ON THE NIGHT of August 6, 2014, ISIS fighters swept through northern Iraq’s Nineveh Plains and drove more than 120,000 Christians into exile in Kurdistan. Five years later, ISIS has been ousted, and a measure of stability has returned to the region.
With ISIS defeated, 40,000 Christians have returned to their ancient homeland, repopulating nine historically Christian towns. Overall, about 250,000 remain in Iraq, down from 1.5 million in 2003, on the eve of the U.S. invasion. For the moment, they are safe, but Sunni Muslims and Iran-backed militias have designs on their land and property.
The U.S. has pledged to channel significant USAID funding to faith-based organizations on the ground that help to oversee the rebuilding of homes, schools, and hospitals as well as of water and electricity infrastructures and to make vital repairs. In order to further stabilize the region and increase economic opportunity, funds must be disbursed quickly.
One of Iraq’s most prominent Christian leaders has deeper concerns. On the fifth anniversary of the ISIS invasion of northern Iraq, Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Catholic archdiocese of Erbil, Kurdistan, stresses that “Christianity in Iraq is perilously close to extinction.” The Church in Erbil has cared for the exiled families from the Nineveh Plains for almost three years. In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need, Archbishop Warda insists that the ISIS atrocities are part of “the recurring cycle of violence targeting Christians in the Middle East for more than 1,400 years.”
From the beginning of Islam in the seventh century, whether Christians and other non-Muslims “were to be tolerated and to what degree” depended on the “judgment and whim” of particular rulers, Warda explains. In the end, Christians were tolerated or not “depending upon the intensity of the prevailing jihadi spirit.” The archbishop notes that even during the Arab Golden Age, from the eighth to the 14th centuries, which was “built on Chaldean and Syriac scholarship” and marked by rich Muslim–Christian dialogue, “it was never a question of equality” between Christians and Muslims.