The eventual liberation of Mosul, Iraq, from the so-called Islamic State will end one crisis for dislocated Christians only to create a new one, a religious-freedom expert says.
Planning documents drawn up by the Iraqi Kurdistan regional government anticipate that driving IS out of Iraq’s second city will create a surge of at least 100,000 people and possibly as many as 1 million, depending on how the fighting goes, Britain’s Guardian news organization has reported.
“Those people are probably going to go into the towns and villages of the Nineveh Plain, that are standing there, unprotected and uninhabited, that belong to Christians and Yazidis, and they will become entrenched there, especially if Mosul’s infrastructure is damaged and they can’t go back immediately,” said Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Washington, D.C.-based Hudson Institute, on 23 Sept. “That would preclude these genocide minorities … from being able to leave the camps in Kurdistan, where they are today, and going home.”
Shea addressed her remarks to the Religion News Association, meeting in Washington.
The Nineveh Plain is a region in northwest Iraq where Christians have lived since the earliest days of the Church. IS militants burst out of Syria in 2014 and overran the region, sending hundreds of thousands of Christians and Yazidis, a Kurdish ethno-religious group, fleeing eastward to Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. Thousands remain in sprawling refugee camps; others have trickled into Kurdistan’s majority-Muslim society or have sought asylum beyond Iraq’s borders.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in August the assault to break IS’s two-year grip on Mosul will begin before the end of the year.
“I have deep fears about the aftermath of the Mosul offensive, what will happen to the Christian community,” Shea said.
Christians faced a similar situation a decade ago, Shea said, after al-Qaeda drove them and other minorities out of the Dora district of Baghdad. US-led forces later uprooted the militants, but the Christian presence in Dora today is much diminished.
Nor is there much reason to hope that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will be inclined to give special regard to the dislocated Christians, she said. While governments in Europe and America have formally accused IS of Christian genocide, the UN has demurred.
In a June report, the UN-created Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic declared Christians “live difficult and often precarious existences” under IS control, but that they enjoy a “right to exist” if they pay a tribute tax.
Said Shea: “Far from the truth.”
“The bishops of the region, the religious leaders, say there’s absolutely no Christian communities living under ISIS. There are Christian individuals. But no communities that have access to churches, religious leaders, their religious rites, their sacraments, as Christians had who paid an Islamic tax over 1,300 years under various caliphates.”
Three months prior to the commission’s report, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the American government had concluded Christians could find no safe quarter under IS rule.
“We know that in Mosul, Qaraqosh, and elsewhere, Daesh has executed Christians solely because of their faith; that it executed 49 Coptic and Ethiopian Christians in Libya; and that it has also forced Christian women and girls into sexual slavery,” he said, using the English form of the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
The Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, part of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said in November 2015 that IS in July 2014 offered Christians safety in return for the tax, known as jizya. Today, “it is unknown whether Christians who were given the option to pay a jizya or leave, instead of convert or face death, would still be given this option should they return now.”
Such second-guessing of Christians “comes dangerously close to blaming the victims,” said Andrew Walther, a vice president of the Knights of Columbus at the Religion News Association gathering. The Knights, a Catholic men’s service organization, lobbied the U.S. government to classify IS treatment of Christians as genocide.
“One could logically conclude that the untold numbers of Christians who died, were kidnapped, forced into sexual slavery and dispossessed … somehow they must have brought this on themselves by just not paying that tax,” Walther said.
He said half of the remaining Christians in Iraq live as refugees in the Kurdish capital of Erbil. UN policy permits providing relief to individuals, but does not address groups targeted for genocide, he said.
“Christians get no US or UN money, and should the private aid they receive dry up, they would very quickly face a large-scale humanitarian crisis,” he said.
This report has been updated with more complete quotes and background.