The liberation of Mosul and its surrounding villages from the grip of
the Islamic State group (ISIS) is offering hope for Iraqi Christians
and other religious minorities in the region, but restoring trust and
guaranteeing security will be a much longer process once the military
operation is completed.
This is the general opinion of Iraqi Christians and aid workers after
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared Oct. 16 the beginning of
an assault to recapture Mosul, the country’s second-largest city.
Around 30,000 pro-government forces made up of the Iraqi army,
Kurdish peshmerga soldiers and Sunni tribal militia are taking part in
the liberation. Coalition forces are also providing military support
largely through air power. At the time of this writing, al-Abadi said the operation to retake the city was proceeding faster than planned.
The liberation comes two years after ISIS invaded Mosul and
surrounding towns and villages, many of which were predominantly
Christian, causing many casualties, inflicting countless atrocities, and
forcing hundreds of thousands to flee.
Around 125,000 internally displaced Christians were joined by other
religious minorities, including Yazidis and Shiite Muslims. Those who
didn’t end up in camps or find refuge in other parts of Iraq fled the
country, many seeking asylum in nearby Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Once the city and region are liberated, Christians are therefore
expected to seek to return to their homes. But their problems are
unlikely to end there.
“There needs to be a healthy sense of reality, and one shouldn’t imagine
that once ISIS is defeated life will be back to normal,” said
Father Benedict Kiely, founder of Nasarean.org, which helps assist persecuted Christians, and a frequent visitor to Iraq.
Father Kiely said concerns revolve around three main issues: who will
protect the Christians when they go back; how can they live with their
neighbors, many of whom betrayed them by taking their homes or siding
with ISIS; and who will run the region and towns once they are
He said ISIS is the “great monster” now, but he recalled that even
before they came on the scene, Iraqi Christians were being killed and
kidnapped by other jihadists. Once ISIS leaves, another group with a
different name is likely to “take their place,” and so “who will protect
them if they can go back?”
Lack of Trust
Reports are already circulating of some Christians taking matters into their own hands
and creating militias to defend themselves and their property. They
have little faith in the regional and central governments, especially
after protection that was promised them in 2014 did not materialize.
A major concern is lack of trust, one echoed by Elisabetta Valgiusti,
an EWTN documentary filmmaker on Iraq and persecuted Christians. After
ISIS’ 2014 offensive, a number of Muslim neighbors of Christians
contacted them to say they had “got their homes and were taking their
stuff,” Valgiusti said.
She also raised the possibility that some Muslims will have been
radicalized by ISIS and will be hard to spot after the liberation, as has happened after the freeing of other Iraqi cities in the past.
“Most of them were forced to live alongside ISIS, but some actively
joined them,” Valgiusti said. “But how do you recognize a jihadist, even
here in Europe?” Already there are reports of ISIS fighters in Mosul shaving off their beards and changing the way they dress to blend in with the civilian population.
But like Father Kiely, Valgiusti believes greater concerns involve
safety guarantees for Christians and clarity over who will rule them.
“These Christian villages are in the middle of a completely Muslim
zone,” she noted, and have always felt “isolated.” She also highlighted
that few Iraqi Christians can leave the country because they don’t have
refugee status (they are internally displaced people) and so feel
trapped with few rights.
‘No Real Plan’
Father Kiely voiced apprehension that there also “seems to be no real
plan” once ISIS is defeated and that hopes for some kind of Christian
protectorate are perhaps overly optimistic. He said some Iraqi
Christians he had spoken to believe that such an enclave would take at
least 10 years to realize, and it remains unclear who will create and
“Neither the U.N. nor the U.S. shows any interest in protecting Christians or anyone else,” he said.
Other factors impacting whether Christians will return to their homes
are the state of their houses and churches, some of which have been
used for sacrilegious acts such as torture, and whether they will have
jobs. All of this makes some Iraqi Christians believe that relatively
few will actually go back, with some estimating that only 20% to 30% of
Christians will do so, according to Father Kiely.
He nevertheless said it’s important to remain hopeful and recalled
the resilience of Iraqi Christians, who for many years have suffered
this cycle of “return, persecution, exile and then return.”
Despite the challenges, Alessandro Monteduro, director of the
Italian branch of the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, also
believes the liberation “feeds hope” and agrees that at the same time,
once it is permanently freed, Iraqi Christians must “face the reality.”
The city of Mosul, he said, “will be totally different from the one
abandoned in 2014 by those who took refuge in Kurdistan,” he said.
Some relationships will also be hard to heal. “Meeting so many
Christian families in Erbil or Duhok [in Kurdistan], it was easily
perceptible, for example, that a source of deep pain for them was having
been betrayed by their neighbors, Sunni Muslims who had preferred to
accompany the men of the caliph when they first arrived in the city.”
Civilians at Risk
By Oct. 20, Iraqi military sources had claimed victories
in 54 villages around Mosul, but an estimated 1.5 million people remain
trapped in the city and unable to escape, hostage to an around 3,500 to
5,000 ISIS fighters. Foreign fighters have reportedly disappeared
from Mosul, leaving its defense to local ISIS militia who are executing
civilians who show support for the liberators, according to some reports.
Meanwhile, Father Michel Roy, secretary general of Caritas Internationalis, has warned
that the battle for Mosul is likely to result in heavy civilian
casualties, and he has blamed the U.S. and Russia for using the Middle
East for their own interests, without regard for the suffering people.
Just a day after the operation began, the military reported that
pro-government forces had liberated the once totally Christian town of
Qaraqosh, just south of Mosul. The majority of Qaraqosh’s 55,000
inhabitants, mostly Syriac Catholics, fled their homes with little more
than the clothes on their backs when it fell to ISIS in the summer of
2014, and many of them have been living in camps in Erbil and other
parts of Kurdistan ever since.
Although military sources say Qaraqosh is not quite liberated (some
jihadists are said to still be hiding in homes), exiled citizens in
Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, celebrated the first signs of
liberation with songs, dances and Masses.
In an Oct. 19 statement,
Chaldean Patriarch Mar Raphael Louis Sako renewed his call for national
unity so the military campaign will be successful. He urged an “end to
disputes” and to put the good of Iraqis “before and above everything
else” so that “real communal reconciliation” can take place.
Patriarch Sako said he also hoped for “a quick solution” through the
establishment of a “genuine and civil democracy” which, he believes, “is
the only way for our absolute recovery.” He further called on the
international community “to take concrete steps” so that Iraq and the
region “regain their security and peace.”
Despite the expected future hardships and challenges for Iraq’s
Christians, this is “a time of hope,” Monteduro said. “But it is good to
feed this hope with one’s feet firmly on the ground, without
cultivating illusions that tomorrow everything will be resolved.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.