After the liberation from ISIS of historically Christian towns in the Nineveh region of Iraq last week, Patriarch Luis Raphael Sako of the Chaldean Catholic Church visited several of the newly-freed areas.
“These are our lands, Christian lands and villages,” Patriach Sako, the Baghdad-based spiritual leader of many of Iraq’s Christians said. He added that Christians would soon return to their ancestral lands, according to AsiaNews.
History supports the patriarch’s claim. The Nineveh region of Iraq – near Mosul – is one of the oldest Christian homelands in the world, but the next steps will be important.
“There needs to be a strategy for reconciliation and reform in the entire Nineveh Province in order to obtain a sustainable solution,” Mona Malik of the Assyrian Aid Society told Crux.
“It’s imperative that the region is not pressured to return to the pre-ISIS conditions that allowed the assault in the first place and without any resistance,” she said.
Sadly, there are indications that life for Christians in Iraq, including in Nineveh, will not be easy going forward. Some see troubling signs that certain politicians in Iraq – and in neighboring regional power Turkey – will try to build their own empires or caliphates on the rubble of the one ISIS tried to build.
Speaking in early October to Gulf-based Rotana Television, Turkish President Racep Tayyip Erdogan said that after ISIS is removed from Mosul, it should be only home to “Sunni Arabs, Sunni Kurds and Sunni Turkmen.”
Turkey, like the Gulf States is generally Sunni. Iran and Southern Iraq are predominately Shiite.
Erdogan’s comments were almost certainly directed at Shiite militias that many fear might engage in sectarian violence or cleansing. Such atrocities by Shiite militias were reported following the liberation of Fallujah from ISIS (a fundamentalist Sunni group) this summer.
Still, a number of commentators in the Middle East and in the West noted that Erdogan’s dream of a Sunni-only future for Mosul totally ignored – and thus didn’t bode well – for Christians.
“The Turkish president made no reference to Mosul’s indigenous population of Iraqi Christians, predominantly ethnic Assyrians, who have maintained a Christian presence in the city for centuries, since the earliest days of the Church,” noted Al-Alam, a news website of Turkey’s adversary, Iran.
In the Wall Street Journal last week, Mindy Belz wrote: “Under martial law in his own country, Mr. Erdogan has closed churches and detained Christian clergy. Father Youkhana [an Iraqi priest] and others fear Turkey seeks to re-establish its own empire out of the crumbling ISIS caliphate, one similar to the Ottoman empire—the same government that killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenian and Assyrian Christians in genocides a century ago.”
Turkey has also just appointed a permanent Imam to the Hagia Sophia, formerly a Christian basilica built in the sixth century, a move seen by experts as a step on the road to formally making the structure a mosque.
In Iraq earlier this month, Defense Secretary Ash Carter pushed for Turkish involvement in the fight against ISIS in Iraq, despite Baghdad’s protests of Turkish troops in its country.
But some Iraqi and Turkish leaders do seem to agree on one thing: Christians – and their rights – are an afterthought, for elements in both countries that seem to be working to build increasingly theocratic regimes even as they fight ISIS.
Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq told Crux from Los Angeles – as he was preparing to return home – that the recent decision by the Iraqi Parliament to ban the production, importation or sale of alcohol is “a clear example of the effort by certain groups to Islamicize the country. While the army fights to eliminate the caliphate in Mosul, others work to install it in Baghdad,” he said.
Iraq’s Shiite-dominated parliament this month banned alcohol – a necessary ingredient in Catholic Masses.
The justification was article two of the country’s constitution, which embodies the issues Christians face.
On the one hand, article two states: “First: Islam is the official religion of the State and is a foundation source of legislation:
A. No law may be enacted that contradicts the established provisions of Islam…”
“Second: This Constitution guarantees the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people and guarantees the full religious rights to freedom of religious belief and practice of all individuals such as Christians, Yazidis, and Mandean Sabeans.”
Predictably, Islamist legislators appealed to the first half of article two in support of the alcohol ban. Christian legislators appealed to the second half of article two in support of their right to make, have and sell it.
It’s not simply a religious matter either. Many Christians and Yazidis – who were victims together of ISIS’s genocide – rely on the sale of alcohol for their livelihood.
On the heels of the alcohol ban, Iraq’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research announced a ban on miniskirts and tight trousers for female students on Oct. 28, saying that “any student who doesn’t abide by the ministerial directives will be prohibited from attending colleges.”
Now confronting a future that can seem quite hostile, Christians are once again in limbo in their own homeland.
“The survival of Assyrian Christian heritage cannot be left in the hands of regional powers, only to be exploited into extinction as the past one hundred years of oppression have demonstrated,” said Malik.
Having Christians return to their homes in Nineveh is important for a group with roots there that are two millennia deep, according to human rights scholar Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute.
Ensuring that Christians can survive in Nineveh is important for other reasons, too she told Crux. “It is justice for them,” and added: “It is important to all people of good will who invoke the pledge to ‘never again’ allow genocide to play out.”
Shea also pointed out that the United States “has invested so much blood and treasure in this region.” Now she hopes that America will do what it takes to protect those groups who so recently faced genocide in Nineveh.
“My hope is that, with substantial American help, Iraq’s Christian survivors of ISIS genocide will be able to soon reclaim their towns, villages and homes in Nineveh and piece together their shattered lives,” she said.
Few Americans, and fewer Iraqi Christians, would disagree. Certainly some Christians will return home to Nineveh.
Whether the United States government will use its influence to make that home sustainable, remains an open question.