US adviser warns Iraqi-Kurdish war could be the end for Christians
Two weeks ago, Stephen Rasche, a Catholic lawyer from Boston who acts as the adviser to the Chaldean Catholic Church, warned that two millennia of Christianity in Iraq could be wiped out completely if war breaks out between Iraqi forces and Kurdish nationalists. He urged the international community to act quickly to prevent a new conflict in Iraq following the 25 Sep referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Worrying new developments since then could affect thousands of displaced Christians who sought refuge in Kurdistan after fleeing from IS. Acting on orders from Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, last week Iraqi central government forces began a “major operation” to take control of key installations outside the disputed city of Kirkuk from Kurdish fighters. Iraqi counterterrorism units, the 9th armoured division of the army, and the federal police have now captured the K1 military base, the Baba Gurgur oil and gas field, and the headquarters of a state-owned oil company. The advance came days after a standoff between Kurdish forces and the Iraqi army and the expiry of a deadline for Kurdish peshmerga fighters to withdraw from the areas they have controlled since 2014.
Tensions have soared between the central government and Iraqi Kurds since they overwhelmingly voted for independence in the referendum, whose results Baghdad has demanded be nullified. The referendum result, where 93 percent of 3.3 million voters chose independence, triggered a hostile reaction from the Iraqi government, which immediately halted flights over Kurdish airspace and stopped recognizing visas issued by the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil has said repeatedly over the last year that what comes after IS could be even more dangerous to Christians than what happened during IS occupation. Rasche is concerned that unless tensions between Baghdad and Irbil are defused, Christian refugees returning to towns on the Ninevah Plain could find themselves in the midst of a “greater war” than that fought against Islamic State.
The Ninevah Plain is now “ground zero for the disputed territories between the Kurdish regional government and Baghdad,” said Rasche.”Right now, there is a de facto dividing line between the Iraqi sector and the Kurdish sector that goes right down the middle of Christian Ninevah.” He added, “It is a specific request of the Christian churches in this north Iraq region that, in any dialogue or any settlement, the resulting area of Christian Ninevah remains unified and not split.”
Christians have lived in Iraq for 2000 years, but in the past 14 years, their number has plunged from 1.5 million to just 250,000. Most of them were living in the towns and cities of the Kurdish-controlled Ninevah Plain until it was overrun by Islamic State in 2014. This year they began to return from refugee camps to rebuild their settlements after they were liberated by Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
Fr Salar Kajo, a Chaldean Catholic priest and vicar general of the Diocese of Alqosh, is helping to resettle refugees in villages in Kurdish territory. He believes the region’s Christians had entered a critical period. “It is the last chance for us,” he said.
Fr Kajo added that Western aid money channelled through the United Nations to help to resettle religious minorities displaced by Islamic State had not reached the Christians in the region. “There have been reports in the media that they have given us millions of dollars, but we have received nothing,” he said, adding that resettlement projects were being funded only by private donations such as those from ACN benefactors and a grant of $2 million paid directly to the church by the Hungarian government.
Rasche acts as director of resettlement programs for the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Irbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. If displaced Christians were unable to return to their homes because of a new conflict, then “Christianity in Ninevah is gone,” he stated. “It will disappear after 2,000 years if we do not rebuild now,”
“The biggest and most important thing the international community could do right now prevents a war,” Rasche continued, adding that “intense diplomatic pressure” needed to be exerted on the two sides now to prevent a conflict. Western nations, he said, have “the ability to do that if they use all the tools at their disposal – they have the ability to prevent war.”
His fears echo those issued in a joint statement earlier this month by five Catholic and Orthodox bishops appealing to the international community to protect the Christians of Ninevah:
“We cannot hide our concern that the situation for the Christians has become very difficult and leads to uncertainty … It is a clear fact that this situation has created in Christians a state of fear and concern about the possibility that the struggle may develop into a crisis that will have far-reaching repercussions for all.”
“Care should be made not to involve the last remaining Christian land in political bargaining, as our vulnerable community cannot withstand further schism and division in addition to the ongoing political and sectarian fights,” the bishops added.