What Next for Christians in Iraq

August 6th marks the tragic third anniversary of Iraqi Christians’ exodus and genocide under the Islamic State during its assault on Iraq’s second biggest city Mosul and its adjacent territories, including the Nineveh Plains, historical homeland of Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people. 

During the first week of August 2014, the world turned its attention and astonishment to Iraq as IS conquered large swatches of territories by defeating present forces on the ground and often without resistance from national and regional military forces. This left more than one hundred thousand Christians of the Nineveh Plains facing imminent danger of IS with their destructive and annihilative behaviours towards Christians and other ethnic and religious groups, notably Yazidis victims of genocide in their homeland of Sinjar. 

Islamic State’s assault on the Nineveh Plains caused massive exodus of Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people. More than one hundred thousand people, including women, children and elderly people had been forced to leave the area’s biggest towns of Qaraqosh, Bartelle, Karamlesh and others overnight to arrive to more secure places including different KRG cities. Neither federal nor regional forces took responsibility to protect people in the region. Later on, officials from KRG recognised that they did not accomplish their task. Major towns, villages had been emptied, historical monasteries, churches and monuments left behind. Historical libraries with unique examples of books, manuscripts remained in the hands of IS. 

Watch our reportage: Inside the ghost city of Qaraqosh – The Christian city in Iraq liberated from ISIS

During the first months of the mass exodus, Christians generally expected to return to their homes promptly. As politics collided with regional and international priorities, also including the demands of the displaced people, their expectations lowered and migration firstly took place in neighbouring countries, aiming to reach Western countries in the end.  

Following the exodus from the Nineveh Plains, killings and abduction of Christians, destruction of ancient churches and monasteries, the world’s attention returned to the precarious situation of Christians. Based on this, the European Parliament, the U.S. Senate and State Department among other international organizations recognized IS genocide against Christians and other ethnic groups in Iraq.

Since October of last year, towns and villages began to be liberated by Iraqi and Kurdish forces including various forces of Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people, starting with the largest town of Qaraqosh.  Following the liberation of the Nineveh Plain, the régions is now divided between Baghdad and Erbil which are competing for power with the disputed territories, according to the Iraqi constitution. Despite destruction, lack of services, infrastructure and administrative presence, there are now timid returns of displaced people to their hometowns. However, the promise remains unfulfilled for Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people. 

Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people have repeatedly asked for international recognition of their suffering and identity by creating a real status for Nineveh Plains as full autonomy under the Iraqi legislation. Reconstruction and restoration of Nineveh Plains towns, villages, infrastructure and providing basic services are essential and vital for the return of the population. The Iraqi government with the assistance of international actors and civil society organizations should empower the presence of minorities in Iraq by creating a space of tolerance and multi-cultural environment.

A recent international conference in the European Parliament highlighted the future of Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people of Iraq with the presence of political parties, religious leaders and representatives from the EU and U.S. The final declaration of the conference put clearly the demands of Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people, saying that “We demand the creation of a governorate for our Chaldean/Syriac/Assyrian people along with the other ethnic and religious indigenous components of the area on an administrative and geographic basis according to the 1957 general census, provided that the governorate has the right to develop into a region in accordance with article 119 of the Iraqi Constitution.” Also adding “The Nineveh Plain Governorate is the combined unified area of the districts of Baghdede (Hamdaniya), Tel Kaif and a part of Shekhan/Al-Shikan, including sub- districts and villages. The Nineveh Plain Governorate will be under governance of its own population, based upon the pre-2003 demography, and will see no presence of political militias of other Kurdish, Shi’a or Sunni political factions. Nor shall these factions usher political control in Nineveh Plain. This consensus can be confirmed by the interim Nineveh Council (described below), Baghdad and Erbil.” And finally as the Iraqi constitution allows  in Article 119 “One or more governorates shall have the right to organize into a region based on a request to be voted on in a referendum submitted in one of the following two methods…”

Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people are indigenous people of Iraq and one of the oldest groups that continuously existed in the whole Levant region. A long term and viable solution for Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people is to empower them politically and constitutionally in order to re-establish their true place with the cultural and social fabric that they have contributed to immensely. Survival of Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people and other ethnic and religious groups can change dramatically the deadlock Iraq and the whole region currently is in.