Flying into Erbil, Iraq for the first time in early 2015 was an unnerving experience. While it was pleasant to be able to pick any seat I wanted on the almost empty plane — there were a few contractors, a couple of US military in civilian clothes and this priest — the landing was quite unusual. ISIS was less than thirty miles from Erbil, so the descent was swift and sudden to avoid the possibility of surface to air missiles. On future visits, until after the defeat of ISIS in Mosul in 2017, the experience was the same.
I was due to be in Erbil and the Nineveh Plain again this May, but Covid-19 made that impossible; there is still no word on when the borders will reopen. Back in 2015, more than 120,000 Christians were still housed in containers, empty buildings and other camps in Erbil and other parts of Kurdistan after ISIS had driven them from the Nineveh Plain, where Christians have lived since the time of Christ’s apostles.
Since the defeat of the Caliphate (an important distinction — the physical Caliphate declared by Al-Bagdahdi has been defeated, ISIS is still very much alive) in 2017, many Christians have returned to their homes. However, with the rise of the Iran-backed Shia militias, the territorial dispute between Iraq and Kurdistan over the Nineveh Plain, the continued lack of security and the lack of jobs, many who returned are ready to leave Iraq forever, and those who are still in Erbil do not want to go back. According to recent reports from Christian NGOs and charities such as Aid to the Church in Need, a majority of Christian Iraqis hope to leave the country by 2024.
The threats from the Shia militias against the Christian population are increasing, and a form of ethnic cleansing is taking place. In the formerly majority Christian town of Bartella, where my charity is assisting some local businesses, the local imam has told Muslims not to use Christian shops, and the majority of the town is now Shabak, supported by the militias. Speaking recently to the Syriac Catholic Pastor, Fr. Behnam Benoka, who was himself threatened at gunpoint by a militia leader, he told me that “what ISIS started, the militias will finish” — the total removal of Christians from the Nineveh Plain.
In Syria, which I visited last fall, the situation is, in a sense, even more precarious for the Christian population, although for different reasons. Unlike in Iraq, many Syrian Christians not only want to stay in Syria, but those who have been displaced want to return. Sitting on Straight Street in Damascus, where St. Paul was baptized, the Melkite Catholic Archbishop told me that where the regime was winning, Christians were returning, but the critical issue was the crippling Western sanctions against the Assad regime. Only the ordinary people of Syria were being hurt by sanctions, he claimed, not the regime. The local population was denied food and medicine because of sanctions and, once again, the lack of jobs was forcing people to leave. The disastrous situation in Lebanon, where banks are in almost total collapse, and food shortages are growing, is only adding to the misery experienced by all Syrians. Another friend I spoke to recently told me a story which illustrated the situation: the street cats of Damascus, which always fed on the scraps of family meals, are starving. There are no scraps.
In Nigeria and across the Lake Chad/Sahel region of Africa, the persecution of Christians by Islamist extremist groups, including Boko Haram and the Fulani, has escalated to “genocidal massacres,” according to the group “Genocide Watch.” In just the last three years, more than 7,000 Nigerian Christians have been killed, which is more than the total number of Christians killed by ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. Islamist groups, well armed and financed, have pledged their allegiance to both ISIS and Al Qaeda across Africa, from Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad and even into Ethiopia.
The emergence of the coronavirus earlier this year has only added to the problems experienced by persecuted Christians in these and other countries. Obviously they have suffered from the virus along with everyone one else, but lockdown has caused particular problems. In Iraq, for example, the population of the Nineveh Plain is unable to enter Erbil. Aid from NGOs and other charities is therefore inaccessible, causing shortages of both food and other vital amenities. Also it is impossible to visit, both to bring help and assess needs. Border closures between Lebanon and Syria is making even basic necessities impossible to obtain, and there appears to be no end in sight.
One factor unites all these stories, and all the suffering endured by Christians persecuted for their faith across the globe — an almost total media silence in the mainstream media, which has been accompanied by very little attention and passionate concern from leadership in the churches of both the United States and Europe.
It is not because the information is not available. Both charities and NGOs are regularly supplying information. It is the care and concern which seems to be lacking. A new book, The Disappearing People by Stephen Rasche, an American who has been the legal counsel for the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil since 2010, recounts in graphic detail the failures of principally the Obama administration, but also the Trump administration, in dealing with the genocide in Iraq and the failures in the rebuilding effort. The genocide unfolding in Africa shows those mistakes are being made again.
Speaking to a young friend in the last few days, a Nigerian woman studying as a doctor in the US, she told me how shocked she was that there are no protests over the mass slaughter of her fellow Christians in Nigeria. She wondered aloud whether black Christian lives mattered, or was it because they were Christians that there was no attention?
On that first visit to Iraq in 2015, I will never forget the words of an Iraq priest, caring for thousands of refugees in a camp. He said the Christians would always “remember those who helped us, and never forget those who did not.”
Fr. Benedict Kiely is the Founder of Nasarean.org, a charity aiding and advocating for persecuted Christians