Are Iraq’s Christians Facing a Critical Juncture Post-Election?
By Claire Evans
07/10/2018 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – On July 1, Iraq officially became an interim government without a functioning parliament. The contested results of the May election left the country unable to form a new government. As the country manually recounts the ballots, a lack of governance has opened the doors for armed groups to fulfill the role of authority.
The implications of this situation on the country’s ever-shrinking Christian community cannot be ignored. One only needs to look toward history for comparison. Each time that Iraq has experienced a crisis of governance, the country’s Christians were the first to suffer.
Many recall the turmoil in the early 2000s caused by armed groups attempting to fill the vacuum of power. Since Christians were unarmed, they were vulnerable to violence and became easy targets, often by their Muslim neighbors.
“The general theme of life in Baghdad for Christians during Saddam time was beautiful. We were safe unless you have something confusing the government, so the rule was stay far from the politics and always appreciate the government,” recalled Kasim.
Life for Christians, however, would change significantly when Iraq was left without governing institutions. Kasim “moved from Baghdad to Erbil in 2006 when the civil war between Sunni and Shia in Baghdad was at the top level. We used to live in Dura district which was the best area to live before 2003. Unfortunately, it became the worst during the civil war.”
“We should be home before the darkness comes because unknown militias were randomly building temporary fake checkpoints and if the checkpoints were Shia then they are looking for Sunni and vice versa. But as a Christian, we were afraid more of the Sunnis’ checkpoints,” he added.
“In early 2006, we forcibly left our house because we got an envelope telling us, ‘You have to leave within 48 hours, all you have to take is your clothes, if you take anything else we will kill you,” shared Seza, another Christian from Baghdad. His family was targeted by an armed gang and his Muslim neighbors played a role in their displacement. He added, “Still, I have the envelope and the three bullets we received from the gang.”
Unfortunately, these kinds of stories are not relegated to the past and are increasingly common as Iraq’s crisis of governance grows.
Mohammed converted from Islam to Christianity in 2004. He would immigrate from Iraq in 2013 after years of pressure from his tribe, which made violent threats against him because of his conversion. Although he has lived outside of Iraq since then, he has maintained a home there. Recently, this home was violently targeted by one of the country’s strongest militias.
“The implications of this situation on the country’s ever-shrinking Christian community cannot be ignored. One only needs to look toward history for comparison.”
“My friend contacted me and told me that an armed group took the house. He was afraid to take a shot (photo) of the house and send it to me,” said Mohammed. The militia had written on the external wall that this was an “apostate’s house.”
“I can’t control and sell the house in Baghdad… I don’t have any support in Baghdad. Most probably I would be killed if I am there and the governmental law protects the militias rather than protecting me because the militia pay the government back and support them on elections,” he added.
This incident happened before the election, when militias were hoping to exert their influence through the electoral process. Now that the electoral process is under dispute, militias are exerting their influence through other means.
The armed group with the most to gain and lose from the election is the Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi militia. This militia is led by Haider al-Amiri, whose political alliance won the second most seats in parliament. Thus, he is a contender for a high-level government position, including the position of prime minister.
Many Christians are worried. Haitham, who lives in Baghdad, said, “It is a disaster having al-Amiri in that position. We (Christians) had the worst experience when Amiri was minister (of transportation) … Hashd is the little dog of Iran and they stand against ISIS, so they want their reward for that.”
Haitham has just opened a business in Baghdad, but given the uncertainty surrounding the election and the subsequent rise of armed violence, he is uncertain about its future and is considering fleeing to Erbil. However, because he spent $60,000 to open his business, he is “waiting at least to see a formed government. I am afraid of selling everything with less than half value if I decided to leave… He (Amiri) is a war man.”
Another believer voiced his concerns that the political situation is forcing Christians toward another critical juncture. “I think we are at the point where we cannot go back. Before 2003, just my older brother was living outside Iraq. But right now, my sister and I are the only ones left in Iraq. All the rest have left due to the bad situation, lack of education, different groups control [over] the country… so the only solution is to leave one day and I believe it is similar for most of Christians all over Iraq.”
Time will tell what the future will bring for Iraq’s Christian community. Predictions on how long Iraq will continue in a governing vacuum range from weeks to months. However, we know that history has shown how Christians fared under similar circumstances:
In 2003, Iraq’s government under Saddam collapsed.
In 2005, Iraq passed through a transitional stage while waiting for the creation of a constitution and new government
In 2010, Iraq broke the world record of failing to form a government by surpassing 207 days.
In 2014, Iraq completed an election and formed a new government.
“Christian immigration passed through three main stages,” explained a former resident of Baghdad to ICC. “The first was from 2005-2007, [the] second was in 2010 when some extremists attacked [a] church during Sunday mass and the third stage was in 2014 when ISIS attacked [the] Nineveh Plain.”
Sadly, the present circumstances offer similar warnings.
For interviews with Claire Evans, Regional Manager, please contact Olivia Miller, Communications Coordinator: firstname.lastname@example.org