Christians Still At Risk Of Extinction In Iraq Even After Defeat Of ISIS

A Christian Iraqi special forces soldier walks in a newly-liberated church in Bartella, east of Mosul.Reuters

Christians might not feel safe to return to Iraq at all in the forseeable future, even after the liberation of Mosul, experts have warned.

The Christian population in the country has plummeted from 1.4 million in 2003 to little more than 200,000. 

Many church leaders have been hoping that Christians will return after Islamic State is driven from the land and strategic cities such as Mosul are freed.

But the status of Christians, Yazidis and other minorities in a post-ISIS Iraq is becoming increasingly uncertain.

Church leaders' calls for sympathetic administration in traditionally-Christian areas such as Nineveh are not being heeded.

One signal of the atmopshere of worsening religious tolerance is the decision by the Iraqi Parliament on Saturday. While the eyes of the world were on the battle for Mosul, the Parliament voted to ban the import, production and sale of all kinds of alcohol from the entire country.

Religious minorities such as Christians and Yazidis not only drink alcohol, but many had their livelihoods in the alcohol trade before the war. That will not now be possible, meaning there is increasingly little incentive for them to go back to cities and towns where they have lived for generations. 

Naomi Kikoler, deputy director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, who traveled to Iraq last year to document ISIS atrocities against religious minorities, told Christian Today that the challenge now was to make sure that liberated towns and cities would be safe for Christians and other minorities to return.

Naomi Kikoler of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

"It means not only de-mining the towns, but making sure there is physical protection for Christians and others who want to return to their homes. It is going to be very challenging. People believe it could be months before they can safely return," she said.

Most Iraqi Christians had already fled the country, she added. It will take "a lot of persuasion" for them to return.

On the alcohol ban, Kikoler said: "It is a signal of intolerance for religious minorities. It is really worrying that this has come at a time when there has been so much attention on the rights of minorities."

Kikoler is lead author of a report by the Center, based at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, on the risks to religious minorities of the military campaign to reclaim Mosul.

The report warns that without clear planning to provide security and a stable political environment, further violence and atrocities are likely to recur in the region.

ISIS continues to perpetrate genocide against the estimated 3,200 Yazidi women and children it kidnapped and who are still being held. 

In March 2016, the United States secretary of state determined that ISIS had perpetrated genocide against minorities, including Yazidis, Christians, Shia Shabak, Shia Turkmen, Sabaean-Mandaeans and Kaka'i.

Such a finding of genocide was only the second ever by the US government in an ongoing conflict.

"Degrading and defeating IS militarily will remove a formidable threat to minorities' existence. Yet for these communities, their vulnerability will persist and possibly increase after the defeat of IS," the report warns.

It calls for urgent planning for post-liberation Iraq if violence and further atrocities are to be avoided.

"If domestic, regional, and international actors do not take preventive and protective action to address the unique threats and conditions in Nineva, religious minorities who seek to return and remain in Iraq will again be the victims of atrocities," the report warns.

"Many members of religious minorities are fearful that even if IS is degraded and removed, they will face future extremists attacks. Targeted for decades because of their religious identity, the most common concern of those we interviewed was that a new extremist group would quickly emerge and target them anew."

The report warns that there is little indication that the international community is taking measurable steps to uphold its responsibility to protect civilians. 

"To recognize that genocide has happened is to acknowledge a collective failure to prevent the crime of all crimes – one that has created a reality in which Iraq's religious minorities face a dire threat to their very existence.

"We must endeavor to ensure that similar failures do not occur in the future and that those minorities who choose to return to their homes when they are liberated can live free of fear of again becoming the victims of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. This is what the commitment to prevent, enshrined in the genocide convention, should mean."