Nobel Peace Prize nominee urges Biden to protect Iraqi Christians

iraq Catholics March 26, 2021: The restored image of the Virgin Mary destroyed by ISIS returned to its original parish in Iraq./ Fr. Thabet Habeb/CNA

After the last U.S. forces left Afghanistan this week, an interfaith coalition implored President Joe Biden to keep American troops in Iraq to protect Christians and other persecuted religious minorities.

“We beseech you on behalf of two historic and endangered peoples, Assyrian Christians and Yazidis, to continue the presence of American troops in Iraq,” said an Aug. 31 letter signed by Juliana Taimoorazy, founder and president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, as well as Hadi Pir, vice president of the Yazda organization.

Taimoorazy was nominated for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for her work to protect Assyrian Christians, Yazidis, and other minority groups in Iraq from the threat of genocide. Taimoorazy is an Iranian-born Assyrian Christian. She founded the Iraqi Christian Relief Council in 2007, at the urging of the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. 

Speaking to CNA on Tuesday, Taimoorazy said that she was surprised by the nomination, and that she hoped it would bring increased awareness to the plight of Christians in the Middle East. 

“When I was told that I was nominated, I said, ‘first of all, I'm so humbled’ and it was just unreal,” she said. 

“It's mixed emotions, to be honest,” she explained. “The suffering continues, the suffering of my people continues. So we're going to have to do everything we can to bring relief to them, through this nomination. God-willing.”

On Tuesday, Taimoorazy and Pir said that the recent events in Afghanistan proved “the United States cannot rely on the Taliban or ISIS to act in good faith without the real deterrent of an opposing military force.” 

“Mr. President, if the tragic situation in Afghanistan has taught us anything, it is that we must do everything in our power to avoid the repetition of such a humanitarian catastrophe,” said their letter.

The last U.S. troops left Afghanistan on Aug. 30, ending a 20-year military operation in the country. After Taliban militants rapidly took control of the country this summer, capturing the capital of Kabul on Aug. 14, many Afghan Christians and others who had worked with U.S. forces sought to evacuate quickly. Aid groups have warned of deteriorating conditions for Christians and other religious minorities under Taliban rule, and many Afghans have reportedly gone into hiding.

There are estimated to be only 10,000 to 12,000 Christians in Afghanistan, and only 200 Catholics. Even under the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, which predated the Taliban’s takeover, conversion from Islam was punishable by death, imprisonment, or property confiscation.

While the White House claimed that the United States evacuated more than 120,000 people from the country, thousands of Afghans and hundreds of Americans were reportedly still seeking to leave after the last U.S. forces departed Kabul on Monday. It is unclear if and when commercial flights will be able to resume at the Kabul airport, and if Afghans desiring to leave are actually able to do so.

The letter requesting that U.S. troops remain in Iraq was announced at an Aug. 31 press conference hosted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean and director of global social action at the center, led the conference. 

“The painful events that transpired in Afghanistan have resurrected memories of all that happened to the Christian and Yazidi communities in Iraq in 2011,” the letter stated. “In that year, the U.S. decided to withdraw its military. Three years later it had to rush back to combat the most dangerous terrorist organization in the world, ISIS.” 

The letter states that “even a modest contingent of Americans brings a significant degree of deterrence,” and the presence of these troops “makes the extremists think twice before overrunning our communities and unleashing murder and mayhem on innocents.”

Despite over a thousand years of history of Christianity in the region, Taimoorazy and Pir warned Biden that “the survival of Iraqi Christians and the Yazidi peoples hangs by a slender thread.” 

“Mr. President, we urge you to resist pressure to withdraw all troops from Iraq,” they said. “Recent blood-soaked history has shown that without such a presence, the history of Assyrians and Yazidis on their ancient lands would end. These would become victims of targeted genocide and ethnic cleansing.”

Now, Taimoorazy is seeking a meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to further raise concerns about the future of Christianity in the Middle East. She has also started a petition to the Biden administration. 

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“What we want is the American people, the Christians of America, to move Washington,” she said. Unless the troops stay in Iraq, Taimoorazy warned, “there's going to be yet another genocide.”

“And that will be, I promise you, this is going to be the last of Christianity from the second Holy Hand, which is Iraq.” 

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