Christians Struggle to Maintain Legacy versus ISIS
By Gedalyah Reback
Amid the ISIS assault on Iraq, minorities have borne the brunt. One of those groups is Iraq’s Christians, who before the 2003 US invasion were spread throughout the country with a sizeable community in the northwest.
The majority of Iraqi Christians come from the Syriac, Assyrian and Chaldean churches with affiliations mainly to the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Most other denominations have had a presence in Iraq, but have never overtaken these Churches, which are among the oldest in the world.
But many of those Christian areas have been in the crosshairs of last year’s sweeping military advances by ISIS.
“In all towns and villages where ISIS rules, the Christian population has disappeared,” says Julie Lenarz, Executive Director of the HumanSecurity Centre.
“Qaraqosh, a historic Assyrian city, was home to the largest Christian population in Iraq with approximately 50,000 members. Now the city is virtually devoid of its Christian population.”
This is not the first time a Muslim conquest has produced trouble for Christians there. In the early 1500s, the infamous Tamerlane swept through the area and beheaded an estimated 70,000 Christians in Tikrit and 90,000 in Baghdad. With that perspective, ISIS has not represented such a catastrophe – yet.
“When ISIS took control of Mosul, roughly 20,000 Christians initially stayed, but after the group issued an ultimatum – convert, flee or die – the remaining Christians had no other choice but to leave as well.”
“As well as attacks on Christians, there have also been attacks on Christian sites of worship, with deep historical value, particularly to the Assyrian community.”
Just last month, ISIS destroyed the Mar Behnam Monastery near the town of Beth Khdeda near the Kurdish border. The monastery had been built in the 4th century to memorialize a Christian martyr. This past Easter Sunday, ISIS also destroyed a church in the Syrian Kurdish (Rojava) city of al-Hasakah. The destruction of Christian heritage, both ancient and modern, is just bricks and mortar. Iraq and Syria over the last 12 years represent merely the latest iterations of existential threats to the Middle Eastern Christian rites.
“Less than 1% of the global Christian population lives in the Middle East and, as a result of discrimination, persecution and war, the proportion of Christians in the region has dropped from around 20% at the start of the 20th century to around 5% today. What we are witnessing now is only the latest phase of something that has been going for many decades.”
Christianity has been literally decimated by the onslaught in Iraq starting in 2003, then the Syrian Civil War which forced many resettled Iraqi refugees to return to northern Iraq in time for the current assault by ISIS.
“The number of Christians in Iraq has fallen from approximately 1.5 million prior to the US-led intervention in 2003 to 350,000-450,000 (data is unreliable and some estimate as low as 150,000). Many Christians had originally fled to Syria, but the civil war forced them to return to Iraq.”
“However, Christianity will not be eradicated in the Middle East,” says Lenarz. Judging by the moves many of them have made, Christians will remain in the region.
“Kurdistan currently host over 100,000 Christian refugees from other parts of the country and Lebanon has announced it will take in an additional 5000 Christian refugees.”
Perhaps under the radar of Western media, a large portion of the community has escaped to other parts of the Arab World. Many have gone to the Persian Gulf, where the economy and even the culture is far more open.
“The Gulf states, where religious minorities can practice their faith in relative freedom, have seen their Christian population surge from basically nothing a century ago to 10-13 percent and the trend is believed to continue.”
Most Christians hail from the Nineveh region in northern Iraq on the border between the Kurdish region and the rest of Iraq. Nineveh was once the capital of the historic Assyrian Empire, now the epicentre of an embattled Christian culture.
Yet, there are apparently silver linings in the storm clouds that are the region’s sectarianism.
“In the Nineveh Province of northern Iraq – a traditionally Christian part of the country where over 30,000 members of the community were forced to flee from ISIS – a Christian militia has been established which goes by the name of Nineveh Plains Protection Units (NPU).”
“It is approximately 4,000 men strong, is allied to the Iraqi Government and the Kurdish Peshmerga, receives funds from the Assyrian diaspora abroad and training from a private American security company.”
The Assyrian International News Agency reports that number might be as high as 5,500. Dr. Duraid Tobiya Zoma, an Assyrian and former adviser to the Governor of occupied Mosul, has said that to end Christians’ marginalization in the unified Iraq in the future that Assyrians “are requesting an autonomous region for Assyrians in the Nineveh Plain to protect them as the indigenous people, who are being extremely affected by ISIS.”
Despite attempts to organize the community to defend itself, the signs of a shifting future are already clear. This past Sunday’s Easter was one of emptiness for the community in a way not experienced in centuries.
“For the first time in 1600 years, no Christmas and Easter masses were celebrated in Mosul.”