By Lars Adaktusson
The views expressed in this commentary piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SyriacPress.
A large white cross at the entrance to the city of Bartella in northern Iraq testifies to the city’s history of Christian faith and tradition. Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians have lived here for centuries. These are the Nineveh plains and the sites of well-known Old Testament texts, also known to many as the cradle of Christianity.
Five years ago, ISIS entered Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul. Under the subsequent ISIS advance on the Nineveh Plain, the people of Bartella and other Christian cities became defenseless victims. Faced with the ultimatum by the ISIS terrorists to convert to Islam or die, there was no alternative for the Christian population but to surrender to the threat and leave everything they owned behind. To abandon your historical homeland, where your ancestors worked the lands, where family and friends have lived for many generations, is not an easy decision. It uproots life, it overturns the very existence of that what was painstakingly built up through communal life and hard work. And this is exactly what happened when hundreds of thousands of Christians, in the summer of 2014, fled the ISIS havoc and atrocities – rape, enslavement and executions were the alternatives.
The fact that Mosul and the rest of the Nineveh plains were emptied of their Christian population in such a short time meant countless tragedies and severe human suffering. Overall, the atrocities implied the most heinous crimes against humanity and the worst transgressions of international law. Systematically and cold-blooded, ISIS carried out a genocide on the Christian and Yazidis populations. Despite this drama, the hope that they one day can return is kept alive.
After the Iraqi army, Kurdish Peshmerga and Christian security forces, with the support of the international coalition against ISIS, militarily defeated the supposed ISIS caliphate, hope on return and reconstruction grew. With the help of the international world, their own Iraqi government and the Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq, Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians hoped to be able to return home and rebuild a severely distressed society.
However, after having visited Iraq for the fifth time in as many years, I can only conclude that these hopes are disappearing with the passage of every new day. Despite some little light of relocation and reconstruction of housing and infrastructure, dark clouds are hanging over the Nineveh Plain. Approximately only half of the 125.000 Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians who lived here before ISIS invaded have returned. From the 200.000 Christians in pre-ISIS Mosul, almost none have returned. One reason is that reconstruction is too slow. But above all, a proper security structure which would makes people feel safe to return and live in Mosul, is missing.
The immediate threat from ISIS is eliminated, but the Islamist view of Christians as “Infidels” and thus undesirables, survives. With silent approval from the rulers of Baghdad, a so-called “demographic change” is underway. In cities, towns and villages on the Nineveh Plain, the population composition is changing – where Christian families moved out, Muslim families are moving in. In several places where Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians have historically been the majority, the Shabak Shiite Muslims take over.
Parallel to this, neighboring Iran is strengthening its influence. The authoritarian regime in Tehran today finances and controls Shiite militias with between 60.000-70.000 fighters – a large part of which is in and around the Nineveh Plain. Following several incidents where Christians have been attacked and harassed, distrust is mounting against the Iranian-backed militias and many who have recently returned to the Nineveh area are now reconsidering their decision. In the last month alone, some sixty families have left the largest Christian city of Qaraqosh. Fear is said to be the main reason.
There is no doubt that the gloomy developments now taking place, in practice mean an ethnic cleansing of Iraq’s Christian population. Only an estimated 300.000 of the 1.5 million Christians who lived in the country in the early 2000s remain. Every day that passes means fewer Christians. Streets in Bartella and other Christian cities, now feature black Shia Muslim flags and billboards with pictures of Iranian Ayatollahs. A historical mosaic of religions, cultures and traditions is about to be demolished.
The responsibility to put an end to this demographic change and to stop the exercise of Iranian power lies in the hands of the central government in Baghdad – irrespective of what it will look like after the recent popular protests. Moreover, the Iraqi government can cease the opportunity to take decisive actions that would now really matter most to its Christian population. It means upgrading the Nineveh Plain to the status of autonomous region and giving Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians the right to decide on their own future through political self-rule. This all lies within the framework of Iraq’s federal constitution. A decision in this direction was already made in early 2014 but has so far not been implemented in practice.
Now is the time to move from words to action. The lack of interest shown by the Iraqi government so far in the situation of its Christian population must stop. To this end, the EU and also Sweden can contribute through powerful political pressure and if necessary freeze their development aid. Sweden’s failure, a leading donor country, to demand from the Iraqi government to the protect the country’s indigenous peoples would be to shirk responsibility and betray the weakest and most vulnerable i.e. the victims of the Islamic State’s genocide.
Lars Adaktusson is Member of the Swedish Parliament for the KristenDemokraterna and Foreign Affairs Spokesperson
Translation from Swedish by Syriac Press. Originally published in: https://www.dagen.se/debatt/lars-adaktusson-irakiska-regeringen-ointresserad-av-kristnas-situation-1.1621785