ISIS may be practically gone in northern Iraq, but Christians now face another challenge: the Shabak, a Shia group that is more subtly pushing Christians out of their towns on the Nineveh Plain.
To properly assess this latest threat, Father Benedict Kiely, the founder of Nasarean.org, a charity helping persecuted Christians, returned to the region in the first days of 2019.
His visit included once-Christian towns on the Nineveh Plain — Bartella, Qaraqosh and Karamlesh — struggling to rebuild after ISIS invaded in 2014. The towns were liberated by Iraqi forces three years later.
Father Kiely explains in this Jan. 9 interview with the Register the continued uncertainty facing the ever-dwindling number of Iraqi Christians, why they must have greater local political representation in such a tribalized society, and how the United States still plays a crucial role in helping Christians return to and thrive in to the area, as they had done for millennia.
What was your aim of going to visit this time?
The main aim of this trip was to go principally to see three once-Christian towns in “disputed territory”: Qaraqosh, Bartella and Karamlesh — to see how they’re doing, but also to see the reality of what it’s like to be under this control. There’s a real problem there now, in that the Christian identity of these formerly Christian towns is in the balance because the Shabak, a Shia group, are taking land.
Why is it called “disputed territory”?
This is because of political differences in the Nineveh Plain between Kurdish and Iraqi authorities and because the area is really under the control of the Shia militia, the PMF, the Popular Mobilization Force.
There’s a real separation now between the life in Erbil [the capital of Kurdistan] and what’s going on in the Nineveh Plain. You are almost, as it were, going through two different countries. You’ve got to go through these check points, and it’s getting more tricky.
Plus, the Kurds don’t like the Shabak at all; it’s very tribal, and it’s precarious for Christians because, once again, they do not have arms; they don’t fight anybody.
Are the Shabak taking houses vacated by Christians?
Yes, but the real problem is political control because they [the Shabak] have more people. Christians don’t have political power any more, are now a minority on councils or other parts of local government. Someone told me that unless the Iraqi government orders the Shia militias to go, then it is basically over for the Christians in the Nineveh Plain.
Is this the case throughout that region?
There is a clear difference now between the Nineveh Plain, where the future hangs in the balance, and Erbil, Teleskof and other areas in the north, where there is a future. The Christians who are there can find jobs, but in many places, they’ve got to find housing. No one’s paying rent for them anymore, so if they haven’t got a job, they’ve got a problem.
What is it like now in Mosul?
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, visited the region over Christmas and went to Mosul. They had a big Mass, the church was filled up, but nobody is actually living there. They filled the church up with faithful brought in from elsewhere. There’s no priest there.
Overall, would you say the situation has worsened since when you were last there in May?
In different ways. There are some good things. For example, in Qaraqosh, they’ve done some of the rebuilding, which is really impressive. They’ve built a kind of Christian cultural center; there’s a nice library. The orchestra and music project that they’re doing in Qaraqosh is really impressive.
But the roads have deteriorated and much worse than they were, especially because it had been raining. USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] is not helping with the roads, so some of the things the people are asking for aren’t getting done. But another problem that the Christians are saying is that the Shabak are being helped more than the Christians because the assistance is for religious minorities. Plus, they [USAID] are not employing locals to do any of the work, so in that sense, they’re not helping. They’re bringing people and materials from Erbil or Baghdad or elsewhere.
What about the situation in Erbil?
You could almost say Erbil is thriving, which is what Archbishop Warda [of Erbil] wanted. The university’s growing. The Christians who have stayed there are fine, but who knows what’s going to happen between the Kurd’s and the Iraqis — the fact that the Iranians are so powerful, and what are the Americans going to do in terms of troops? Everything is uncertain; that’s the problem.
What is the real threat of the Shabak?
My friend and guide, Yohanna, said it’s a smooth operation now. They are using demography and political power to just push Christians out.
What more could the U.S. do?
I was told that U.S. pressure must be put on the Iraqi government to remove the Popular Mobilization Forces because America has the power still. America provides all the money. America has all the leverage. The Iranians actually don’t provide anything, but the Iraqi government has got to stand up to them. The Americans not only could — they must — exert strong political pressure on the Iraqi government to deal with this situation, and that means ambassadors being called in and things like that. Real pressure.
And there are no signs of Christians coming back? Or has their return kind of stalled?
It’s stalled because of this nervousness now about the whole situation with the Shabak.
Did you see any positive effects derived from President Trump’s recent decision to give aid directly to those Iraqi minorities in need?
Yes, it’s beginning to flow; things are happening. That’s why it’s very positive. There needs to be more dialogue with the local communities about what exactly they want. But no, I think there’s a new atmosphere.
So what do the faithful need to do now?
Once more, we’ve got to be reminded as a Catholic community to keep the persecuted Christians in our daily prayers and to be focused. If the world has forgotten the Church, we must not forget them. They were greatly strengthened by Cardinal Parolin’s visit. They felt that was positive, a sign that they were not forgotten.
But it’s still a game of survival.
Yes, they’re back now, focused on their survival. There’s this real anxiety. Father Benham Benoka [parish priest in Bartella] said it’s almost as if within the next year that their future will be decided.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.