“This is the cradle of Christianity. How can we leave here?”
He gestures around his living room, lovingly decorated with multiple paintings of Christ and different crosses. Less than ten minutes away, the neighboring town of Batnaya in northern Iraq still lies in dusty rubble. Every visible cross there has been defaced with a black “X” by Islamic State militants. The sanctuary of their church, which was used for target practice, is still riddled with visible bullet holes.
Hani* is in his late 60’s. His family has lived here in northern Iraq for generations, and was one of the first to return to their home in Teleskof in the fall of 2017 to rebuild after villages across the Nineveh Plains were destroyed by ISIS.
“How can we leave here?” He continues. “But how can we live here?”
How can we live? It is a question reverberating throughout the remaining Christian communities populating Iraq. Despite its ancient roots, Christianity in Iraq is perilously close to being blotted out from existence. Entrenched persecution of religious minorities across the region has persisted for centuries, but today’s threat of extinction at the hands of the Islamic State is a distinctly recent extreme. Prior to 2003, Christians comprised approximately six percent of Iraq’s total population — numbering roughly one and a half million. Today, the count is close to only 250,000 left.
As Archbishop Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Christian Archbishop of Erbil-Iraq, said in an address in May 2019: “We may be facing our end in the land of our ancestors. We acknowledge this. In our end, the entire world faces a moment of truth. Will a peaceful and innocent people be allowed to be persecuted and eliminated because of their faith? And, for the sake of not wanting to speak the truth to the persecutors, will the world be complicit in our elimination?”
Since then, the situation has become even more urgent. For many Christians, there is a palpable fear of a resurgence of ISIS attacks. The Defense Intelligence Agency has said that “ISIS took advantage of Turkey’s October 2019 invasion of northern Syria and increased attacks by nearly 20 percent.” Additionally, following the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, uncertainty over the status of the various security forces in the country has increased. The failure of Iraq to form a new government that could make positive steps in meeting the just demands of protesters, many supported by local Christians, has compounded the tension.
Amidst this all, Christians and other religious minority communities continue to root their resilience in their heritage of faith. It brings them hope amidst hopelessness. It feeds their courage despite trauma and loss. It gives them the boldness to speak out.
“We Christians are a people of hope,” says Archbishop Warda. “But facing the end also brings us clarity, and with it the courage to finally speak the truth. Our hope to remain in our ancient homeland now rests on the ability of ourselves, our oppressors, and the world to acknowledge these truths. Violence and discrimination against the innocents must end. Those who teach it must stop.”
We cannot ignore this cry for truth and for justice. The international community can — and must — act with greater unity and commitment to support and protect Christian and minority communities across Iraq before it is too late. It is not just a question of security, but of Christianity’s very survival in Iraq.
*Name changed for security purposes.