By Matt Hadro
As some Christian genocide victims rebuild their homes in Northern Iraq, a tenuous security situation still threatens their future in the region.
“Every week we have two, three families leaving,” Father Salar Kajo, a priest of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Teleskov, Iraq and member of the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, told CNA last week at an international religious freedom gathering in Washington, D.C.
However, he added, “we will not lose our hope and our faith.”
Fr. Salar spoke with CNA at the Second Annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, held at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. from July 15-19. The ministerial was attended by religious and civic leaders from all over the world, including representatives of 106 countries; it was held to draw attention to religious persecution and to promote freedom of religion.
A major discussion topic at the ministerial was the role of U.S. assistance in Northern Iraq to help Christian and Yazidi survivors of the ISIS genocide rebuild for the future.
ISIS was driven from Mosul in 2017, and the last remaining town of the original caliphate in Syria fell earlier this year. Yet many Christians who fled the ISIS onslaught in 2014 have not returned to their homes in Mosul and the Nineveh region, and an estimated 360,000 Yazidis are still displaced in Kurdistan and have not returned to Sinjar.
The primary obstacle to their safe return is a lack of security, said Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, in an interview with CNA at the ministerial.
Although the territorial ISIS caliphate is gone, the security threats to Christians and Yazidis in the region are two-fold: ISIS splinter cells that continue to operate, and Iran-backed militias that commit abuses with impunity.
There are up to 15,000 ISIS fighters estimated to have remained in Iraq, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
Meanwhile, militias that are part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) have committed abuses against Christians, Yazidis and other minorities, and Iran’s influence in the PMF has grown. Militias are harassing Christians, extorting them and stealing plumbing and wiring materials from their homes as part of Iran’s “colonization” effort in the area, Anderson wrote in an April op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.
Despite the abuses, the Iraqi central government has failed to hold the militias accountable, allowing them to operate with “impunity,” panel members at last week’s ministerial said in agreement.
The security situation in Teleskov is “okay,” Fr. Salar told CNA, but other towns are far less secure; residents of Batnaya and Tall Kayf, for instance, will not return until the militias there are gone, he said. The tension in the area has only been exacerbated by the threat of a U.S.-Iran regional conflict.
The U.S. had a direct hand in sparing the town of Teleskov from a conflict between militias and the Peshmerga around the time of the Kurdish referendum in 2017, Fr. Salar said. Most families had fled the town, but Fr. Salar remained with around a dozen young people despite orders to leave from the militias. He contacted the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad for help. “They supported us, and they stopped everything,” he said.
One long-term solution to the security problem is “more community policing,” Anderson told CNA. Officers in the police forces need to come from the communities they serve, so that local religious and ethnic minorities can have “confidence” in law enforcement and enjoy more security, he said.
Aid to genocide survivors requires a level of security to be effective, yet it also cannot simply be short-term food, clothing, and shelter. To build for the future, families need the goods to live a normal life—education, infrastructure, and jobs—made possible through economic investment and international assistance.
Countries like Hungary and Poland have already been helping with resettlement efforts; the Hungarian government donated $2 million in 2017 to help rebuild the town Teleskov in Nineveh. The Knights of Columbus delivered $2 million for the town of Karamles in just over 12 months in 2017-18, and Aid to the Church in Need has also been instrumental in helping Christians in the area recover and resettle.
However, leaders on the ground have insisted for years that substantial U.S. assistance is necessary for the long-term stabilization of the region; charitable groups can only bring so many resources to the table. For years, displaced Christian families reportedly were almost entirely dependent upon groups like the Knights of Columbus and the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil for humanitarian assistance. They claimed that little to no assistance reached them from the U.S. and the United Nations.
Then, at the annual In Defense of Christians Solidarity Dinner in October of 2017 in Washington, D.C., Vice President Mike Pence promised that the U.S. would begin directly funding aid groups working on the ground in the region, rather than sending assistance through the United Nations.
Members in Congress also worked to establish a policy change like this one. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) introduced the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act to authorize and direct the U.S. to fund aid groups working with persecuted religious and ethnic minorities. The legislation passed the U.S. Congress in November of 2018 and was signed into law in December of 2018.
Pence’s announcement represented a sea-change in U.S. policy; persecuted communities would have a hand in determining the assistance they would receive, explained Mark Green, the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), to CNA at last week’s ministerial.
