The Catholic Church in northern Iraq has voiced its opposition to suggestions that an enclave should be created to safeguard non-Muslims fearful of returning to live among their Muslim neighbours.
However Stephen Rasche, aid co-ordinator for the Catholic diocese of Erbil in northern Iraq, also said that the likelihood of Christians returning to live in the city of Mosul, formerly home to thriving Christian communities, was “essentially non-existent”.
Non-Muslims such as Christians and Yazidis were driven from their homes by Islamic State jihadists in 2014, but with the group’s imminent demise in Iraq, minority communities are questioning whether they can return home, or whether their Sunni Muslim neighbours may have become sympathetic to the ideology of IS. Some Assyrian Christian politicians, and some US Christians, have favoured the creation of an enclave, but others have warned it could become a ghetto and further increase Christians’ vulnerability.
“There aren’t enough people left for that to work in the favour of the Christians,” said Mr Rasche.
Speaking at a briefing in London last week, Mr Rasche continued: “To put this small, small, people together in one place … they would be tremendously vulnerable,” he added.
Due to emigration as a result of targeted violence, the number of Christians in Iraq has fallen from around 1.4m in 1987 to only around 200,000 today. Other non-Muslim minorities have also been forced to flee their homes.
Instead, he said, the Catholic Church believed that Iraqi Christians’ future lay in full integration, full participation and equal rights.
The question of whether Christians from the towns and villages surrounding Mosul in the Nineveh Plains could return home would need to be decided on a town by town basis, Mr Rasche said. Christians were waiting to see how regional politics would settle after the recapture of Mosul. However in the city itself, where in 2014 many Christians were turned out by their neighbours, “the likelihood of Christians returning to Mosul is essentially non-existent”.
He noted that Nineveh Plains region, which lies south of Kurdistan, is currently split between control by the Iraqi army and control by Kurdish Peshmerga forces. The latter is “relatively stable” while the former he described as “incredibly chaotic,” being fought over by Shia and Christian militias.
Just as Sunni Muslims have feared marginalisation under the Shia rise to power that followed Saddam Hussein’s ousting in 2003, so minorities fear that the Islamisation of society that has begun will leave ever less room for non-Muslims and more moderate interpretations of Islam.
At the briefing, Christopher Segar, the Government’s former head of mission in Iraq and a trustee of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME), said that in purely pragmatic terms, the wisest policy was to ensure a “pluralist society, a multi-religious, multi-ethnic society in Mesopotamia, and not to leave existing trends to play out in the next few years”.