and Sunni Muslims, and Mandaeans. He said that Iraq has developed a “new national strategy” to ensure peaceful dialogue among religions and that it is budgeting $130 billion to rebuild the areas destroyed by ISIS.
For many who have been following this issue, the return of Christians to their homes and their ability to live in security is an existential one. Anderson, of the Knights of Columbus, likened the issue to a “war of ideas” that ISIS may very well win, if Christians and other religious minorities are ultimately driven from the region.
“The question before the world community now is, whether ISIS will win ideologically and strategically, even as it loses militarily,” Anderson said. “While ISIS is now gone as a military force, so too are the victims they forcibly evicted. The philosophy behind their genocide—the idea of cleansing Iraq of religious minority groups like Yazidis and Christians—is on the cusp of success. Quite simply, if the Christians, Yazidis, Shabak, and other religious minorities displaced by ISIS do not return to their ancestral homes in sizeable numbers, ISIS will have won the battle of ideas.”
The Knights of Columbus in 2014 launched the Christian Refugee Relief Fund, which has committed $17 million to assist persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
Rasche, who is also legal counsel for the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil and vice chancellor of the Catholic University in Erbil, said in an interview that although it’s difficult to estimate numbers with the population being in flux, there are between 70,000 to 100,000 Christian IDPs still left in Erbil and environs, “from a number that was originally somewhere between 125,000 and 150,000.” Some 20,000 to 30,000 of the original IDPs have left the country, he said.
Clancy, of Aid to the Church in Need, said that while predominantly Muslim East Mosul has seen 90 percent of its people return, the Nineveh Plain has seen only 12 percent of the Christian population return.
Archbishop Warda, in his remarks, thanked both the regional government of Kurdistan for providing a safe and hospitable place for IDPs, and the Iraqi government, which he said spent $100 billion fighting ISIS.
Archbishop Auza summarized the afternoon by declaring: “Today we have heard from various angles a common point, that if we really want to defeat the wickedness of Daesh, more is needed than just its military demise. We have to restore the pluralism and diversity Daesh sought to destroy. That’s a task that will certainly take more time, and may be more challenging, than the military component of the war against ISIS. ”