For Iraq's Christians, what comes after Islamic State?

Internally displaced Christians at a refugee center in Dawodiya, Iraq, April 10, 2016. Credit: Elise Harris/CNA.
Internally displaced Christians at a refugee center in Dawodiya, Iraq, April 10, 2016. Credit: Elise Harris/CNA.

.- With thousands of displaced Christians in Iraq subsisting on humanitarian aid, advocates are asking if they have a future there once the Islamic State is removed – and what that might look like.

“We should prepare now for the consequences of the liberation of ISIS-controlled areas, including Mosul and the Nineveh Region, as well as regions in Syria,” stated Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, at a May 26 hearing on “The ISIS Genocide Declaration: What’s next?” on Capitol Hill.

And Dr. Tom Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, insisted that a “post-ISIL order” in the region must bring about “pluralism, self-governance, and stability” in a April 28 address at the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations.

After overrunning large swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014, Islamic State reportedly lost a fifth of its caliphate territory by this past March. The onslaught created a refugee crisis, however; when Islamic State took the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, hundreds of thousands of Christians fled eastward into Iraqi Kurdistan. There, refugees in Erbil have been living in makeshift dwellings for almost two years.

They depend largely on humanitarian aid from churches and non-governmental organizations, and their situation is precarious.

However, the focus on providing for the short-term needs of refugees cannot replace the longer-term strategy of creating a stable, prosperous, pluralistic society once the Islamic State is gone.

Many displaced Christians have already left the region, seeking asylum or re-settlement elsewhere. However, like in Erbil where over 70,000 displaced persons now live, many are simply living in shipping containers and cannot provide for themselves.

Plans must be in place to re-settle Christians who want to stay, advocates insist. “People should be allowed to decide their own future,” Anderson stated.

“There has been much debate concerning plans for victims of genocide in Iraq,” he continued. “Some have argued for returning people safely to the Nineveh Region, others that they should be allowed to stay in Kurdistan, still others that they be allowed to immigrate. But these are not necessarily mutually exclusive, competing proposals.”

Except that in the case of the many Christians who fled Mosul, they can’t go home. Even if the Islamic State is driven from the city, probably not without a great struggle, the bonds of trust between the Christians and their Muslim former neighbors have been severed, perhaps for good, after those same neighbors turned them in to Islamic State forces back in 2014.

So even if their homes are intact, Christians cannot necessarily go back and live among their former neighbors. Another option must be found.

On May 19, the National Defense Authorization Act, a defense spending bill, passed the United States House. Attached to it were two amendments inserted by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.).

Fortenberry’s amendments created a blueprint for the future of the region. “First, the United States strategy in Iraq now includes securing ‘safe areas’ so that genocide victims can return to their homelands,” he stated. And “second, a new provision empowers minority groups, including Christian and Yezidi security forces, in the integrated military campaign against ISIS.”

“Christians, Yezidis, and others should remain an essential part of the Middle East’s once rich tapestry of ethnic and religious diversity,” he added.

However, the Christian communities of Northern Iraq have been steadily dwindling since the 2003 US-led invasion of the country. If refugees are not re-settled in the area soon, and if they remain indefinitely in makeshift dwellings and refugee camps, then they could leave Iraq for good and the communities could disappear altogether.

This would be catastrophic for the future of the Middle East, Farr insisted at the UN; it would portend “the destruction of religious pluralism, and with it any opportunity for stability, stable self-governance, and economic development.”

Some, like Farr, have floated the idea of “an autonomous, multi-religious, multi-ethnic ‘safe zone,’” to be set up in order to keep Christians in their ancestral homeland and not disperse the communities that have lived there for centuries. If set up like past safety zones, international peacekeeping forces would be appointed to protect genocide victims in an area removed from the conflict against Islamic State.

A lot would have to be accomplished for this to be a viable plan, Farr acknowledged. Aside from military protection there would have to be “an internal police force, economic revitalization, just and effective governance, treatment for trauma and psychological distress, and mechanisms for reconciliation.”

