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Kevin ClarkeMarch 05, 2021
Pope Francis arrives for a meeting with bishops, priests, religious men and women, seminarians and catechists in the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Deliverance in Baghdad March 5, 2021. (CNS photo/Paul Haring

Maryann Cusimano Love, an associate professor of international relations at the Catholic University of America in Washington, is trying to think of a time when Pope Francis walked into a more dangerous and complicated situation than he did today, touching down in Baghdad. “Well, the Central African Republic was no cakewalk,” she said, recalling the pope’s 2015 visit to what was essentially an active war zone. And that is surely fair, but the journey to Iraq will likewise remain a high-risk standout among this pope’s various efforts to bring attention to the church’s margins.

There are of course physical threats to worry over. “While the U.S. and Iraqi governments like to repeat that ISIS has been defeated,” Dr. Love said, “the estimates are that there’s still 10,000 members of ISIS in command of over $100 million.” ISIS sleeper cells are a constant danger, and questions about the complicity or collaboration of average Sunnis in communities like Mosul, where ISIS maintained prolonged control, remain unexplored.

The journey to Iraq will be a high-risk standout among the pope’s various efforts to bring attention to the church’s margins.

There are also diplomatic landmines to navigate over the next three days. Stephen Rasche, a vice chancellor at the Catholic University of Erbil, where he directs the Institute for Ancient and Threatened Christianity, describes Iraq as perhaps the most complicated political environment on earth. Speaking from Erbil in the autonomous Kurdistan region during a National Review Institute briefing on March 4, he said the pope will face a terrific challenge in balancing interests and sensibilities without offending one or another among the region’s fractious religious and ethnic parties.

The pope’s itinerary calls for him to arrive on March 7 in the de facto heartland of the Christian community in Iraq when he visits Erbil, where hundreds of Christian families now live after fleeing the ISIS rampage in 2014, and then travels by helicopter to Qaraqosh in Nineveh. That Christian city is still rebuilding after its sacking by ISIS and a devastating offensive to drive the Islamic militants out. The city’s Christians will no doubt be profoundly heartened by the pope’s visit, a welcome endorsement of their struggle to maintain a remnant Christian presence in Nineveh. But when Francis leaves, the many challenges to Christian viability in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan will remain.

Since the U.S. invasion overturned Saddam Hussein and his Ba’athist regime in 2003, the once-suppressed Shiite people of Iraq have experienced freedom and power previously unknown to them. Shiite militias played a critical role in driving ISIS from their stronghold in Mosul and redoubts in Nineveh.

Some of those militias, referred to as Hashd al-Shaabi, or “popular mobilization forces,” were raised within Nineveh among its Shabak Shiite community; others arrived from Shiite communities outside the province, responding to a call to rid Iraq of ISIS and the resounding failure of the Iraqi Army to respond to the ISIS caliphate. Dr. Love points out that post-conflict stabilization relies on “D.D.R.”: “demobilization of various armed actors, disarmament of the various armed actors and reintegration into one security force.” That process has not been successful in post-ISIS Iraq.

After the fight against ISIS was concluded, the P.M.F.s ignored demands from the central government to disband. Their lingering presence adds to the disquiet felt by the region’s Christians and other vulnerable minorities. Many militias have only grown larger in the aftermath of the purported defeat of ISIS, finding ready recruits among the region’s many unemployed, even among Christians, according to Mr. Rasche. Since the U.S. invasion and the collapse of the global oil market, the Iraqi economy has been in shambles.

“There’s been a variety of militias,” Dr. Love said. “The allegiances shift and the names shift, but the overall dynamic is that these are militias that do have ties to Iran.” And Iran’s goals for Nineveh do not necessarily include preserving a Christian presence or assisting the re-establishment and protection of other vulnerable minorities like the Yazidi.

Mr. Rasche charges that the Shabak Hashd al-Shaabi has bluntly prevented Christians from returning to Bartella, a city now experiencing a rapid demographic shift from predominantly Christian to predominantly Shabak Shiite that should further discourage its former Christian inhabitants from returning.

In Nineveh, the Shabak, a persecuted Shiite minority under Hussein, have stepped into the political void created by the overthrow of the Ba’athists and the disruption engendered by ISIS. Many have moved out of the countryside, with its poor infrastructure and lack of access to basic services, into Christian communities like Qaraqosh and Bartella. Taking advantage of the vulnerability of the Christian community and the murkiness of land and property claims in the region, they have, some Christians allege, installed themselves on properties abandoned by Christians during the ISIS rampage.

Those Chaldean, Syriac Catholic and Orthodox Christians have already had the horrific experience of Sunni Muslim neighbors and friends turning against them to capitalize on a political power shift and the chaos of war. Many Christians now wonder if they can expect the same treatment someday from the encroaching Shabak and other Shiites moving into Nineveh.

That hyperlocal threat to Christian viability is matched by an overarching complex of geopolitical and regional interests and rivalries. Nineveh remains part of Iraq’s disputed territories, where the ambitions and interests of the autonomous Kurdistan and Iraqi central government collide over control of arable land and natural resources. Neighboring Turkey, worrying over growing Iranian influence, seeks to maximize its zone of influence around the border near the Yazidi city of Sinjar.

Nineveh has been divided into zones controlled by the Iraqi government and by the Kurdish militia known as the peshmerga. Within both zones the militias maintain checkpoints that delineate their areas of control. This means that trips around Nineveh that used to take minutes can take hours, as Christians make their way through multiple and occasionally menacing checkpoints, where they endure the scrutiny of army, peshmerga and militia forces.

