(NEW YORK) – As the Christian town of Bartella was being liberated from the Islamic State last week, Mona, a Christian student miles from the front line, was hiding under a bed with six other young women.
Sitting on the bed above, inches away, were six ISIS militants, engaged in the terrorist attack on Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk.
Mona’s story highlights the complexities of the situation Christians face in Iraq. On the one hand, long-Christian villages are being liberated. On the other hand, the threats are real, even in a city outside of ISIS control.
After hiding under the bed for three hours, the young Christian women in Kirkuk were able to escape out the back door when five of the six terrorists left, leaving one behind who was wounded. He later blew himself up with a suicide bomb.
“Mother Mary blinded their eyes,” Mona wrote in a Facebook post detailing their ordeal.
The story highlights the contrasts of celebration and fear, hope and horror, faced daily by Christians seeking to remain in a land that embraced the faith during the time of the apostles.
Despite the deep roots, the future of Christianity in Iraq remains in doubt.
Numbering 1.5 million in 2003, Iraqi Christians today number only 200,000. About half of those who remain now live in the Archdiocese of Erbil, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, about 50 miles from Mosul.
For two years, those displaced have been living in a kind of limbo. When ISIS swept into Mosul and the Nineveh region in August of 2014, the Christians who could, fled. Others were kidnapped, killed or taken as sex slaves.
Since 2014, the Archdiocese of Erbil has had to spend more than $26 million to provide for those who ended up in that city, according to Stephen Rasche, the Archdiocese’s general counsel. He testified on the matter before the Helsinki Commission in Washington, D.C. in September and noted that all of the money they have spent has come from private sources.
The Archdiocese gets no money from the U.S. or Iraqi government, and no money from the United Nations.
“For two thousand years, many of the towns on the Nineveh plain now being liberated, such as Bartella, Karlais and Qaraqosh and others, were known as Christian towns,” Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil said in a statement provided to CRUX.
“As these areas are retaken, we must not forget these Christians, whose lands and homes were stolen, and who have been living as refugees ever since. The military action will not end the nightmare they have been living for two years. They need continued support, and a commitment to rebuild.”
Carl Anderson, of the Knights of Columbus (a partner of CRUX, which has raised more than $11 million for Christian refugees, especially in Iraq and Syria), noted: “We must not forget that the genocide begun by ISIS will continue through attrition and neglect unless the United States and international community prioritizes those groups that were targeted for extermination and risk disappearing altogether.”
“This must include direct financial support from our government that actually reaches endangered groups like Christians and Yazidis,” Anderson said.
In addition to concerns over whether Christians will have the financial ability to survive and rebuild, other concerns exist.
Anxieties related to security rank high on the list.
Not only is ISIS a threat, but the coalition liberating the area is filled with fault lines and tensions. A recent article in the German magazine Der Spiegel points out the possibilities for conflict even within the “liberating” coalition itself, noting that among others arrayed against ISIS in Mosul are the Iraqi Army, Shiite militias (loyal to Iran), elements of the Turkish Army, and the Kurdish Peshmerga.
It notes that there are fears of “sectarian cleansing” of Sunnis in Mosul by Shiite forces, and that the Shiite forces have threatened to attack the Turkish military, which is backing the former Sunni government of Mosul in its bid to reclaim power.
These concerns are common among those with knowledge of the situation.
How this plays out, and what it will mean for the Christians – who have called this region home for almost 2000 years – is thus an open question.
Heightening these concerns is the fact that even the history of the genocide itself is often distorted by elements of ISIS propaganda. What happened in 2014, for instance, is often misreported as media outlets routinely note that Christians were given the option to stay in their homes if they paid “jizya” (a form of protection tax).
In fact, the priest who negotiated with ISIS, Father Emmanuel Adelkello, has stated that the Christians feared the offer might be a trap and that they would be killed if they showed up to a meeting demanded by ISIS.
Western experts such as Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute agree, and in her extensive report on the subject she cites Ambassador Alberto Fernandez – formerly the State Department’s coordinator for strategic counter-terrorism communications – who calls such offers a “Salafi Caliphate publicity stunt.”
Still, the mythology surrounding the so-called “jizya option” has meant that Christians have faced a more difficult time in securing declarations of genocide than other targeted groups.
Christians are also concerned about what citizenship in Iraq will be like for them in the future.
They have reason to worry. In a case that shows how quickly things can change in Iraq, on Saturday, a law was unexpectedly passed by parliament banning the importation, manufacturing or sale of alcohol.
A Christian parliamentarian told AFP that it violated the Iraqi constitution’s protection of the traditions of minority religions. A Muslim parliamentarian argued, from the same article of the Iraqi constitution, that no law in Iraq could violate Islamic Sharia law.
If the law stands, Christians – and anyone else – who owns a liquor store would be put out of business. And it is too early to say if this would affect the importation of wine needed for to celebrate the Eucharist.
The liquor law is just the most recent in a long list of laws that either apply a majority viewpoint onto the Christian minority, or discriminate against it outright.
Many see such endemic discrimination as further endangering the future of Christianity in the region.
Anderson noted that all Iraqis “need to be given equal rights based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
“We must also insist that the two-tiered system of rights – resulting in the second class citizenship of Christians and other non-majority religious groups – end if we really want to ensure that such genocide never again occurs in this region,” he said.
For now, Mona, and the other Christians of Iraq, can only hope and pray that the security situation will stabilize, that the money they need to survive will materialize, and that after having survived genocide, they will finally get to enjoy an authentically equal citizenship.