Over the last month, residents of the Nineveh plains in Northern Iraq have again had to flee for their safety. This time they weren't running from ISIS, but from the conflict between Iraqi forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga.
The uptick in conflict began on September 25 when the Kurdish people held a referendum vote for independence from Iraq. The votes were overwhelmingly in support of independence. The Iraqi government has called the vote illegal, and Iraqi forces began fighting to take back some of the land.
Related: Timeline of ISIS in Iraq
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At the end of October, the two sides reportedly called a ceasefire and the Kurdish leader resigned. However, disputes about who controls the borders are just one example of the tension threatening another outbreak of conflict.
The recent history of Christian displacement in Northern Iraq
But before the conflict calmed down, Christian Solidarity Worldwide raised some concerns about the town of Teleskuf where the Kurdish Peshmerga entered to hold off the Iraqi army. The news outlet said hundreds of Christians had had to flee to neighboring towns as the two armies fought and many of them were wounded.
So, even with ISIS mostly eradicated from Iraq and this most recent bout of fighting calmed down, the instability in the region continues. Open Doors USA's Kristin Wright shares, "There's certainly a very difficult and tense unfolding situation in Iraq right now, and unfortunately, Christians are caught in the middle of it."
Going back home
This comes at a time when many Christians were ready to head back home and begin rebuilding their towns. Teleskuf was one of the first towns for Christians to return to and, with the help of Hungary and other international aid, they had already spent much time rebuilding before the fighting broke out.
Wright says that some Christians have decided to risk the insecurity anyway. They are certainly familiar with instability and uncertainty. Before ISIS invaded Northern Iraq, the Nineveh plains had been viewed as a safe haven for Christians who had undergone attacks in the major cities.
Wright recalls the period of time soon after the ISIS began causing major displacements in Syria and Iraq in 2014. She visited some of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camps and met with Christians there.
"I met Christians who were living several families crowded together in ... a trailer that sometimes they called a caravan. And those were the primary living conditions for Christians for a long time until Christians have started to return but ... in some instances because of the violence and because of the tension, they've had to flee once more and that's made the situation increasingly difficult."
Wright asks us to imagine having to flee our homes with nothing but the clothes we had on. This is the common story among the people who've been living displaced for the last few years. They've lived in limbo, wondering when, and if, they could return home.
"This has been basically years of displacement that the Christian community has been facing. That's one of the areas that Open Doors is working to address. In the midst of the complexity and the tension that's unfolding right now, we actually have Christians that are going back to their homelands and back to their hometowns along the Nineveh plain, these newly liberated villages that were once occupied by ISIS.
"And so, in spite of that major security risk and in spite of the ongoing tensions with the Iraqi government and so on, we have Christians that are actually working to return."
Open Doors has been helping them since the beginning of their displacement. Today, they're supporting 1,500 families a month with food, shelter, basic necessities, and more.
"As this tide turns and Christians begin returning to their homes, we're shifting to another model and that is to build and rebuild homes along the Nineveh plain and help Christians to once again feel at home in the area that they came from and the area that they've occupied for thousands of years.
"It's not an easy task for these believers to be going back to areas where even in some instances their neighbors betrayed them to ISIS. They're going through something that's incredibly serious."
That is why they are also addressing the needs on a spiritual and emotional level--they are helping with shelter and economical support, but also with counseling and education. But along with that, comes advocacy.
Prayer and Advocacy go hand-in-hand
Open Doors USA asked the Christians they work with in both Syria and Iraq what needs to happen for them to feel hopeful and secure at home again. From their responses, they developed the petition called A Million Voices of Hope for the Middle East.
"They asked for three things. They asked for, number one, the right to equal citizenship moving forward. Number two, dignified living conditions... and number three, involvement in reconciling and rebuilding their society.
"And so, what that says to us is that Christians in Iraq and Syria do want a seat at the table. They want an opportunity to influence the future of their countries and to be a part of the future of their countries."
So while many Christians have decided to leave the region because of the instability, others have decided to stay.
"We've talked to many Christians who've said that they want to stay because they want to be a light in the darkness, and they want to be a part of the rebuilding of their nation."
Open Doors will be gathering signatures through most of December when they will present the petition to the United Nations.
"That doesn't just mean that these are action items for the United Nations, these are action items for governments around the world, including the US government. And I'm excited to see that we have some movement on that in the last few days. If you look at the remarks of Vice President Pence and the Administration's stated commitment to Christians in Iraq, then I think it's very encouraging moving forward, we're hoping to see some great action come out of it."
People are encouraged to sign the petition and to pass it along to their friends. They are over halfway to their goal number of signatures so far and people from over 140 countries have participated. It's a chance not only to stand up for believers facing persecution but also a chance to stand with them.
Meanwhile, Wright says it's important to keep praying for Christians and to remember their needs and find ways to get involved. "Your prayers do matter. They are heard by God and they're felt by Christians on the ground."
"Wherever you're at today, even if you're driving in your car, I really encourage you to lift up our brothers and sisters in Christ that are living in Iraq and pray for them, pray for the situation to be resolved, and pray for the safe return and for security on the ground and for the addressing of their needs through local churches."
Also be praying for their mental, spiritual, and physical health as they decide to return home or remain in difficult situations.
And, Wright says, "If you want to take it a step further, we are actively building homes and working to restore life for Christians on the Nineveh plane."