By Carl Hétu
The reign of the Islamic State (Daesh) has come to an end in Iraq and it is losing ground in neighbouring Syria. Iraqis, with an international coalition supporting them, have finally succeeded in uniting against a common enemy that has caused so much suffering, in particular to Iraq’s Christian and Yazidi communities.
What happens now in Iraq? There seems to be no reconciliation in sight between the Shi’ite-led government and Sunnis who led the country under Saddam Hussein. Further north, the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan have clearly expressed their intention for more autonomy — even separation from Baghdad if they have to. The Iraqi central government has already indicated its opposition to such an idea — threatening force to repress any such movement.
The Role of Christians
Minority groups would be the biggest losers if a new civil war breaks out. Christians have found themselves unprotected and mistreated (threats, kidnappings, torture, assassinations) over the past 14 years in Iraq. While there were some 1.5 million Christians in Iraq in 2003, barely 250,000 remain today — half of whom were forcibly displaced by Daesh in 2014. The vast majority are displaced, living in Iraqi Kurdistan. In three years, some 40,000 have left for Jordan and Lebanon and for the promise of passage to Australia, Europe or Canada.
Iraq’s Christians were once recognized for nurturing excellent relations with other ethnic and religious groups within the country. Entrepreneurially driven, they have been important contributors to the country’s socio-economic development, creating jobs, and establishing effective social services and health care institutions that provide assistance to the most disadvantaged, regardless of religion. For those who remain, a majority do not see a return to Mosul or the Nineveh Plains as a solution for fear of political and economic instability. Thus, without its Christians, Iraq now faces an enormous brain drain and shortage of qualified labour.
Should armed conflict erupt, the Christian presence in Iraq would suffer yet another blow. Peace, which to some eyes seems within reach, is the only way to save what remains of this ancient community. If members of the international coalition were to invest the same energy and resources as used in their mission to help neutralize Daesh, the country could finally achieve the stability that it desperately needs.
The Parallel Situation in Syria
However, one question remains: Is peace possible in Iraq considering the war still raging in neighbouring Syria? Even if and when Daesh is neutralized there, are not the same fundamental issues that divide Iraq also present in Syria? The country is grappling with serious internal problems, but also difficulties with external forces, particularly the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the lack of cohesion in the approaches of Russia, United States and Europe. One thing is certain, the chaos in Syria is also affecting its Christian population, which has decreased by 50 per cent, or 1.2 million people, since 2011.
For Catholic Near East Welfare Association, an agency of the Vatican that has worked tirelessly in the region since 1926, these tragedies are destroying the chance of a new tomorrow, as they decimate the people who once bound together the various peoples inhabiting these complex countries. For those Christians who remain, we will continue to support them through their local churches. These churches offer a variety of services to youth, seniors, victims of violence, and others in need — regardless of creed.
Christians show that despite adversity, it is not only possible but essential to reach out to others, regardless of ethnicity or religion. An approach based on compassion and respect for our differences is an essential value for building the much-desired peace we all long for — and need — to live and grow.
(Hétu is the Canadian National Director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.)