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The New Phase of Christian Persecution

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Christian refugees in Erbil (Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Christian refugees in Erbil (Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Christian persecution is undergoing a new phase in Iraq, contrary to the message we have all been given.

In his United Nations speech this past September, President Donald Trump stated,

“Thanks to the United States military and our partnership with many of your nations, I am pleased to report that the bloodthirsty killers known as ISIS have then driven out from the territory they once held in Iraq and Syria.”

Yet, while the U.S. government congratulates itself for its military victory over ISIS, the terror group continues to maintain a small stronghold in Iraq and in Syria.

Trump has given the impression that because of the defeat of the Islamic State’s “caliphate,” religious minorities in Iraq, Christians in particular, are no longer persecuted. At least that is how it comes off from the mainstream media and Western government officials.

However, this is a far cry from reality. The afflictions, in fact, have taken on a new face, with former ISIS members inserting themselves into positions of local government and Shi‘ite militias controlling the towns and villages where Christians live.

The sad part in all this is that, at least from the Iraqi side, no one in authority who can affect a change for the better seems to care.

Having recently visited the war-torn city of Mosul—one of the first places in the world where Christianity blossomed—I had a chance to speak with a number of Christians in the Nineveh sector. They concur that the post-war vacuum is substantially due to the fact that there has been no constant-follow-up plan on the part of the U.S. and other countries to reconstruct and restructure the places once inhabited by Christians in order for them to return.

As a result, in places like Karamless, which used to be inhabited by over 800 Christian families prior to the ISIS takeover, Shi‘ite clans, such as the Shabak have occupied the vacant posts imposed themselves on the population. They seek government funding for houses and employment at the cost of their Christian neighbors. Now only 300 Christian families remain.

The parish priest of St. Adeo in Karamless, Father Thabet Habeb, told me that it is a continual struggle with the government just to hold on to what was originally theirs.

Another problem has been the “enforcement” of the rule of law by Shiite and Kurdish militias (some Kurds in Nineveh are Yazidi).

Backed by Iran, many of them have taken it upon themselves to ensure “security” in other formerly predominantly Christian cities like Teleskof, Qosh, Bartella and Qaroqosh without any intervention from the Iraqi central government.

Instead of maintaining stability, they allow Christians to be harassed for religious and ethnic differences without any chance of recourse to the Iraqi central government. Even in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan which is autonomous, many Christians are also persecuted: Christian women are hassled for not wearing the hijab. Kurds getting drunk at night fire shoot from their weapons. These are just two examples of how insecure the situation can get in a place where a statue of the Virgin Mary stands in the town square.

Iraq-Christians, the young in particular, as well as Westerners who are working in the country to help restore stability, expressed their disappointment in government officials—both Western and Iraqi — who they say are pocketing the billions of dollars given to them to rebuild.

The lack of unity between the secular and religious Shiite politicians has also not helped the situation.

The bright spot in all this is that there is still a strong will by Iraqi Christians to continue to fight for their rights, with the hope that their example can bring other Iraqis, regardless of religion and ethnicity, to a mutual and lasting respect.

In addition, some churches destroyed during the war with ISIS have reopened, despite such projects being discouraged and impeded by their Muslim co-nationals.

If the U.S. and other nations, as well as Catholic officials, were to seriously follow up on Iraqi reconstruction, there would be an outside chance for stability in Iraq.

Watch the trailer of Clarion Project’s latest film, Faithkeepers, about the violent persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. The film features exclusive footage and testimonials of Christians, Baha’i, Yazidis, Jews, and other minority refugees, and a historical context of the persecution in the region. To host a screening of the film or find out what you can do to help stop the genocide, click here.

 

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Mario Alexis Portella

Portella holds an MA in Medieval History from Fordham University in New York and a double doctorate in Canon Law and Civil Law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. Portella is an American priest at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy and Chancellor of its archdiocese. He is the author of Islam: Religion of Peace? - The Violation of Natural Rights and Western-Cover-Up.