My two weeks in Iraq
By Adhib Miri, PhD
This is a trip unlike any I have previously experienced, and a sad summary of my two weeks in Northern Iraq. It is the story of a catastrophe that has fractured the Christian community and their ancestral land since the invasion of Iraq 16 years ago. This led to the rise of ISIS, devastation and the global refugee crisis.
My trip to Erbil / Nineveh Plains gave me a firsthand experience to the challenges and choices in the region and for Christianity. I was expecting a stunning story and ended up witnessing a reality that was much more dramatic and saddening.
During my stay in Ankawa/Erbil, I had the opportunity to meet five bishops, visited all Christian villages, met with KRG-Kurdistan Parliament President, MPs, the mayors of Alqosh, Hamdania, and the USAID point man in Iraq Max Primorac.
I traveled to the South of Nineveh Plains area that includes Baghdaida, Karemlesh and Bartylla. The so-called international road was in terrible condition, full of pot holes, dangerous to drive on, packed with heavy trucks, and oil tankers. The road side was dotted with make shift tent/caravan camps full of displaced Yazidi and Mosul families.
There are rapid demographic and geographic changes in the area. Confiscation of land, intimidations and harassments by the Shabaks and Hashed Al-Shaabi.
The town of Bartylla 100 percent Christians before 2014 is 60 percent Muslims and Shabak today. Hamdania is 10 percent Shabak, and Karemlesh is 25 percent destroyed with inferior public services, and burned homes all around the neighborhoods. The church was restored; the damaged church bell tower was left in its form as a witness and reminder of a 21st century genocide.
Obviously, the security situation is very fragile. The clock is ticking on the fate of the Christian and Yazidi communities. There are a host of questions and urgency for taking immediate actions. Security, and who should control security are top concerns for everyone; Legal protection, constitutional rights and property rights are others. The fate of the Christian Syriac Churches? Church properties, properties of the citizens in Mosul?
The fate of the region with Iran everywhere is a dilemma. Who is ultimately going to administer the region? The Iraqi government? The KRG? What is the US plan, is a greater mystery!
Hamdania, for years was the bread basket and major supplier in the Nineveh plains today is dotted today with burned and abandoned homes, 2,600 homes burned or looted and 110 homes destroyed by bombing. Bishop Mar Youhanna Putrus Moshe, Bishop of Mosul and Kurdistan Catholic Syriacs is afraid of the death of Christianity in his town and wants his people to stay; however, that is an unsurmountable task, and the hour is ticking fast with fear of continuous immigration of families to (Australia).
Telesqif and Alqosh are few Christian towns that is still alive, and untouched. They both lack basic reliable services. Electricity, water, gasoil, health services, hospitals, clinics, medicine, ambulances, urgent care units and pharmacies are badly needed. The closest hospitals are two hours away in Erbil or Duhok!
Alqosh is 100 percent Christians with a strong Christian identity. Bishop Michael Al- Maqdisi, does not have much confidence in the US policies or revitalization efforts. In his mind all must be focused on security, rule of law, property rights, minority rights and UNITY. The Assyrian and Chaldean churches are still divided despite Cardinal Sako’s efforts. He wants Alqosh to stay as a beacon of Christianity, especially after the horrible demographic changes in Telkaif (90 percent Muslims).
Blue eyed Batnaya, once ISIS headquarters, is the most damaged town. It is totally erased from history and civilization. Imagine Berlin in 1945. It should be fenced and kept as a historic symbol of a Chaldean Auschwitz.
Little Baqoofa is semi abandoned, I saw one nun, one parked car and only one individual at 3 in the afternoon.
Telkaif today is a Christian town of the past. I visited its church and marketplace. The old side church was burned and desecrated. All you see is black char smoked walls, broken pews and iconic artifacts on its floors. It should be preserved in its devastated status, and converted to a memorial museum.
The new church was restored, and looked good; however, a handful of parishioners were in view. I visited the old market, and walked around few abandoned homes, I was asked to leave immediately by my security. Daesh elements took over the city and they are still imbedded within the population; the town walls are full of intimidating graffiti signs, and symbols. This once 100 percent Christian town is lost in time. Hope is almost lost for Christianity here.
Bishop (Nicodemus), the Bishop of Mosul Orthodox Syriacs, is very skeptical about the American policies, and equally pessimistic about the Iraqi central government intentions or the Hashed Al-Shaabi. The bishop trusts the Kurds, and believes that the Christians should work closely with the KRG.
According to him “Mosul is finished”. Daesh is imbedded in the local thinking, political processes, and policies. When 60 Christian families reluctantly returned to Mosul, their neighbors asked sarcastically “why did you come back?”
The Bishop fears the continuous immigration of families. “We have a very short window for survival”. Nicodemus wants his people to stay in or near Erbil for now, stay close to Mosul and hope that they will gradually return.
The United States, the White House, and Vice President Pence have demonstrated commitment to the cause of religious liberty and instated USAID Special Representative for Minority Assistance in Iraq. The USAID programs are focused on the revitalization of the Yazidi and Christian Villages in the Nineveh Plains, investment partnership with local people, and seeks the participation of the Iraqi Americans in the United States.
The Christians of Iraq – represented by both lay and religious leaders – look forward to the support of the Christians in the United States, particularly those who offer realistic solutions, and are in possession of significant economic, and political influence.
They hope for a greater role and support from this administration. Washington must be engaged to facilitate both security and economic aid. The US cannot be seen as having evaded its responsibilities – both moral and political – and must remain engaged.
We are witnesses to a historic tragedy that is still unfolding. This is a tragedy beyond logical explanations of what has gone wrong in a region that once was the cradle of civilization.