Admired, but not Protected, Christians Seek Home Elsewhere
By Claire Evans
09/21/2017 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – The liberation of the Nineveh Plains from ISIS control, as announced by Iraq’s Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi in August 2017, was a victory marked by Iraq’s Christians with both joy and sadness. For nearly 2,000 years, the Nineveh Plains was home to a thriving Christian community. Their way of life was noticeably different, and even admired at times. Their streets were cleaner. Their way of life more peaceful.
Any appearance of peace, however, was negated by the absence of rule of law, which allowed extremist groups to target Christians from the shadows. When ISIS transitioned from the shadows to the battlefield in 2014, Christians knew that they were an immediate target. Unknown at the time was the full extent of ISIS’s genocidal intentions. Without remedying the factors which contributed to the rise of ISIS, many Christians are reluctant to return to their home communities.
Some Muslims, however, are eager for their Christian neighbors to return. Karim, a Muslim from northern Iraq, said, “Christians were a flower in Mosul… We believe in one God with Christians, but the difference in lifestyle is huge.” Another Muslim, Ahmed, further reflected, “We used to have a Christian neighbor for 16 years… He was one of the best individuals I’ve met… I think the best neighbor you may have are Christians.”
Admiration for their Christian neighbors, however, was marked by uncertainty about the future of Christianity in the region. Karim said, “Christians are not the kind of people who carry weapons and defend themselves… Christians were not safe even before ISIS invaded Mosul. They need someone to protect them.”
Protection, however, was lacking long before ISIS rose to power. Ara, a Christian from northern Iraq, said, “Social differences were neglected before 2003, but after the US invasion because of the freedom and power got by non-Christians, they behaved like masters over Christians.” He elaborated that “the absence of the rule of law encouraged non-Christians to treat Christians badly, even the government itself.”
This environment allowed many extremist groups to operate in the shadows. It was hardly surprising when ISIS made its entrance into the public eye and started committing targeted persecution against Christians. It was, however, surprising to many Christians when they realized that not even their neighbors would defend them. Father Albert, a Catholic priest in Baghdad, further explained, “ISIS’s capture of Mosul and the Nineveh Plains was more than just an occupation for Christians. It’s related to trust… Christians saw many movies on social media of how civilians welcomed ISIS in June 2014. How can they trust these people anymore?”
Ahmed, however, countered the assertion that trust has been irreparably broken. He asserted, “Mosul is not safe for everyone. It’s correct that Christians suffered more than us, but that doesn’t mean we were happy with ISIS.” He continued, “Iraq has passed through a similar situation before. Yet the relationships between Christians and Muslims continued, so I think that the relationship and trust can be rebuilt again.”
Ahmed was careful to add, “Yes, I want Christians to come back. [But] Christians may not be safe anywhere.” Karim agreed. He said, “I would love for Christians to come back here. [However] the disappearance of Christians from Mosul was only a matter of time, even if ISIS didn’t attack Mosul in 2014.”
Time is a luxury that Christians do not have. As ISIS retreats back into the shadows, Christians are faced with the possibility of returning to a normalcy that never fully protected them. Ara elaborated by explaining, “The worst that I can expect from a Christian friend is stealing something from my house. But it’s different with non-Christian friends. A small misunderstanding could lead to a crime… because Christians don’t have any support!”
ISIS may have created the graveyard which the living desperately sought to escape, but the conditions for its existence were already present long before ISIS. Despite the region’s painful history, some Christians have returned home. Earlier this month, approximately 500 Christian families celebrated their homecoming with ceremonies that marked a fresh start for the Nineveh Plains. However, as Ara pointed out, Christians want protection. And for many, the best protection available is simply to not return.