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Five years after Christians forced out of Iraqi homes, situation still delicate

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Archbishop of Erbil warns of continued presence of extremist Islamist groups

Five years after Christians fled their homes in northern Iraq and two years after the military defeat of the Islamic State marauders who chased them out, there is still hope that those Christians will be able to return home. But the existence of extremist groups and the fighting between forces who prevailed over ISIS is still making those Christians nervous.

“There are still extremist groups, growing in number, who hold that killing Christians and Yazidis helps the spread of Islam,” Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil said in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need, a papal agency that has been helping Christians survive the ISIS crisis. “By strictly adhering to Koranic teaching they prescribe dhimmi status, or second class citizenship for minorities, allowing for the confiscation of property and enforcement of the jizya Islamic tax.”

ISIS was driven from its last stronghold at Baghuz in Syria in March after a massive multinational military campaign, the BBC noted. Before that, it had already been expelled from Iraq’s second city of Mosul in July 2017. But that’s not the end of the story, Archbishop Warda warned.

“The defeat of ISIS has not seen the defeat of the idea of the re-establishment of the Caliphate,” he said. “This notion has been reawakened and is now firmly implanted in minds throughout the Muslim world. And with this idea of the Caliphate there come all the formal historical structures of intentional inequality and discrimination against non-Muslims. I speak here not only of Iraq. We see leaders in other countries in the Middle East who are clearly acting in a way consistent with the re-establishment of the Caliphate.”

He said it’s up to “the Muslim world itself” to bring about a change in mentality. “We see the small beginnings, perhaps, of this recognition in Egypt, in Jordan, in Asia, even in Saudi Arabia,” the archbishop said. “Certainly, it remains to be seen as to whether there is actual sincerity in this.”

“We forgive those who murdered us, who tortured us, who raped us, who sought to destroy everything about us. … And so we say to our Muslim neighbors, ‘learn this from us. Let us help you heal. … Let us heal our wounded and tortured country together.”

He said that in giving daily witness to the teachings of Christ, Christians in Iraq can “provide a living example to our Muslim neighbors of a path to a world of forgiveness, of humility, of love, of peace.”

“I am speaking of the fundamental truth of forgiveness which we Christians of Iraq can share, and share from a position of historically unique moral clarity,” Warda said. “We forgive those who murdered us, who tortured us, who raped us, who sought to destroy everything about us. We forgive them. … And so we say to our Muslim neighbors, ‘learn this from us. Let us help you heal. Your wounds are as deep as ours. We know this. We pray for your healing. Let us heal our wounded and tortured country together.”

But, he warned, Christianity in Iraq “is perilously close to extinction.” The Christian population of Iraq has fallen from about 1.5 million before 2003, or 6% of Iraq’s population, to about 250,000 today.

Meanwhile, tensions between the Iraqi government in Baghdad and Iran-affiliated forces that had been helping it fight extremists in northern Iraq seem to be growing.

“In recent days, the Nineveh Plain has become the scene of an insidious tug of war between the Iraqi army and the militiamen of Hashd al-Shaabi, the popular mobilization forces, formed mainly by Shiite paramilitary groups and considered close to Iran,” Fides News Agency reported. “Latent tensions exploded after the Iraqi army tried to take effective control of all checkpoints in the area, still largely controlled by the militia of the People’s Mobilization Forces.”

Tensions flared on Monday, with members of the mobilization forces throwing stones and blunt objects at Iraqi soldiers and blocking the main roads connecting Mosul with other regions, the report said.

“The situation remains tense and contradictory rumors are circulating,” Fides said. “The clashes between the army and supporters of militia operating in the area confirms that the Nineveh Plain continues to represent an unstable area, above all from a security point of view. This factor also complicates the hoped-for return to the area of the tens of thousands of Christians who, on the night of 6 to 7 August 2014, were forced to abandon their villages in the Nineveh Plain, before the advance of the Daesh jihadist militiamen.”

John Hannah, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and former national security advisor to Vice President Richard B. Cheney, explained the delicate situation in an article in Foreign Policy:

In total, the PMF numbers about 130,000 to 150,000 fighters. Groups directly answerable to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps make up a significant portion of that force and are far and away its most powerful element. These include the U.S.-designated terrorist militias Kataib Hezbollah and Hezbollah al-Nujaba, as well as the Badr Organization and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. In the wake of the 2003 Iraq War, several of these groups worked hand in glove with the IRGC to kill over 600 U.S. troops. They also systematically intimidated, extorted, terrorized, tortured, and killed thousands of Iraqi civilians with the aim of forcing the population to bend the knee to their vision of a pro-Iranian, Islamist Iraq. …

U.S. officials are facing an unpleasant reality. The facts are quite stark when laid out. The United States considers the Iraqi government to be an important security partner, providing its military with billions of dollars of support and advanced equipment. But that same partner has welcomed a group of Iran-backed militias—all sworn enemies of the United States, some designated terrorist groups, and most with American blood on their hands—into the Iraqi security forces as a largely independent, parallel army. The Iraqi government now generously funds those groups through the national budget.

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