Future of Iraqi Christians Still ‘Hangs in the Balance’ Five Years After ISIS First Seized Control of Northern Iraq

Syriac Catholic Archbishop Yohanna Moshe of Mosul, Iraq, center, concelebrates the liturgy at St. Thomas Syriac Catholic Church in the old city of Mosul Feb. 28, 2019. (Credit: Khalid al-Mousily/Reuters via CNS.)

Five years after ISIS forces stormed Christian villages in Northern Iraq, forcing thousands to flee overnight, the militants have been suppressed, but the situation of Christians remains precarious and, according to one local, their future in Iraq is still at risk.

“Much of the future for Christians in Nineveh hangs in the balance in the coming weeks pending clarity as to whether the Hashd militias will actually withdraw, as had been formally requested by Baghdad, or if the Iraqi government will back down and allow the Hashd units in Nineveh to stay and continue to exercise their control over the region,” Steve Rasche told Crux.

“If the latter,” he said, “it is a very bleak prospect for the Christians there.”

Rasche is based in Erbil and is a member of the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, which is dedicated to rebuilding Christian villages in northern Iraq.

Formally incorporated into Iraq’s armed forces in 2016 following a parliamentary bill, the Hashd militias, almost entirely Shi’ite, were formed in 2014 by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shi’ite religious authority in Iraq, when ISIS attacked the Nineveh Plains.

On Aug. 6, 2014, ISIS overran numerous Christian communities on the Nineveh Plains, north of Mosul, including the city of Qaraqosh, once considered to be the “Christian capital” of Iraq. Some 120,000 Christians were forced to flee overnight, many of them with just the clothes on their backs.

Most found refuge in and around Erbil, capital of Kurdistan or Kurdish Iraq, living in camps supported by the Catholic Church.

In the fall of 2016, Iraqi forces alongside their allies retook the territory and so far, some 40,000 Christians have returned to the Nineveh Plains. Others have decided to remain in Erbil, while many have emigrated, and a great number are still contemplating whether they should stay or go.

In the fight against ISIS, Hashd forces assisted Iraqi military forces in their 2016-2017 offensive to overthrow ISIS, backed by a U.S.-led airpower coalition. The Iraqi city of Mosul, for two years a major ISIS stronghold in Northern Iraq, was reclaimed in the summer of 2017, and Hashd forces have remained ever since.

Since then, the group, which has received funding from Iran, has come under fire for causing more problems than they are solving, particularly for Christians in the area.

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SOURCE: Crux Now, Elise Harris