Iraq’s Christians remain at risk of eradication—lack of security forces emigration

AID TO THE CHURCH IN NEED (ACN) has published a major report on the status of Christianity in northern Iraq, “Life after ISIS: New challenges for Christianity in Iraq.” It includes the results of a series of surveys of the Christian population. The study identifies the major challenges facing Iraqi Christians who returned to their hometowns on the Nineveh Plains, after fleeing the region for Kurdistan, following the ISIS invasion of the region in 2014.

Christian procession in Qaraqosh (Father Halemba, front right)

The report warns that unless urgent steps are taken, the region’s Christian community could drop to 23,000 by 2024—just 20 percent of the population on the Nineveh Plains before ISIS attacked in 2014. This would move the Christian community from the category of “vulnerable” to the critical category of “endangered with extinction.”

“The international community must take immediate and decisive action to tackle the problems which are threatening the continuing Christian presence in Iraq,” said Edward Clancy, director of outreach for ACN-USA. “It is more important than ever that world leaders work together to prevent Christian numbers falling further in Iraq.”

According to the report, all Christians living in the area mention a lack of security and 87 percent indicate that they feel it “very much” or “remarkably.” Almost 70 percent of Christians cite violent activity of local militias and the possibility of a return of ISIS as the main reasons for this fear; 69 percent say this is the primary reason why they may emigrate.

Above all, the Shabak Militia and the Babylon Brigade, the two main Iranian-backed militias operating on the Nineveh Plains, are cause for concern. They operate with the permission of the Iraqi government because they helped defeat ISIS, but 24 percent of respondents say that “their family has been negatively affected by a militia or other hostile group.” “Harassment and intimidation, often related to demands for money” are the most common forms of hostility reported.

St. Kiryakos Church in Batnaya

In addition to concerns about security, Christians list unemployment (70 percent), financial and administrative corruption (51 percent) and religious discrimination (39 percent) at the social level as the major challenges that continue to push Christians toward emigration.

The ACN report found that 57 percent of Christians in the region said that they had considered emigration. Among them, 55 percent responded that they expect to leave Iraq by 2024.

“The report is not pessimistic, but it is a clear warning because without concerted and immediate political action the presence of Christians in the region of the Nineveh Plains and its surroundings will be eliminated,” charged Father Andrzej Halemba, who oversees ACN projects in the Middle East.

Pointing to the work that ACN has carried out to rebuild destroyed communities, Father Halemba said: “Today, 36.2 percent of [displaced] Christians have returned.” ACN helped restore 2,860 damaged or destroyed Christian homes in six cities and villages on the Nineveh Plains.

ACN’s reconstruction plans have entered a new phase, aiming to rebuild the infrastructure of Church-run facilities. Of the 363 churches and Church-run buildings due to be rebuilt or repaired, 34 were destroyed, 132 suffered fire damage, and 197 are partially damaged; 87 percent of all the structures provide support for the wider community. These include educational facilities, orphanages, residential care homes, clinics, as well as accommodation for staff, for example women religious who serve as teachers, nurses, etc.

Despite progress made,  survey results are worrisome. “The outlook is inevitably bleak because Christians feel that they have reached a turning point in terms of the viability of their presence in the region,” said Father Halemba. “There are containment strategies, plans and initiatives that are not only feasible but sustainable if given regional, national and international cooperation. As many and varied as these strategies may be, what they all have in common is urgency,” said Father Halemba.

In addition to measures aiding economic development, he called for “the presence of a permanent representation of Christians in national and local government to ensure the defense of their fundamental human rights, especially the right to equal citizenship,” which is not the case today. “On our side we will do everything in our power. Never should future generations say of us: you did too little, too late,” Father Halemba said.

From 2014 to the end of 2019, ACN’s benefactors provided close to $53M to maintain the Christian presence in Iraq and in particular on the Nineveh Plains.

Click here to access Report on Christianity in northern Iraq

—Maria Lozano