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Iraqi Christians Fear for Their Future

Mass celebrated in the burnt cathedral of Qaraqosh. @LaPresse

An Iraqi priest denounces: the government in Baghdad will not make room for minorities

“The Islamic State and Iraqi political Islam, both in their own way, aim for the Islamization of Iraqi society.” These are the strong words from Father Amir Jaje, Iraqi member of IDÉO (the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies in Cairo), directed towards the political Islam in Baghdad. Fueling the priest’s anger was the passing in Parliament of a series of laws restricting individual freedoms, while the Iraqi military is engaged in the fight to liberate Mosul. For example, a law imposed the prohibition of the importation, exportation and the production of alcohol, while another sanctioned the censorship of the press and of publications, and another still banned a certain way of putting on makeup and some clothing for women in universities. According to Father Jaje, these demonstrate that “even if the offensive against ISIS goes well, the situation for Christian minorities will not improve, because the goal of political Islam, which ISIS is an extreme expression of, harkens back to a model in which there is no space for non-Muslim minorities. And it does not matter to us whether the inspiration is of Saudi or Iranian origin.”



From June to August 2014, the summer in which ISIS proclaimed the restoration of the Caliphate, 90% of Mosul’s Christians fled the city. In the same period, Christians in the historically Christian area of the Nineveh plain fled and at the end of the year there were practically no Christians left in the city. ISIS took over all of the villages, humiliating the population and stripping it of all its belongings. “Only a few remained, primarily elderly and the ill, those who did not have time to flee. They have tried to adapt by paying the jizya,” the tax paid historically by the “people of the Book” (especially Christians and Jews, Ed.) in the land of Islam, Father Jaje explained to Oasis from Cairo. Christians, he says, did not stay long after the Islamic State arrived in Mosul. At the beginning of 2015, the jihadist militants confiscated all of their belongings and expelled them from their homes and their villages. “Since then, I haven’t heard any more about Christians in Mosul.”



For days now, the Iraqi army and an international coalition have been fighting to liberate the villages of the Nineveh plain and Mosul. Jaje’s hometown, Qaraqosh, was recaptured though its residents cannot yet return. “The Cathedral of Notre Dame, the largest church in the Nineveh plain, was completely burned down, and the churches of Mar Youhanna and Mar Zena were burned down, desecrated and turned into shooting ranges for the soldiers of the ‘Caliphate.’ Other places dear to us have been used for military training. For us, as Iraqi Christians, the loss of the churches is more painful than the loss of personal belongings, because the destruction of our places of worship means the destruction of our hope. Despite the offensive, some will now decide to leave Iraq. We are a martyred church in this country, but we still have hope despite all that has happened.”


Even in the villages liberated after two and a half years of ISIS occupation, the dangers persist. “There could be tunnels underneath the city hiding soldiers and mines inside houses. It will be a while before it is safe to go home.”



The future of the Nineveh Plain



Before the inhabitants of the liberated villages can return home, the infrastructure needs to be rebuilt, mines need to be eliminated and buildings must be secured. “However, the real problem will start after that and will be more serious and deep,” warns father Jaje. The bigger conflict will be with the intra-community among Kurds, Sunnis and Shi’ite, among the minorities and even Turkey: “Each of the main players during this fight wants to claim ownership over the region and the merit of having recaptured it.” Furthermore, the problem of how to treat those who collaborated with ISIS in Mosul will also arise, as they risk suffering ruthless revenge.”



The dialogue and the relationships between communities remain key for the priest. “We must reciprocally recognize that the other is different and respect this diversity, even more so when we believe in the same God.” Father Jaje, Islamologist and expert in Shi’ite Islam, is a member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. His work entails meeting often with religious leaders of other faiths and confessions. In Najaf, in early October, he spoke with the Shi’ite ulemas of the Hawza ‘ilmiyya (the Shi’ite institution for the training of imams) and discussed Iraqi pluralism. The ulemas proved sensitive to the problem of the flight of Christians, “because Iraq, born in diversity, risks losing what makes it unique.” As a result of this meeting, a shared proposal came about: change school curricula, which teach exclusion and substitute the Islam class with a class on the history of religions. Moderate Muslims, explains father Jaje, represent the guarantee of the presence of Christians in Iraq “and we are responsible for keeping hope alive.”