6 October 2017
Bahnam Matti removes rubble from a former clothing store in Qaraqosh. While some displaced Christians are returning to their homes, the recent referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan could have a significant impact. (photo: Raed Rafei)
As Iraq and the world cope with the results of last week’s referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan — in which an overwhelming 92 percent of ballots cast in the semiautonomous province of Iraq voted for secession — we are seeing firsthand how those results could impact Iraq’s Christians, many of whom hailed from the nation’s Nineveh Plain. When ISIS invaded northern Iraq in July 2014, tens of thousands fled to Iraqi Kurdistan. Many hoped they would eventually return to their homes.
But now that is increasingly in doubt.
Michel Constantin and Ra’ed Bahou — who direct CNEWA’s offices in Beirut and Amman, respectively — spoke of the challenges Iraqi Christians face in this suddenly changed political environment. Both are visiting New York for an annual planning meeting of CNEWA’s directors.
“I would say the real problem now is the Christians have very few choices,” said Mr. Constantin, “and all the choices are bad.”
Mr. Constantin explained that since the election, roads have been severed between Erbil, the capital of the semiautonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Qaraqosh, the main Christian enclave in northern Iraq. Airports in both areas have been closed. All neighboring countries, with the exception of Syria, are working to isolate Iraqi Kurdistan, he said.
“What will happen?” he asked. “Nobody knows.”
He visited Erbil just a few weeks ago and says about 2,000 Iraqi Christians there were preparing to return to Qaraqosh. But the election has upended everything. Husbands and fathers who had returned to the Christian villages to begin rebuilding their homes in anticipation of a restored life now find themselves separated from their families left behind in Iraqi Kurdistan because of the closed roads.
Adding to the problems are serious economic pressures.
“People want to go back to Qaraqosh for one reason,” Mr. Constantin said: “work.” Most breadwinners, he added, are public workers employed by the Iraqi government in Baghdad, which has stated that if they don’t leave Erbil and go back to their regular jobs, they will lose their salaries.
The situation for organizations such as CNEWA has become more challenging as well, said Mr. Bahou.
“It will be much more difficult to send money to Erbil,” he said. “Organizations just can’t work as before.”
And Christians face uncertainty of what life will be like if and when they return to their homes. Some who return find themselves surrounded by non-Christians who were hostile toward them three years ago; Iraqi Christians now have to depend on them for labor to help rebuild their homes, and many of these neighbors are charging exorbitant prices. These circumstances contribute to widespread mistrust and even fear.
“I’m afraid Christians will just go back to their villages, sell the properties, and emigrate for good,” said Mr. Constantin. “Their neighbors will take advantage of them and make them sell their homes for peanuts. They are helpless. The government is pressuring them — their livelihood, their salaries. They are endangering their lives. They have no security. There is nothing to do.”
However, he said the local church can help by working to support the community at the individual level and to encourage the government to pledge funds for reconstruction. “The church must be united,” Mr. Constantin said, and should urge the patriarchs to work together on behalf of the people.
Otherwise, “many will leave the country, permanently,” said Mr. Bahou. “And the only place they can really go now is Jordan.”
This is a theme Pope Francis himself echoed yesterday when he met with Chaldean bishops from Iraq.
“This is an occasion for me,” the pope said, “to send my greetings to the sorely tested faithful of the beloved Iraqi nation ... in regions and cities that were subjected to painful and violent oppression.” While a tragic page of history has been concluded, he said, there remains much to do.
“I exhort you to work tirelessly as builders of unity,” he said.
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