Father Benedict Kiely has just returned from northern Iraq to ascertain the current plight facing what remains of the country’s ancient Christian community there and discover what can be done to help them.
In this July 15 interview with the Register, the founder of the charity Nasarean.org, which advocates and provides aid for persecuted Christians, says the situation has worsened in the region for Christians on the Nineveh Plain.
The new threat comes from militant Shiite Muslims rather than the Islamic State terrorist group (ISIS), he says, and while Christians border on the brink of extinction as they hunger for security, jobs and incentives to stay, the Yazidi minority continues to be the most forgotten persecuted and impoverished minority.
Father Kiely says “the most important part” of his charity’s work “is to encourage Catholics to pray consistently for their persecuted brothers and sisters and for that prayer to lead to some kind of action.”
You have just returned to Mosul, a year after we first visited the city, when only a handful of Christian families had returned. What has changed? Have any more Christians returned? Is the historic center now habitable again?
Yes, I’ve just come back from Mosul, having last been there, with you, in June 2017, not long after the liberation of the city. Then we walked around the totally destroyed Old City, with many bodies and bombs beneath the rubble. There were virtually no shops in the Old City and destruction everywhere. Two years later, the Old City is still almost as bad, some rubble has been cleared, but the churches are still in ruins. There is a huge amount of clearance that needs to happen. There are many more shops; people are actually living in the ground floor of bombed buildings; it’s quite hazardous.
Virtually no Christians have returned. I was told, in fact, that only three families have returned. There is still no resident bishop. One priest stays a few nights during the week, but people are still very afraid to return, and they really have nothing to return to — no homes and no jobs — and no security. When I visited with the Dominican nuns who had lived in Mosul, now in Erbil, they were quite shocked I had been to Mosul. They were still afraid to go.
The situation for Iraqi Christians seems to be constantly deteriorating — what are the challenges facing them there now, and how can they find hope to stay?
The principal challenge for Iraqi Christians is what it has been since 2003: security. They are, according to the Iraqi Constitution, second-class citizens, which is really the case in every country where there is a Muslim majority. They are trapped in the middle between the Sunni and Shia conflict, and also the Nineveh Plain. The land they have occupied since apostolic times is now “disputed territory” between the Iraqi government and the Kurdish government. In addition, the increasing influence of Iran and its support of the Shia militias is a new threat.
Secondly, the issue is employment: They desperately need jobs, which is part of the work of my little charity. It may be small, but if we can support one family at a time to start a small business, then they have both an incentive to stay and a pride in supporting themselves. The real worry for the future is the desire of the young people to leave the country.
I was particularly struck on this visit by the number of people who told me they, or their families, were emigrating — not, of course, to the U.S. or the U.K., because we have scandalously failed to take in many Christians. Most of the people I met were going to Australia or Canada. The drain of families out of Iraq is very demoralizing for the people who stay. However, there is hope! There are many people who want to stay in their land — the land of Jonah, the prophet Nahum and the land of saints.
ISIS, or another form of Islamism, often threatens to return. Mosul, for instance, suffered a major bomb attack just a few months ago. Do you see signs of increasing insecurity?
People feel very insecure, for all the reasons stated. ISIS still exists, and the ideology will never disappear. It will just have a new name. The new threat to Christians on the Nineveh Plain is the Shia militia and the ethnic Shia minority, the Shabak. They are, through demographic change and intimidation, forcing Christians out of their traditional villages and towns. One priest told me: “What ISIS began, the Shia will finish.” There is no sense of a rule of law, which treats all citizens as equals. Until that changes, the situation will remain precarious.
One of Pope St. John Paul II’s reasons for opposing the 2003 Iraq War was that he could foresee the persecution of Christians that would likely follow. Although the blame for that war can perhaps be evenly shared, should its consequences nevertheless be highlighted more, so that the U.S. and its allies might make much greater and more concrete efforts to bring Christians back to Iraq and prevent them from leaving?
All Christians and, in fact, most Iraqis see everything through the lens of “before 2003 and after 2003.” Without going over the history, it is clear that St. John Paul’s dire warning about what would happen to the Christian population of Iraq has come true.
The United States and the United Kingdom should be heavily focused on three things: ensuring security, helping with the economic future of the Christians and other minorities, and being extremely generous with immigration policy for victims of genocide — particularly Christians and Yazidis. The difficulties Christians have faced trying to emigrate to the U.S. and Britain is inexcusable.
Iraq is often forgotten when compared to the situation in Syria, and yet many Iraqi Christians and Yazidis continue to be destitute and relatively without much aid. What needs to be done in that regard?
Having visited Iraq multiple times since early 2015, when ISIS was only a few miles away from Erbil, I’m still shocked that the Yazidi people are living in the same position. They are still in camps, in disused buildings — and the world, for all its supposed compassion, doesn’t seem to care. On this visit I had the privilege of meeting the spiritual leader of the Yazidis, Baba Sheikh, near the holy city of Lalish.
The Yazidis feel that the Western world cares more about animals than the 3,000 Yazidi women and girls still missing, sex slaves of ISIS. They also fear that there is a plan for them to never leave the camps, so their ancestral homeland can be taken over by others who are competing for land. They also, it must be said, are distressed at much talk in the Vatican of “dialogue” with Islam — as a people who have suffered an attempted annihilation of their entire people, they regard such talk as at best naive, at worst foolish.
What are your plans and where do you hope to visit next as part of Nasarean.org’s mission?
My work with Nasarean.org is twofold — and both aspects are equally important — aid and advocacy. We continue to try to help small businesses start, and by speaking, writing, media appearances, addressing Catholic audiences in parishes in the U.S. and U.K., keeping the persecution of Christians at the forefront.
It is humbling every time I go to Iraq to receive the gratitude of the people for what I’m doing. I think it’s mainly because they know I have been doing it consistently — and when it was dangerous to come — and because prayer and aid for persecuted Christians is not something that is a fashion. Persecution is worsening around the world, not getting better. I hope, very soon, to make my first visit to Syria and to see if we can start to help there, and also in Egypt and Lebanon.
The most important part of the work is to encourage Catholics to pray consistently for their persecuted brothers and sisters and for that prayer to lead to some kind of action. After opening the first shrine in the world specifically dedicated to prayer for persecuted Christians last year at St. Michael’s Church in New York City, we hope to open the second shrine in the heart of London this year.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.