As in so many urban centers across the
Middle East, the marketplace here on a Friday—before the mosques’ calls
to prayer—is a whirlwind of bright colors and noisy, animated
bargaining. It’s a festival for the senses. On the fringe of the town
square, opposite the antediluvian citadel, stands the Bazaar Nishtiman, a
vast mall that hosts a plethora of cheap-denim stores on its lower
levels and 150 Christian refugee families in the upper levels.
mall’s owner, a Christian, has given permission for the refugees to use
the converted stalls for as long as they need shelter. Last June,
thousands of Christian refugees fled to Iraqi Kurdistan from Mosul,
Qaraqosh and other villages on the Nineveh Plain following the advance
of Islamic State. Conversations with some of these displaced Christians
reveal a common, striking theme. It quickly becomes clear that the
greatest threat to the future of Christianity in Iraq is no longer the
Islamic State assault but the evaporation of hope.
Christ here recall their Master’s warning that they will face
persecution, and they recall St. Paul’s teaching that suffering produces
endurance and character. Most Christians in the Middle East retain
their spiritual hope and trust in the Almighty. But they are losing
their temporal hope: They fear that they will never return to their
ancestral lands, and that the Christian presence in the region might
Iraq is home to one of the oldest continuous Christian
communities in the world, some of whose members still speak Aramaic,
the language of Jesus. But their numbers have plummeted to around
200,000 today from 1.5 million before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. A
Christian exodus, if it isn’t reversed, would be a devastating loss for
Iraq. Iraqi Christians are well-organized, and for years they’ve tended
to the educational, cultural and social needs of the wider society.
have also historically played a stabilizing role in this volatile
region by reconciling differences and building peace. “Christians have
always played a key role in building our societies and defending our
nations,” Jordan’s King Abdullah has said. “There is no Iraq without Christians,” says Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
Christians’ fear of and mistrust toward their Muslim neighbors is
palpable. Many tell me that soon after they made their initial journey
north, they received telephone calls from their former neighbors telling
them that there was no longer any threat, that they could return home.
Upon doing so, however, they quickly fell into the hands of Islamic
State and had their possessions stolen from them before being sent off
into exile again.
Christians now feel betrayed by their
neighbors, who, they insist, are fully subscribed to Islamic State’s
ideology. One Assyrian Christian tells me, using the Arabic acronym for
Islamic State, “Even if Daesh is driven out, how can we return to a
place where there is so much hatred for us? They are Daesh, just without
Yet many Christian refugees also reject
proposals for international military protection within a secure zone on
the Nineveh Plain. Christians don’t want to exist as a community in
isolation. They long to fulfill their Biblical calling to be “salt and
light,” a living witness of the faith, integrated into society. Neither
are they inclined toward a future in semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. The
Kurdish president, Masoud Barzani, has opened his country as a safe
haven for all those fleeing Islamic State and even suggested that Kurds,
who are predominantly Muslim, are free to convert to Christianity.
so, Christians have received a frosty reception from much of the
Kurdish population. There is also the lingering memory of the centuries
of persecution suffered by the Christian communities at the hands of
their Kurdish neighbors, including the Kurdish complicity in the
Assyrian and Armenian genocides a century ago.
Iraqi Church with the rest of Iraq will be a most challenging task.
Festering tensions mustn’t be allowed to lead to the suspicion, enmity
and hatred that can swallow generation after generation in the Middle
East. The Christian community must be empowered and supported to
articulate a strategic vision for its own future and to find a political
voice. Standing apart from Sunnis and Shiites, it can one day even
reprise its reconciliatory role. But these are distant prospects so long
as the security threat, and the sense of mistrust and hopelessness,
Back at the refugee mall, some have found new purpose and
satisfaction through excellent initiatives to support their fellow
exiles. I saw well-organized projects for food distribution and
enrolling displaced students in school. One businessman from Qaraqosh
told me how his new charitable activities in exile have reawakened him
spiritually. His travails, he said, “are a blessing from God.”
many of the young adults among them have been breaking their parents’
hearts by leaving for France, the U.S. and elsewhere in the West. They
admit they would prefer to stay in the country of their birth and
continue the Church’s ancient presence in Iraqi culture, but they see no
future in the Middle East. Others gain spiritual succor from the
Christian hope of “another country”—one without death, mourning, crying
or pain—while others only despair.
Mr. Windsor is a political advocate and strategist at Middle East Concern.