With the ousting of ISIS from the Nineveh Plains — located northeast of Mosul in Iraq — its Christian communities, after spending nearly three years as Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in Kurdistan — are hopeful about returning to their ancient homeland. However, the road ahead is difficult.
While the Kurds played host, providing asylum to the IDPs, the Kurds also hold the key to Christians reclaiming their homes and property in nearly half of the Nineveh Plains.
Since the rise of ISIS, there have been consistent expressions of support for Iraq’s embattled Christians at the highest levels of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Affording protection to the IDPs has played well in the West and it was based on a reality on the ground: Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Kurdistan was given land to house the IDPs, for which the KRG ensured a measure of protection.
As one Christian source put it, "The Kurds leave us alone." But a history of persecution at the hands of the Kurds has not receded from Christian memory. There is not much genuine trust.
There remains, for instance, the bitter memory among the Nineveh exiles that KRG forces, the vaunted Peshmerga, abandoned Christian towns to ISIS after dismantling the Christians’ own security infrastructure. And reports of the looting of Christian properties by Kurdish fighters after the recent defeat of ISIS have not helped matters.
More worrisome — despite protestations to the contrary by Kurdish leaders — are rumblings that the Kurds may want to claim possession of some of the land because the Peshmerga shed blood to help recapture Nineveh.
Finally, there are reports that returning Christian security officials are being prevented by the Peshmerga from resuming their duties.
This is the loaded backdrop for what in other respects is a favorable situation for Christians eyeing a return to land and property under Kurdish control. Concerns remain concerning other parts of the Nineveh Plains where the balance of power has yet to be settled as competing forces are vying for control and dominance.
The Nineveh Plains town of Teleskuf is a good example. Close to 650 families have already returned to the largely Chaldean community. While the KRG does not provide any reconstruction assistance, it does provide law and order. In contrast, Qaraqosh, in the Baghdad "zone" of the Nineveh Plains, there is chaos, as Iranian-backed militia are struggling with Shiite forces as well as government troops for control of the city.
Ignoring the opposition to such a plan by Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako and Archbishop Warda, the call by expatriate activists and local church leaders for the creation of a Christian militia to protect Christian safe havens, makes little sense, for such a force would be no match for the bigger players — Bagdad, the KRG, Iran, Turkey — not to mention ISIS remnants roaming the territory.
The best solution for Nineveh’s Christians, cooler heads insist, is for Western governments — and the U.S. in particular — to leverage their power and influence in order to get both Baghdad and the KRG to integrate Christians into a sovereign state that fully respects life, property rights and equal citizenship for all regardless of religions.
So far, the Europeans have shown little interest supporting such a plan, but hopes are higher for action by the Trump administration.
But time is not on the side of the Christians. Ahead of harsh winter weather, Christians must re-occupy the Nineveh Plains straightaway to plant crops and to rebuild their homes, businesses, and schools.
The West must act now. For if a significant number of Christians do not return to Nineveh this summer, and the power vacuum persists into 2018, the hopes for an enduring renaissance of Christianity in Iraq may be dashed forever.
George J. Marlin, a former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is the author of "The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact," and "Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy." He is chairman of Aid to the Church in Need-USA. Mr. Marlin also writes for TheCatholicThing.org and the Long Island Business News. To read more George J. Marlin — Click Here Now.
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