The United States and Iran have turned Iraq into a proxy theater of low-intensity conflict.

The quickly changing and opaque alliances in Nineveh and Kurdistan are made “out of practicality or necessity that are very difficult for outsiders to discern, but they are also very difficult for the people on the ground to discern,” said Dr. Love, and that “leads to a climate of suspicion and a lack of trust in the people in the Nineveh plains in particular, but more generally in the region, that makes rebuilding very difficult.”

U.S. drone and missile strikes respond to mortar and rocket attacks from Iranian-backed militia. The United States and Iran have turned Iraq into a proxy theater of low-intensity conflict. The tit-for-tat strikes, including the assassination of an Iranian military leader, Qasem Soleimani, in January 2020, disrupt life for everyone in Nineveh. Adding to the suffering, said Dr. Love, are U.S. sanctions and its current maximum pressure campaign on Iran. Meant to deter Iran’s purported nuclear ambitions, the policies cause collateral economic damage in Iraq, apparently not calculated in Washington.

“The worse relationships are between the U.S. and Iran, the more vulnerable Iraq is,” Dr. Love argued. The people in the Nineveh plains, she added, are “getting caught in the crossfire of these larger geopolitical tensions.” But that also means Nineveh is poised to experience a collateral benefit—improved security and stability—from any improvement in relations between the United States and Iran, according to Dr. Love.

And while Sunni, Kurd and Shiite proxies can turn to their patrons in Iran or Turkey for political and logistical support, the region’s Christians, Yazidi, Mandaean and other minority religious and ethnic groups can only appeal to the United States and the international community for protection and assistance, appeals that increasingly seem futile. Kurds have provided a safe haven in the north to Christians and other minorities and helped drive out ISIS, but there are no guarantees about the position of the Kurdistan Regional Government in the future.

“The worse relationships are between the U.S. and Iran, the more vulnerable Iraq is.”

Indeed, Kurdish politics has taken a dangerously volatile and fractious turn over the last 12 months as Kurdish factions have formed alliances on both sides of the regional divide and against each other. Christians and members of other vulnerable minorities in the Iraqi-Kurdistan region remain second-class citizens under the law, cut off from opportunities, jobs and privileges afforded to other Iraqis.

Christians in Nineveh have established a small self-protection force, but no one anticipates that it would be able to withstand another ISIS-style militancy.

And just about no one expects the Iraqi central government and Iraqi army to defend Christian interests or even Christian lives. “They’ve had three prime ministers in the past year, all these protests, all this political instability,” said Dr. Love. “The current prime minister is trying to build some coalition among these competing forces, but the entire framework of the Iraqi government is built around these [power] allotments for the different sectarian groups, and the Christians and minorities are always in the back of the line for that.”

Perhaps this is true even in Washington. Dr. Love points out that in the just-released Interim National Strategic Security Guidance, Iraq was not even highlighted as a specific concern, demonstrating the diminishing attentiveness of the State Department and the Pentagon to the Iraqi debacle. The U.S. troop presence in Iraq has been reduced to 2,500.

In the just-released Interim National Strategic Security Guidance, Iraq was not even highlighted as a specific concern.

Despite her gloomy assessment, Dr. Love does perceive signs of hope. U.S. strategic policy grows increasingly difficult to discern, but U.S. foreign aid money, bypassing the Iraqi central government and flowing directly to the organizations that are doing the post-ISIS rebuilding in Nineveh, is having a positive impact. And the Christian community in northern Iraq, with the assistance of international agencies like Caritas, Jesuit Refugee Service, Aid to the Church in Need and Catholic Relief Services, is helping rebuild not just homes but relationships.

“Peace building and reconciliation is baked into the programming of the church,” she said, “so everything they do, whether it’s establishing education or health care, is bringing back together those communities that ISIS worked so hard to divide.

“And when there are multiple crises, like there are right now—economic crisis, political crisis, pandemic crisis—that can also help to bring people together, that there’s a common sense of working together,” she added. “I think the pope’s trip does a lot toward that. It helps rebuild the inter-religious dialogue.... It raises up the concerns of the Christian population, so it helps them feel heard, validated. And that’s an important part of reconciliation: truth-telling and public acknowledgment.”

That is surely what Iraq’s Christians hope, Mr. Rasche said, noting that Chaldean and Syriac Catholics in Erbil believe that the fact that they share a faith with the new U.S. president might mean that their plight will be treated more attentively.

Mr. Rasche noted the number of Iraqi Christians before the U.S. invasion in 2003 was an already-diminished 1.5 million. Fewer than 500,000 Christians remained at the time of the ISIS onslaught in 2014. Now, estimates of the remnant Christian presence range between 150,000 and 300,000.

The United States is in no position to have “wearied” of Iraq and the fate of its vulnerable minorities, he argued. Americans have to acknowledge that U.S. policy cumulatively has been a major cause of the Iraqi Christian diaspora, he said.

“There is this small group of ancient, religious people who, without the world’s support, will disappear in our lifetime.” It would not take much for the world to help preserve that community, it just needs “to continue to pay attention,” he said.

“If it does Christianity and Christian culture can survive here,” Mr. Rashe said. “Weariness does not absolve you of responsibility,” he adds. “History will judge us.”

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