In the Book of Jonah, God directs the Old Testament prophet to go to Nineveh and call for its conversion, so that “all must turn from their evil way and from the violence of their hands” (3:8).
Almost miraculously, the people of Nineveh do renounce their evil ways, and so God withholds the punishment he had prepared for them.
In early July, Nineveh — which was located adjacent to present-day Mosul in Iraq — received another kind of reprieve, this time in the form of the Iraqi Army’s successful struggle to free Mosul from the brutal rule of the Islamic State terrorist organization. On July 9, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi arrived in Mosul to offer his congratulations to the U.S.-backed Iraqi military. And Christians across the region marked the news as an important step in the long-anticipated return of their community to the city and to their ancestral towns and villages close by on the Nineveh Plain.
However, the nine-month siege to reclaim the city was accomplished at an enormous cost, with thousands of civilians killed in the cross fire and half of Mosul reduced to rubble.
At present, Christians are watching closely to see how the Iraqi government — with the help of key allies like Washington, and with the assistance of Church leaders and agencies — will restore city blocks and villages devastated by military battle. Likewise, the nation’s religious minorities are searching for evidence that Iraq will protect their legal and political rights in a nation shattered by sectarian violence.
“Mosul is a big victory,” said Bishop Gregory Mansour of the Maronite Eparchy of St. Maron in Brooklyn, New York. “Christians of the Middle East feel their churches, homes and livelihoods were stolen by IS in a deliberate genocidal grab. I think they probably feel there was some justice in dealing with IS in this way, though I wish” that the terrorist group could have been defeated without “so much collateral damage.”
Looking ahead, Bishop Mansour identified two daunting challenges for Christians contemplating a return to Mosul and to nearby Christian towns and villages. The first is “the humanitarian disaster” that awaits them — partly the result of the lengthy battle to reclaim Mosul that left basic services like electricity and clean water in shambles. The second hurdle is no less difficult: “the rebuilding of Christian trust so they can come home,” he told the Register.
In June 2014, Islamic State militia swept into Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. They announced the establishment of a caliphate that would span Iraq and Syria and instituted a campaign of unprecedented violence, from the beheading of children to the rape and sexual enslavement of non-Muslim women. Christian residents were offered two choices: Convert to Islam, or flee. Most of the faithful fled with just the clothes on their backs, and more than 100,000 have spent the past three years in camps for displaced Christians in Erbil, Kurdistan.
Now, Christians are asking, “What are we going back to?” said U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, a leading advocate for persecuted Christians in the U.S. House, as he recalled somber conversations with Christians at an Erbil camp.
Most fear their homes and businesses have been destroyed or confiscated, and they are horrified by reports that ISIS purposefully desecrated churches, monasteries and convents.
“An Iraqi priest told me that his home had been taken by his neighbors, and his 800-year-old church was used as an IS torture center,” Father Benedict Kiely, the founder of Nasarean, a nonprofit that supports persecuted Christians, told the Register.
Christians will look for improvements in neighborhood policing and make a concerted effort to address booby-trapped buildings and unexploded ordinances left behind by ISIS. And when Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, New Mexico, the U.S. bishops’ point man on international peace and justice issues, traveled to Iraq in January, Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil and Syriac Catholic Archbishop Yohanna Moshe of Mosul discussed additional concerns with him. They said that “Christians want to live in an integrated society where they have full citizenship and a voice in local, regional and national government,” Bishop Cantú told the Register.
“A West Point study released June 28 found that ISIS has reverted to being a terror organization, striking with suicide bombs the places it once controlled,” said Nina Shea, the director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom who personally organized the safe passage of 149 displaced Christians to a new life in Slovakia in December 2015.
“Currently, the Christian towns of Nineveh have only a patchwork quilt of militias, while they need a comprehensive defense and stabilization plan,” Shea noted.
It will be impossible for the Iraqi government to undertake, without outside help, the rebuilding of tens of thousands of homes and businesses, as well as basic services. Ed Clancy of Aid to the Church in Need says it will cost about $250 million to rebuild 13,000 houses for Christians in the area, at around $20,000 each. Additional funds must be raised to rebuild churches, convents and monasteries that have long been a source of spiritual solace and practical support for a vulnerable religious minority.
The window of opportunity for bringing Christians back to Mosul will be brief — perhaps only four months, Clancy warned — and there is a strong possibility that many will opt to join an estimated 100,000 of their co-religionists who fled Iraq after the Islamic State captured Mosul.
Christian leaders in the region have formed a committee that will present a post-World War II Marshall Plan-style initiative to rehabilitate devastated communities. And back in Washington, Rep. Smith is pushing his fellow Republicans in the Senate to take up his bill, the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act of 2017 (H.R. 390) — legislation that will provide humanitarian aid to victims of ISIS.
If the Senate follows the House’s lead and passes Smith’s bill, desperately needed funds will go to Iraqi Christians at a critical juncture in their storied history.
With no time to lose, Catholics should press their representatives in the Senate to take up the bill. Further, the U.S. bishops can do more to raise awareness about the plight of our Iraqi brothers and sisters.
The bishops hold Sunday collections for Catholic schools, the Campaign for Human Development and for retired religious. They should now hold one for Iraqi Christians. That emergency collection, paired with an exhortation for additional financial and spiritual support during Sunday Masses, would aid the effort greatly.
The Register also endorses the farsighted and generous efforts of the Knights of Columbus, who have raised more than $12 million for persecuted Christians in the Middle East through their Christian Refugee Relief Fund. Said Carl Anderson, the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, to the Register: “We must not allow ISIS to accomplish its goal of eliminating Christianity from the region through the world’s indifference.”
In the Old Testament, Jonah heeded God’s call and so prepared the way for the conversion of Nineveh. Today, against all odds, we pray that the hope and faith of Iraqi Christians will keep the flame of Christianity alive in its birthplace, and so inspire our own path of Christian discipleship.