By Catholic News Service
the aftermath of Iraq's elections, Christians want to see a government
formed that is free from the sectarianism that has torn apart the
country, and they want Iran's influence to diminish. Both issues have
played a huge role in politics since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Emanuel Youkhana, a priest, or archimandrite, of the Assyrian Church of
the East, told Catholic News Service that although fiery Shiite cleric
Muqtada al-Sadr has gained the majority of parliament's seats, al-Sadr's
uncompromising nationalism, stand against corruption and against
foreign meddling seem to have struck a chord among ordinary Iraqis, who
are fed up with what many call Baghdad's broken political system.
Shiite politicians, whose population forms the country's majority, are
of two streams: one pro-Iran and the other freer from Iranian influence,
and Sadr is the leader of this latter group," the priest explained.
has called for a Cabinet of technocrats, not politicians. So far, he is
more acceptable with the public because of his slogans. But can he
realize forming a coalition government? In Iraq, it's very complicated,"
Father Youkhana said.
Father Youkhana runs the Christian Aid
Program Northern Iraq or CAPNI, for displaced Iraqis around the city of
Dohuk, in addition to rebuilding homes and restoring livelihoods in
several towns in the Ninevah Plain following its destruction by Islamic
State since 2014.
Iraq's historic Christians and other religious
minorities, such as the Yezidis, are also dismayed that the government
has so far failed to address and counter the problems that led to the
rise of the Islamic State in the first place. And it has not
contributed to rebuilding efforts in their communities.
Germany or the U.S., if a situation happens two or three times, they
call for a debate in Congress. But in Iraq, it's now four years from
what happened, and there has been no national debate on what took place,
how it happened, and how to prevent it from reocurring," the priest
Yet, Iraqi Cardinal-designate Louis Sako, the Chaldean
Catholic patriarch, has repeatedly called for a serious national
dialogue to combat sectarianism in his homeland. So far, those calls
seem to have gone largely unheeded.
Iraq's military and police
abandoned Christians and Yezidis in the face of the brutal attacks by
Islamic State in 2014 that saw thousands killed, kidnapped, turned into
sex slaves, maimed and displaced. The United Nations deemed the Islamic
State the perpetrator of a genocide against the Yezidis of Iraq.
events have left Iraq's rich cultural mosaic of religious minorities
feeling that they are second-class citizens. They sense that Iraq's
political leaders do not represent their interests or concerns.
Christian population, believed to number up to 1.4 million in the late
1990s, now is estimated to be fewer than 500,000. They have been victims
of sectarian violence, driven out of their ancestral homeland. Almost
two-thirds of Iraqi Christians belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church.
worry that Shiite militias that fought Islamic State militants are
staking claim to parts of the historic Christian Ninevah Plain, where
they never before resided.
"Bartella is becoming a Shiite town,"
said Father Youkhana. "Now when you enter Bartella, you see the photos
of (Iran's ayatollahs) Khomeini and Khamenei. This demographic change is
protected and facilitated by the militias," he said. "This is our
"The failure of the government goes beyond the
material," said Father Youkhana, referring to the Iraqi government's
lack of funding or efforts to rebuild the ancestral areas destroyed by
the Islamic State militants where Christians, Yezidis and other
religious minorities historically have lived.
reconstruction of these areas have been undertaken by Western
governments and various Christian agencies, such as CAPNI, Catholic
Relief Services and Caritas.
"I would also partially blame the
church for giving the impression that we can do it ourselves. But the
reality is that the church single-handedly doesn't have the resources
for that," the priest said.
"People have been hesitating to return
(to their towns) unless the government provides safety guarantees, but
so far it hasn't, and I'm not sure if the new Cabinet will do so,"
Father Youkhana said. "I call for a mini-Marshall Plan."
rebuilt 28 schools and some 300 partially damaged houses in Qaraqosh,
Bartella, Bashika and Bahzani. He said these partially damaged homes are
the focus of rebuilding efforts by Christian aid groups and Western
governments, such as Germany and Hungary, to reinstall electricity,
doors, windows, etc. Health centers also are being rehabilitated.
Youkhana estimates that about 40 percent of such houses have been
reconstructed. Others, which have been burned or completely destroyed,
are not being rehabilitated by relief groups.
"Houses are being rehabilitated, but still people need to have livelihoods" if the towns are to be viable, he added.
So far, an estimated 25,000 people have returned to the area's main town of Qaraqosh, which once housed 50,000 Christians.
Jamiel Hanna, who heads CAPNI's community development work, said the
group provides loans and grants for income generating projects to revive
some 20 livelihoods for Christians, Yezidis and Muslims in the towns
such as beekeeping, sheep raising, carpentry and hairdressing.
in conjunction with Jesuit Worldwide Learning, also provides English
language courses as well as 13 others such as management, math, and
ethics for those who already possess proficient English skills.
Teaching of Kurdish to Arabic-speakers, music, sports and studies on Eastern Christianity are also offered.
is important for us as a matter of identity," Father Youkhana said of
the latter, adding that advocacy is now vital for Iraq's minorities to
realize their rights in both school curriculum and national and local
"This is the way to address the roots of the
problem," he said of Iraq's troubling sectarianism. "We are fighting to
keep the hope of our people alive."