Pence “gave us the mandate, basically, and the space to, community-by-community, reach out to local faith leaders and say, ‘Look, we want to work with you. What are your needs?’ Not us telling them what their needs are, but instead them telling us what their needs are,” Green told CNA.
And now the U.S. has someone in Iraq dedicated to working with the local minority communities—USAID’s Special Representative for Minority Assistance Programs in Iraq, Max Primorac. He “spends his time every day going to communities,” Green said. “I’ve met with Archbishop [Bashar] Warda a number of times, and our team does all the time.”
Yet in the months after Pence’s announcement, Iraq’s Christians said the promised assistance was slow in arriving. Multiple proposals to USAID by local aid groups were rejected, prompting Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil to tell the National Catholic Register in June of 2018 that Pence’s announcement had backfired in a sense—it had encouraged some donors to move on to other charitable causes with the assumption that Iraq’s Christians now had a secure backing from the U.S., which they apparently did not.
Green promised that help was on the way. On Wednesday, a USAID official told CNA that the U.S. has provided approximately $367 million for the Vice President’s initiative to support persecuted ethnic and religious minorities in Northern Iraq; USAID contributed $308 million, and the State Department has contributed $57 million, the official said.
Green told CNA that the overall process of providing the needed assistance is encouraging but much work remains to be done. “In some ways, it’s turning an aircraft carrier around in a canal,” he said.
Anderson agreed that the agency “is working very hard” but is dealing with a regulatory process that will slow the delivery of aid.
There has been “an incredible change in the bureaucratic orientation” in the past year, Primorac said last week at a ministerial side event on the Holy Sites in the Middle East. The Chaldean Catholic Church, Syriac Orthodox Church, and Syriac Catholic Church are now seeing “equal treatment” by the U.S. with other non-religious civic organizations in how assistance is distributed.
The U.S. has funded efforts to restore or rehabilitate holy sites in the area, such as projects at St. Matthew’s monastery, or Mar Mattai, of the Syriac Orthodox Church and damage assessments at St. George’s Monastery in Mosul, Primorac said; the U.S. is also the largest donor for demining operations in Iraq.
Local priests also attested to the U.S. help in the region. Fr. Thabet Habib Youssef, a priest from Karamles, told attendees at the ministerial that the U.S. has provided useful construction equipment and trucks to help clear out rubble, and helped bring water and electricity back to the town.
He begged the U.S. not to create a “culture of dependency” with aid, but to honor the “dignity of work” through public-private projects that create “honest economic growth.”
Creating local jobs will be critical to keeping the youth from leaving and securing the future, Fr. Salar said, “because without youth in these places, in 10 or 15 years we will lose everything.”
Fr. Salar still keeps contact with families who have left Iraq for nearby countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Some are “ready to return back,” he said, but “we can’t give them a sign of hope” at the moment. Their return may be dependent on whether the Iraqi government in Baghdad is “working with us,” he said.
The rebuilding of churches is also critical to the future of the Iraqi Christians, as they join their very identity to the local churches and monasteries. In the rebuilding of Karamles, Anderson said, it was “very important to have a church, very important to have cultural centers restored.”
However, in addition to security and international assistance, Christians in Iraq need to have the law on their side. Specifically, they need legal accountability for the perpetrators of genocide, and equality under the law in Iraq so that they are not treated as second-class citizens.
The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crime of Genocide was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948 as a “Never Again” response to the horrors of the Holocaust.
“If that is to mean anything,” said Lord David Alton of Liverpool, a member of the UK House of Lords, in an interview with CNA at a ministerial side event, “we have a duty according to the Convention to prevent genocides from happening, to protect those who are going to be subject to genocide, and then to punish those who are responsible. And we have been failing on all three counts.”
If the ISIS perpetrators of genocide are not held accountable for their atrocities, “it’s like giving a green light” to despots and military leaders around the world to commit abuses with “impunity,” Lord Alton said.
While the International Criminal Court is not recognized by many countries, “we should be creating an ad hoc tribunal” to try the ISIS perpetrators of atrocities, he said, “not unlike the one that operated at Nuremburg after the Second World War.”
Changes to the Iraqi constitution are also needed to recognize the rights of Christians, Fr. Salar said, because they are currently treated as second-class citizens. Christians have acted as peacemakers between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Arabs and Kurds, and other minorities, he said.
“Believe me, we are working hard with them because we consider ourselves the life in these places, and the salt, also. Without the salt, there is no taste,” Fr. Salar said.