Neighboring countries would have to accept the plan, along with Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq’s central government, he added.

After a period of time, the “safe zone” could hopefully become semi-autonomous province, Johnny Oram, executive director of the Chaldean-Assyrian Business Alliance, stated in his written testimony at the May 26 hearing.

The land would have “some semblance of self-governance and self-security,” he explained, and would be “the only way to regain the trust of the minorities who feel they were betrayed by the Iraqi government and the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government].”

However, Stephen Hollingshead of the advocacy group In Defense of Christians has a different vision for the Christians in the area. “UN ‘safe zones’ have a very checkered past of success,” he said. “They tend not to be safe, and they are, with one possible exception, never economically self-sufficient.”

Hollingshead is the managing director of the IDC’s Haven Project. Instead of starting with a “safe haven,” he explained, he would like to immediately transition the land into a self-sufficient place for Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities – one village at a time.

Christians here could not only survive, but could flourish and be self-sustaining, protecting themselves and providing for themselves and trading with partners in the region, he said.

The Nineveh Plain, which lies between Mosul to the west and Iraqi Kurdistan to the north and east, is the target for this endeavor. Christians could cultivate the fertile and and produce goods for international markets while policing and protecting themselves.

There are, of course, many variables. The Kurdish Peshmerga, “if left to themselves,” Hollingshead stated, will simply annex the plain once Islamic State is defeated.

That is why Christian and Yazidi militias must partake in the fight against Islamic State, he insisted: “If the Christians and the Yazidis, who owned the place, do not actively participate in the re-taking of the place, then they won’t have a seat at the table in deciding what happens.”

“I believe that the Kurds would be willing to do a deal – and I’m asking the U.S. government to make such a deal,” he continued. If the Kurds agree to relinquish their claim to the plain in exchange for the U.S. recognizing their right to self-determination, such an agreement could come about.

This is no certain proposition – Christians in the region still remember Kurdish participation in the genocide of Assyrian Christians a century ago.

And they are still wary of the Peshmerga today, according to Naomi Kikoler, deputy director of the Simon Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“Religious minorities continue to feel little trust towards the Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga who they feel abandoned them when IS attacked Ninewa,” Kikoler stated in her May 26 written testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“Many also continued to feel that they are being used as political pawns by the government of Iraq, and the Kurdish regional government, in the ongoing contest over the disputed areas, this leaves them nervous about who and how their land will be administered should they return home.”

Yet the plan may be the Christians’ best bet in the long-term in the interest of stability, peace, and prosperity, Hollingshead insisted.

“A haven is a place where security fosters productivity,” he said. If there is mutual prosperity among Assyrian Christians, Kurds, and other minorities in the region, that will breed security. “You don’t shoot people you trade with.”

How might it happen? “Start small,” he insisted. The U.S. and local militia could identify one village on the plain that could be retaken. The Peshmerga and other Christian militia fighting with them would clear Islamic State occupiers from the village with the help of U.S. air strikes – similar to how Mount Sinjar was relieved from ISIS occupation, Hollingshead said.

Once the village is cleared, foreign and local investors would be identified to provide local entrepreneurs the capital they need to start businesses and create jobs.

Regardless of whether they’re in an independent Christian province, jobs are absolutely crucial in any long-term solution for the region, Hollingshead maintained. “What they really want,” he said, “is an opportunity to earn their daily bread.”

They deserve a fighting chance to either directly participate in the military action to retake Nineveh or at the very least to become entrepreneurs in the region, he added.

Regardless of the long-term strategy – a UN “safe zone” or a Christian-settled Nineveh Plain -- the international community and especially the U.S. must watch the region closely, experts say. This must be done to establish security and justice and ensure that property rights are honored by the local courts.

Tags: Iraq, ISIS, ISIL, Kurdistan, Nineveh province

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