Iran's influence could lead to a replay of 2014 upheaval, Middle East expert warns.
Stephen M. Rasche is vice chancellor at the Catholic University of Erbil and legal counsel to the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, in the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He had worked in Iraq prior to 2014, shuttling between the Middle East and the U.S., but when the Islamic State group began to take over more and more territory in Syria and Iraq, including many Christian areas, he returned full-time.
“The archdiocese [of Erbil] took in 150,000 or so displaced persons almost overnight,” and Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda “looked to every friend he could find around the world, to see if they could help,” Rasche said this week. Rasche himself was one of those friends.
“I’ve been working here more or less since then, with the exception of this last year,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I came home for Christmas of 2019, and because of COVID, I was not able to return until just two weeks ago, after getting the vaccine.”
He returned just in time for the apostolic visit of Pope Francis to Iraq, which included several stops in the country’s northern region where Rasche has been working. He discussed the fallout of the trip with Aleteia.
Why do you feel this was a significant papal visit, for Iraq and for her Christians?
It was a message from the Vatican, from the Holy Father, that they were not forgotten, that he was with them, and that along with him, the Church was with them. And this message of solidarity in coming here was really profound and hopeful for the Christians.
For the people of Iraq, it showed the type of outreach that we’ve all come to expect from Pope Francis, that he cares for the people and the countries on the margins, wherever they might be, and that he has care for the people of Iraq beyond just the Christians as well.
What do you think will be the consequences of this visit?
I think one of the important things is that by virtue of Pope Francis having shown to the world and to the Iraqi government and to the Kurdish government that Iraq and people here, including the Christians, are important enough to him that he came here. This in turn we hope will have an impact on governments and people around the world, that if the Holy Father had his eye and his thought on the situation for the people in Iraq, then other governments ought to think of that as well.
I know that for the Christians here, they are looking still for a sign from the Biden administration as to whether or not the plight of religious minorities will continue to be a priority for the U.S. — or even any type of priority for the U.S. This visit from the Holy Father keeps that issue front and center.
What progress is being made in returning Christians to the homes they had lost due to the ISIS invasion?
That’s a mixed situation. In Nineveh, where most of the Christians were displaced, it remains a divided land between the Iraqi sector and the Kurdish sector, with many checkpoints to get back and forth between those centers. Within the Iraqi sector, the towns that were previously majority Christian have seen a drop in their population. Some of them have had some greater success in having Christians returned, such as Qaraqosh and Karamles. Others have had much more difficulty, like Bartella, where the Iranian-backed militias have really taken over. So it’s really a town-by-town thing in the Iraqi sector.
In the Kurdish sector, you have the town of Teleskof, which has largely been returned, but the problem is, even where the people are able to return, they have no jobs; there is no income. So it’s a really difficult thing. At best a little less than half of the Christians who lived out there in Nineveh have returned. In Mosul, no Christians, essentially, have returned, and it’s unlikely we’ll see any real large scale return of Christians there in the foreseeable future. Most of those people have left the country.
Of the Christians who have remained in Iraq, can you point to examples or anecdotes suggesting that the papal visit has boosted their confidence about staying?
I think it’s early to tell on that. We will get a much better sense of that over the coming months, as the COVID restrictions, travel restrictions ease. We’ll see, as we get into the summer, whether or not the pope’s visit had an impact in that regard.
What’s clear is that the pope’s visit had a tremendous impact on uplifting the spirits of the Christians here. That’s just very clear that this was a huge uplift for the Christians who are here. Whether or not it’s going to stop those who had decided to go from leaving; whether it’s going to encourage any of those who are now in the diaspora — in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and other places — to return to Iraq, we’ll need some months to see if anything comes of that.
What are some of the dangers that still lie ahead? What about the possibility of ISIS making a comeback?
Iraq remains a place with all sorts of potential dangers, and a return of ISIS is just one of many things. ISIS was defeated militarily. The mentality behind it certainly still exists, and pockets of ISIS fighters certainly do still exist.
The larger danger right now, though, is that the continued tension between the U.S. and Iran, with the involvement of Iranian-backed proxy militias here in Iraq, will erupt into some real conflict and would happen in the disputed lands, essentially on top of the Christians and Yazidis once again. That’s a far more worrisome danger here in the near term than any major resurgence of ISIS in the future. A major resurgence of ISIS in the near future seems unlikely. Again, the mentality is still out there; it’s largely underground and surfaces in small pockets from time to time, but the bigger threat is clearly the possibility of an Iran-U.S. conflict as it plays out through these various proxies.
Iran’s role in Iraq right now is not really on our radar in the U.S.
Iran has tremendous influence both in the federal government in Baghdad and also through some of the Iranian-backed Hashid militias that continue to operate in real situations of power throughout the country. This is part of the overall situation that many of the protesters — mostly young Shias — had been marching against back in the time before COVID, that this factionalized country completely overwhelmed by foreign interests was producing a country that was just not working, that it was merely a place where various proxies were engaged in different power struggles. And this continues to be an issue for the Christians, who have no power. They are always the victims in the middle of this. And it continues to remain a huge issue, and there’s great concern here among the Christians as to what will happen to their situation if Iran is allowed to now resume the greater role that they had earlier.
Is anyone trying to address the problem?
For the Christians and for the Iraqis, they’re waiting to see with clarity what will be the position of the Biden Administration on this. There is a negotiation of sorts that seems to be being played out in an indirect sense, but for the Iraqis, I think they’re still waiting for clarity as to where the Biden Administration will be on this. Certainly for the Christians, they have a very wary eye as to how the U.S. will address this Iranian threat as the new administration comes into its full-on policy.