ROME – For decades now, there’s been abundant speculation about the future of Christianity in the Middle East. What sometimes is forgotten beneath the statistics and punditry is that the future actually has faces and names, because it’s composed of human beings, especially the young in whose hands the future always rests.
Last week in Iraq, I had the chance to spend some time with four of those faces and names: Sally Auffee, Rashel Groo, Nahrain Odeesh, and Rahma Bosa.
Sally, Rashel and Rahma are all from the Christian village of Qaraqosh on Iraq’s northern Nineveh Plains, while Nahrain comes from Telkaif-Nainava, and all four are presently attending the new Catholic University in Ankawa founded by Archbishop Bashar Warda. They met with me after final exams, on the day most were returning home for their summer break.
Taking these four remarkable young women as a measure, the Christian future here certainly has its challenges, but it would also appear to be in pretty good hands.
The main existential question for Christians in Iraq today is whether to stay or go, and frankly, it may only be in play because getting out isn’t easy, especially given the complications of obtaining visas for destinations such as the United States and Europe.
Father Gabriel K. Tooma, pastor of a church in another of the region’s Christian villages, offered the gloomy forecast that “if somebody flung open the doors tomorrow, everyone would leave.”
Among the four young people I surveyed, however, things may not be quite that bleak. Only one, Groo, at this stage of her life is determined to go abroad, saying she thinks she’ll have more opportunities, both as a Christian and as a woman, someplace else.
The other three acknowledge thinking about leaving, but, for now, want to see how things play out at home first.
“It all depends on whether I find a job here,” Nahrain told me. “If I can build a life like I want, of course I’ll stay.”
“I want to work for a better life for everyone in Iraq,” she said. “My home needs help, they need us … I’m studying to change our lives.”
Sally was even more emphatic.
“I don’t want to live abroad,” she said. “Maybe I’ll go somewhere to study, but then I’ll return.”
“It’s my country,” she said, referring to Iraq. “If all of us leave, who’s going to build its future?”
“I won’t allow people from other countries to displace us,” she said, referring to the local Christians. “This is our home, and we can stay here.”
Rahma’s answer was more practical.
“I don’t dream of going abroad, because it’s hard,” she said. “First, you have to go to live in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey for a long time, and then you don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
“I don’t want to spend my life like that,” she said.
The final verdict, then, is one determined to leave and three intending to stay, albeit for different reasons.
Warda built the Catholic University to give young Iraqi Christians opportunities and thereby to convince them they have a future here. In theory, he ought to be satisfied with a three-out-of-four result, but there still is the one who seems to be slipping away to consider.
Rashel, 20, comes off as the kind of person anyone would be proud to have as the foundation for a future. Her English is impressive, having spent last summer serving as a translator for an international NGO. She’s a computer science major but also an artist, making beautiful adornments for women’s hair in her spare time.
She also wants to leave.
To begin with, she said she believes her prospects of finding a challenging and rewarding job are better abroad: “Why would I stay here without that?” she asked.
Moreover, she also believes her opportunities as a woman will be greater in a different setting.
“Here, we live with Muslims and with Kurdish, and most are close-minded [about women],” she said, citing traditional restrictions such as an informal ban on women having jobs at night, as well as a growing problem of sexual harassment.
All four of the young women agreed that the phenomenon of sexual harassment in their society is real, and that the men involved generally enjoy impunity for their actions. They told stories of being out late and being menaced to such an extent that they had to seek help just to be able to return home safely.
Rashel also said she finds the “gossip of the people” suffocating, the sense that she really doesn’t have a “private” life because everyone knows what she’s doing, and with whom, all the time.
Sally said that while she wants to build a future in Iraq, that doesn’t mean she’s content with the status quo.
“The majority here are Muslims, and we as Christians are controlled by their rules, which hurts us,” she said. “We need help from other countries to have a choice to do what we want.”
Nahrain echoed the point, saying “it’s very important to have power” in her culture, but that “the Christian people have no power.”
Rashel said that sense of powerlessness can be lethal.
“People are dying because of this situation,” she said, “especially because of the stress of what happened under ISIS.”
She told the story of her aunt, who died in Ankawa from stress-induced cancer after being driven from her home in Qaraqosh and becoming an internally displaced person.
“She carried everything in her heart, and it killed her,” Rashel said. “Of course that makes you think about leaving.”
I asked each of the young women if they believe there will still be Christians in this part of Iraq when their children grow up.
“We don’t know,” Sally said. “We can’t know that.”
Ever the optimist, however, she added: “I think it will be better, that there will be a future in Iraq for the Christian people.”
Rashel took a dimmer view.
“Even if Iraq improves and develops, the numbers for Christians will be low,” she said. “Those who’ve left aren’t coming back.”
“We may get more safety,” she said, “but I doubt we’ll ever get our rights.”
And in that contrast, perhaps, lies the real answer to the Christian future here – some, buoyed by faith and idealism, will remain and keep the flame alive, while others, driven by realism and a hunger for something better, will carry that same faith someplace else.