Sunday, May 10, 2015

What Will It Take to Return Christians to Their Homeland in Iraq?

"Retaking the territories would be complicated, to say the least, according to religious freedom advocate Nina Shea and others."

by John Burger, Aleteia via AINA
May 5, 2015

Some of the many Iraqi churches destroyed by the Islamic State and other Muslim groups.

The Iraqi Interior Ministry has announced the creation of a joint task force to start military operations aimed at freeing Mosul and Nineveh province, currently in the hands of the Islamic State group, according to Fides news agency.

Such a move would have great implications for the tens of thousands of Christians who were forced out of their homes in northern Iraq last summer, as ISIS swooped in and gave them the ultimatum of converting to Islam, paying an exorbitant protection fee, leaving or facing the sword.

But retaking the territories would be complicated, to say the least, according to religious freedom advocate Nina Shea and others.

Fides reported that the joint task force will involve the military apparatus of Baghdad and the autonomous region of Kurdistan. The creation of the body was sanctioned during a summit meeting in Erbil which was attended by the defense ministers of the Interior and those of the two governments. The Iraqi media also reported that the US ambassador in Iraq, Stuart E. Jones, took part in the meeting.

In statements reported by the national press, Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi ensured that Iraq will commit its army in the liberation of the province of Nineveh, as it did for the region of Tikrit. He asked the people of Nineveh to take part in the military operations against the militias of the Islamic State in order to be able to allow civilians to return to their homes.

"Whether this is going to happen or not is a good question because the Church is asking," said Shea in an interview. She directs the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute. "It's important that [international] powers understand that the Christians were one of main victims of the ISIS takeover of Mosul, that their churches were destroyed and that all their members were driven out under a convert-or-die policy, and that Mosul really is critical strategically for the entire Nineveh Plain."

The Islamic State is continuing to rule with an iron fist in Mosul. The group's militants reportedly killed 300 Yazidi captives in the Tal Afar district west of Mosul, the BBC reported. And the radical Islamic group reportedly issued a decree ordering all men in the Iraqi city to grow beards on the grounds that the shaving of facial hair is forbidden under Shari'a law, said Radio Free Europe.

Retaking Mosul will not be a walk in the park. It's true that Iraq's military recently reclaimed the city of Tikrit from ISIS, but the hometown of Saddam Hussein is only about a third or a quarter of the size of Mosul, Shea noted. Even though half a million people left Mosul when ISIS moved in, to undertake a military operation in a city where 1 million people still reside is almost sure to create a humanitarian crisis.

"Of the people who remain, some of them are Salafis, who share the goals of ISIS," she said. "Some are Saddam Hussein's generals and officer corps, who have made a pact with ISIS and have invited them in. And some are people who adapt and benefited who may have something at stake now with the new order and hate the Shi'ites so much in Baghdad...that they may want to fight for ISIS' control.

"It could be a very bloody battle," she said.

In addition, if the operation were successful, Shea speculated that the 5,000 or so Christians who inhabited Mosul before last summer would find it difficult to return because their properties were taken over by their former neighbors.

"Those people will probably not be able to go back to Mosul because their homes will be occupied by someone else, and they also feel uncomfortable to say the least, insecure, with their former neighbors who did not protect them against ISIS, and some of whom may have made common cause with ISIS," she said.

But Mosul must be liberated first if there is to be any hope of Christians returning to their ancestral homes on the Nineveh Plain, as the city controls the water power and security of Nineveh, she noted.

"Will there be reconstruction aid for these towns and villages? And how will that reconstruction aid be distributed, because after the US surge in 2008 our reconstruction aid was distributed through the main power structures--the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shi'ites--and the Christians didn't get their fair share," she said. "So their villages did not get hooked up on the electric grid and they didn't get their roads and schools built and so forth."

Based on past performance of the Islamic State group, if ISIS is successfully pushed out of Mosul, the group could very well "pop up" in other places "and create terror and havoc," she said. "So we can expect a prolonged insurgency against those towns and villages in Nineveh Province. So there has to be continuing protection of the Christians in those villages and towns."

Meanwhile, Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Erbil, where most of the country's Christians have taken refuge, told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need that it will at least be several months before the areas occupied by ISIS can be liberated.

"If the government were to want to free Mosul first, many Muslims would flee from the city to the countryside because of the fighting. And where would they go? They would probably go to the currently abandoned Christian settlements near Mosul. This would create further difficulties," he said. "On the other hand, if the government were to begin its operations on the Nineveh Plain, however, the Christian settlements could be seriously affected by the fighting."

Archbishop Warda was skeptical as to whether international protection of Christian territories could be realized once they had been liberated.

"It would be important, but many countries will think twice before sending troops into this tricky situation. It would need to be preceded by a reconciliation process in the affected areas so that the Muslim neighbors did not see an international force of this kind as a hostile presence. I therefore believe it more likely that we will rather go in the direction of a national guard," the prelate said.

According to Warda, the national guard would rely on local people, but be integrated into the Iraqi army. "We as a Church have made it clear from the outset that we are against a [separate] Christian militia. We suggest that our young people, if so inclined, join the Kurdish or Iraqi forces."

Restore Nineveh Now, a group that is assisting Assyrians and Yezidis to reclaim their land in northern Iraq, is "meeting with officials in Baghdad to see what part Assyrians might play," said Jeff Gardner, a spokesman for the group, which is affiliated with a start-up Christian militia called the Nineveh Plain Protection Units.

"When will it begin? Good question," he said. "The House recently entered a bill that would send money and weapons directly to the Kurds but the administration (and Shia Baghdad) oppose it."