Editor’s Note: This piece was updated after its initial posting.
ERBIL, Iraq — More than two years ago, Islamic State (ISIS) militants appeared unstoppable in their conquest of northern Iraq, as they unleashed a devastating genocide on the region’s minority populations, particularly on hundreds of thousands of Yazidis and Christians.
Now, ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate is crumbling, as combined Iraqi and Kurdish forces, backed by U.S. coalition airpower, are liberating Christian towns in fierce battles with the Islamic militants on their drive toward Mosul, the last city under ISIS’ control.
But as Iraq’s armed forces seek to win the war with the terrorist organization, winning the peace may depend ultimately on the formation of a safe-haven province for Iraq’s minorities that can secure the region.
Robert Nicholson, executive director of The Philos Project, an international organization dedicated to building a lasting peace in the Middle East, told the Register his organization has helped draft a proposal for a safe-haven province (or series of provinces) that would encompass Sinjar, Tal Afar and the Nineveh Plain. These adjoining regions are the ancestral homelands of the Yazidi, Turkmen and Christians, most of them ethnic Assyrians, who were all subjected to systematic extermination by ISIS.
Nicholson explained that the safe-haven province is an Iraqi idea that has the support of the minority peoples.
“They’re basically unified in saying, ‘We want a safe haven that transitions to a province,’” he said.
The vision for the safe haven is for Iraqi and international coalition forces to secure the liberated areas of the Nineveh Plain, Sinjar and Tel-Afar to allow the safe return of the indigenous minorities. Then the safe haven would be transitioned into a self-governed province in a federalized Iraq, with each minority population providing local security forces for their own continued protection.
Nicholson indicated the return of the refugees and displaced persons will be a complicated process, requiring a number of coordinated steps. Christians, Yazidis and others will not only need security they can trust, but these liberated areas will require serious economic redevelopment. Without jobs, they may just go home, sell their remaining property and leave.
Another factor involves securing justice from ISIS and their collaborators, who betrayed the Christians and Yazidis and robbed them of their possessions.
The practical details of who will run the provincial safe haven (from providing security to trash collection), Nicholson said, also needs to be worked out in coordination with the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan regional government.
“We can’t play it by ear and let the situation develop,” he said, adding that the U.S. needs to signal its support for this plan now, before events take a course of their own.
“The people on the ground are begging for our involvement,” Nicholson said. “Somebody needs to step up.”
Crisis of Confidence
Michel Constantine, a Beirut-based humanitarian activist with close ties to the Church in Iraq, said that Christians will potentially have to wait years before they can safely return to the liberated villages. ISIS, he said, has strewn mines in the roads and fields and even booby-trapped houses.
“It might take years before the de-mining process is complete,” he said.
When ISIS expelled the Christians from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, approximately 125,000 of them walked away from all their possessions instead of renouncing Jesus Christ. However, many of the Christians have left Kurdistan seeking resettlement in the West as refugees.
While the Church has been actively trying to reduce the suffering of the people, by providing housing, health care and spiritual care, Constantine said the reality is that most of the Christians displaced in Kurdistan would have left the region entirely if they had the means and opportunity.
“Most of them don’t wish to go back to Iraq, because they do not want to be subject to persecution,” said Sami, a Christian refugee from Iraq who gave only his first name, in speaking with the Register at the Pontifical Mission Library in Amman, Jordan.
The library serves as a de facto community center for many refugees who are looking for resettlement in the United States, Canada, Australia or Europe.
Another man from Tel-Keif, a majority Christian town north of Mosul who gave his name as “Canaan,” said he applied for refugee resettlement because “I have nobody in Iraq now.”
He also said residents have no resources to fall back on since ISIS plundered and occupied the town Aug. 6.
“They took the shops, businesses, houses — everything,” he said.
But the flight of Iraq’s Christians has withered their voice at the table for negotiating the land’s post-ISIS future, according to Constantine. By themselves, he said, the Christians in Iraq do not have enough people to populate a large city. This means the big players are the Kurds, the Shia and the Sunnis, and they will all have to decide what happens to the land — and they all have competing interests. If Iraq becomes decentralized into Kurdish, Shia and Sunni regions, the Christians and other minorities would likely have to join with the Kurds because they have “no trust” for their Sunni Arab neighbors who betrayed them.
But if Iraq remains a united nation, Constantine said a separate province for minorities would have to be created by partitioning areas, such as the Nineveh Plain, that geographically are considered part of Mosul.
“This is all wishful thinking, because the picture is not clear,” he said.
“The global Church needs to help the local Church have a voice at the negotiations.”
Dreaming of Nineveh
The creation of a safe-haven province in northern Iraq is critical to ensuring that ISIS militants do not go dormant and reconstitute themselves in a regional power vacuum.
Juliana Taimoorazy, founder and president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council and a senior fellow with The Philos Project, told the Register that Iraq needs the survival of Christianity — “a Middle-Eastern religion,” she added — and a safe-haven province would allow Iraqi Christians, most of whom are ethnic Assyrians, to build a life in their ancestral homeland. Taimoorazy, an Assyrian Catholic, noted the Assyrians living in the Nineveh Plain received the Gospel from St. Thomas the Apostle and are one of the oldest peoples mentioned in the Bible.
“If you extract Christians out of the Middle East, you empower the extremists,” she said.
Taimoorazy explained that once the safe haven is established, the repatriation of Iraqi Christians likely would happen in three waves: first, the return of displaced persons living now in Kurdistan; second, the return of those Christians living in Jordan and Turkey, who have not found host countries in the West to resettle them; third, ethnic Assyrian Christians in the diaspora, such as Taimoorazy, who would return to rebuild their homeland.
But the province as a “multiethnic mosaic” would allow the minority groups, such as the Aramaic-speaking Christians, the Yazidis, Turkmen and Shabaks, to maintain their own identity, language and religious practices. Taimoorazy said that the different minority groups have a common cause because they have historically been subjected either to a process of “Arabicization” or “Kurdification.”
The problem with these groups living as part of a greater Kurdistan, Taimoorazy said, is that Kurdistan has both secularists and Sunni Muslim fundamentalists with competing agendas. While Kurdistan’s officials have put on a friendly face toward the Christian cause, Taimoorazy said Kurdish peshmerga generals have said that “any land they liberate they will call their own.”
She believes 45,000 Christians are living in Turkey, along the border, waiting to return. Another 65,000 live in the vicinity of Dohuk and Erbil in Kurdistan, while another 7,000-10,000 Christians remain in Baghdad. With the repatriation of Yazidis, Shabaks and Turkmen, the safe-haven province could have a combined strength of close to 1.5 million people.
Church’s Solidarity Needed
The support of the universal Church will be more needed than ever as Christians in Iraq begin the process of rebuilding their lives and creating a homeland.
As the liberation progresses, Taimoorazy said people will return to destroyed houses, churches and schools, and many children will have the trauma of fathers killed, mothers sold into sex slavery or friends who either were killed or who have moved to another country. Through its website, her council is helping to provide assistance.
She added that Christians, through whatever organizations they support, need to “give these families a spiritual embrace” as they rebuild their lives.
“We’ve never been this close to having our own homeland,” she said. “This could be our last opportunity.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.
Those wishing to help Christians in Iraq can find out more from Catholic-related organizations at the following links: