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[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”99675″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]03/01/2021 Iraq (International Christian Concern) –Preparations for the Pope’s visit to Iraq accentuated activities throughout the Nineveh Plains, creating an atmosphere of eager and hopeful anticipation as each day drew closer to his March visit. However, the Papal visit also corresponds with increasing security-related concerns in Nineveh, which has become a type of testing ground for Turkey and Iran to pursue competing demonstrations of military strength. COVID also continued to impact daily life for Nineveh residents, further hindering the post-ISIS economy.

Security Challenges

February ended with Turkey and Iran summoning each other’s ambassadors because of each other’s activities in Northern Iraq, including Nineveh. Iranian ambassador to Iraq stated that “we reject military intervention in Iraq and Turkish forces should not pose a threat or violate Iraqi soil. The security of the Iraqi area should be maintained by Iraqi forces and [Kurdistan] Region forces in their area.” Ironically, the Iraqi forces referenced by the Iranian ambassador (the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF) are largely funded and supported by the Iranian government.

Turkey rejected this statement in strong terms, arguing that Iran should support Turkey’s fight against PKK terrorism. While the PKK are internationally recognized as a terrorist organization, Turkey has a strong record of using counter-terrorism operations against the PKK as an excuse to justify military intervention and expansionism into multiple countries. Multiple operations have been conducted in Nineveh Governorate’s Sinjar region, and Turkey even maintains a military checkpoint near Mosul.

Mosul is more firmly in the sphere of Iranian PMF influence but is increasingly a subject of conversation amongst Turkey’s state media. Mosul was once a central city during Turkey’s predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, and is referred to in Turkish circles as the “lost homeland.” As neo-Ottomanism becomes an ever-increasing feature of Turkish military activities, concerns have and continue to be raised about whether Mosul will become territorially central to any Turkish-Iranian clash within Iraq’s geography.

During February, the possible clash appeared to come one step closer with the announcement that Turkey had conducted a failed hostage rescue operation in Iraq’s Gara region. Turkey claimed that 13 hostages were executed and 48 PKK militants killed. Almost immediately afterward, a pro-Iranian militia named Saraya Awliya al-Dam claimed responsibility for a missile attack that targeted Erbil, killing a civilian contractor and injuring six. Such attacks impact the ability of Nineveh’s Christians to safely travel between Nineveh and the KRG, a common part of daily life, particularly following ISIS-displacement.

It is worth noting that the militia Saraya Awliya al-Dam is a relatively new player within Iraq. Many have commented that the rocket attack was not only a direct message from Iran to the US, but also its NATO ally Turkey. As one local Christian explained to ICC following the attack, “I think launching rockets toward Erbil is a test from the Iranian administration to Biden, they wanted to know if Biden will be as aggressive as Trump or not.” Just over a week later, the Pentagon announced that they did respond to the Erbil attack by conducting an airstrike against Iranian-backed militias. This airstrike was conducted in Syria.

In short, during the month of February, the security environment of the Nineveh Governorate has ballooned into featuring significant geopolitical elements spanning up to four different countries. It further feeds into the sense of many Christians that wherever they live, their homeland will always be the military testing ground for outside groups.

Pandemic Challenges

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that there had been 26,793 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Nineveh Governorate by the end of February, with 144 still active and 499 fatalities. This is the second month in a row where the numbers appear substantially improved, or at least fairly stable. However, it is not necessarily reflective of the larger COVID problem within Iraq. The country has again gone under a COVID curfew, which always places the Nineveh Governorate into a challenging position. It is a disputed territory under the Central Government’s control, but its proximity to the KRG, whose security and economic situation is more stable, is attractive for Nineveh’s residents. It can often mean living between multiple contradictory sets of regulations, including regarding COVID.

Given the normality of commuting between Nineveh and Erbil, the two regions have often found themselves entangled. Reports from the field continue to indicate that COVID restrictions impact farmers’ ability to move their products. There is also a connection between COVID and the government’s ever-increasing inability to pay public salaries. Warns one report, “In addition to the impact of the COVID‑19 pandemic and related containment measures on economic activities in the private and informal sectors, the continued delays in payments of public employees’ salaries and the loose price monitoring and consumer protection, the current devaluation of the national currency will have negative effects on households’ food security.”

Another report adds, “Nearing a year of (COVID) restrictions, Iraq’s vulnerable are running out of options – and trust… months of containment measures take their toll… health services are out of reach… remote education is difficult for parents… majority of respondents are affected by lost income.” 

Additional Challenges

COVID has forced communities to become locked down and isolated. For communities who experienced the genocide of ISIS, this situation can worsen all of this trauma and hurt community healing. For example, the KRG announced that “Thirteen Yazidis have committed suicide this year. The suicides are believed to be linked to the trauma caused by the Yazidi genocide at the hands of ISIS, the difficult living conditions inside the camps.”

The Yazidi community was finally able to hold a funeral for the remains of 104 genocide victims killed by ISIS in August 2014. The remains were excavated from over 80 mass graves, and the funeral occurred six years after the fact. Yazidi activist and Nobel Peace Prize co-recipient Nadia Murad shared, “After six years, I was able to bury the remains of 2 of my brothers. My community of Kocho was able to lay over 100 of our loved ones to rest. This is just the beginning of justice for Yazidis. Thousands of families still wait for the identification and burial of their loved ones.”

In a separate statement, she also emphasized that “Living with this reality is a burden that weighs heavily on the Yazidi community. The longer we wait for exhumations and honorable burials, the more our communal trauma is exacerbated and our dignity denied.”

For Christians, February’s main focus was preparing for the Papal visit, which will include a visit to Mosul and Qeraqosh. The visit is causing some tension, as explained by one resident, “the Pope is coming to meet the corrupted leadership of the government as well as the corrupted leadership of the church. He will not know the divisions among the churches. He will not know that some of the dominations are even not invited to attend the meetings.”

Nevertheless, excitement is displayed everywhere. A Karamlesh resident shared how his village and Qeraqosh “have been busy to welcome Pope Francis; the streets are full with decorations, pictures, and welcome phrases for the Pope. Also, the churches have been cleaned well, and people are happy for this visit.”

Still, there are doubts about whether it will affect any actual change. “This will be a historic visit to Iraq as no Pope came to Iraq in history. Still, practically I don’t think there will be an impact on Christians’ lives,” said another local.

A Mosul Christian further explains, “Pope Francis’ visit to Mosul will have a temporary impact on Christians, but soon it will be forgotten because unless the government and people who live around you change their approaches, nothing will happen.” [/vc_column_text][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1614611303749{margin-bottom: 0px !important;}”]