IRAQ – Could Turkey hinder the return of displaced Christians?


When ISIS invaded Mosul in summer 2014, up to 200,000 Iraqi Christians fled the city and nearby towns in the Plains of Nineveh. Now that Mosul is about to be recaptured from IS,  Christians who lost everything in 2014 fear they may not be  able to return to their former homes because of uncertainty about who would effectively govern the region.

“A military defeat of Daesh [ISIS] is only the first step,” says Father Emanuel Youkhana, an Assyrian priest who heads an Iraqi relief organization. “We must deal with root causes that allowed Daesh to arise and take this territory, in order to permit all Iraqi people to return home.”

One of the perceived threats to Christians comes from Turkey, a member of NATO and a country that aspires to join the EU. President Erdogan installed military forces in both Iraq and Syria, supposedly to fight IS. Turkey has thousands of troops stationed at Bashiqa and Nineveh and was insisting that they participate in the fight to liberate Mosul. This is despite the Iraqi government repeatedly telling Turkish troops to leave and Iraq’s parliament describing them as “hostile occupying forces” when they refused to do so.

In October Turkey announced it was extending the deployment of its troops in Iraq to combat “terrorist organisations”, a term it uses to refer to Kurdish fighters as well as IS. This prompted the Iraqi government to requested an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. In a heated exchange, Erdogan responded to this by telling Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadai to “know his place.”

Iraqi lawmaker Abdelaziz Hasan, who is a member of the defense and security committee at the Iraqi parliament, stated: “I think that as long as these Turkish troops remain around Mosul, the operation to control the city will not start, or there must be a new agreement for the Turkish force not to take part in the offensive.”

In the end it was a combination of Iraqi troops and security forces, the PKK (Kurdish troops) and Christian militia who were largely involved in the battle to retake Mosul, with some participation from US forces. Turkey’s claims that it helped the Peshmerga by providing tanks, artillery and troops in battles around Bashiqa drew another angry outburst from Iraq’s Prime Minister. “We don’t want Turkish military forces on the ground,” Abadi said. “The Turkish claim that they participated in the war is untrue.”

Erdogab’s keenness to play a major role in the battle for Mosul is due to  his fears that the aftermath of a planned assault on Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and ISIS’s Iraqi stronghold, could see a heavy Shiite and Kurdish dominance in the region. Erdogan used the fear of further sectarian conflict between Mosul’s predominantly Sunni population and the Shi’ite-dominated military forces of the Iraqi government as an excuse to justify Turkey’s inclusion in the Mosul offensive.

However, the real reason may be Turkey’s concerns about the influence of majority Shiite Iran. “Turkey and Iran have a tradition of silently competing with each other,” explained Ahmet Han, associate professor of international relations at Kadir Has University.

“The difference is that Turkey is speaking a lot and very loudly, but Iran is not,” Han added. Currently, Iran continues to enjoy influence within the Iraqi government, and among a number of Shiite militias that have been trained by the Iranian military.

President Erdogan told an Arab news channel last month, “only Sunni Arabs, Turkomens, and Sunni Kurds” i.e. only Sunni Muslims, should be allowed back or remain in the Mosul region once it is liberated. This statement is of great concern to Iraqi Christians who lived in Mosul and nearby towns until 2014. Many of these Assyrian Christians are direct descendants of Christians who survived the genocide of eastern Christians a century ago in which an estimated three million Armenian, Assyrian and Greek Christians in the Ottoman Empire were either murdered or forced on a “death march” from their homes in Turkey to the Syrian and Iraqi desert. Tens of thousands died or were killed on the way by Turkish and Kurdish forces. Although many countries throughout the world and even Pope Francis consider this a genocide, Turkey still adamantly refuses to accept responsibility and even jails anyone who refers to the incident as genocide.

Another threat to peace in Iraq is President Erdogan’s dreams of regaining the Ottoman Empire’s territory. Turkey announced that it no longer recognised the international boundaries set by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which redrew the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire that had supported Germany in the First World War. In return for being allowed to extend Turkey’s border to include the recently conquered parts of Armenia, Turkey renounced its claim to Mosul and recognised the independent states of Iraq and Syria, as well as British control of Cyprus – all of which had been part of the Ottoman Empire before WW1.

In rejecting the Treaty of Lausanne boundaries, Erdogan is effectively announcing that he wishes to re-create the Ottoman Empire and is known to have his eye on Mosul. Turkey already reclaimed part of the Ottoman Empire territory when it invaded northern Cyprus in 1974 to create the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus there, which no other country except Turkey recognises

Although it is unlikely that Turkey will be allowed to annexe Mosul and surrounding regions, Chrisrtians’ concerns if Erdogan does succeed are understandable. Under martial law, Mr. Erdogan has closed churches and detained Christian clergy in Turkey. One direct consequence of the Turkish invasion was the Islamisation of northern Cyprus, with many churches being immediately converted into mosques. The  situation has deteriorated with the recent announcement that all Orthodox churches in northern Cyprus will only be able to have religious ceremonies once a year from now on except for Apostolos Andreas, Apostolos Barnabas and Ayios Mamas following a new policy. The affected churches can only conduct one religious service a year either on Christmas, Easter or the Name Day of the church.

The eradication of all Christians from Iraq would have severe consequences for the region. Carl Anderson of the Knights of Columbus said “I believe we stand at a crossroads for the future of Christianity—and pluralism—in the Middle East. Either Christianity will survive and offer a witness of forgiveness, charity and mercy, or it will disappear, impoverishing the region religiously, ethnically and culturally.”

Robert Nicholson of the Philos Project also believes that to ensure stability in the Middle East, we have to preserve Christianity there. He always says “Christianity is not a Western religion; it’s a Middle Eastern religion.” To him, Iraq seems to be the second Holy Land, because of all of the Biblical activity that happened in what used to be Mesopotamia and is now modern day Iraq. Archaeologists believe that some church ruins in Nineveh were constructed in the second or third century.

ACN Malta