Recently, ICN has published several hopeful stories about the remarkable progress made in rebuilding the shattered Christian communities on the Plains of Nineveh in Iraq. Thanks to the generosity of donors around the world, Christians are returning from internal exile, determined to keep their faith alive, despite extraordinary challenges.
But we must not be complacent about the fundamental political problems threatening the existence of a religiously, racially and culturally diverse Iraq. Many of our Western politicians are losing interest in the Middle East, unable or unwilling to focus on complicated issues that require sustained engagement. We are also ignoring the increasing influence that Turkey and Iran, both the avowedly Islamist powers, have in Iraq. Moreover, we are delusional if we believe Islamic State has been defeated and disappeared, given that the Iraqi government's power does not extend much beyond the Baghdad suburbs.
Related: Timeline of ISIS in Iraq
Related: Attacks on Assyrians in Syria By ISIS and Other Muslim Groups
I had the privilege of visiting the Dominican sisters in Telusquf and Qaraqosh in early July. They were quick to return from internal displacement last year, as soon as allied airstrikes forced IS to melt away. The nuns knew their eagerness to re-establish a Christian presence among the ruins of churches, schools, markets and homes would send a vital signal to the 120,000 Christians who fled from IS in 2014. Since their return, they have patiently rebuilt the emotional and spiritual framework of their communities without fanfare. But they are worried that so many bright young people are leaving to find work overseas.
The story of the sisters' escape from IS in 2014 is like the script of a disaster movie. Even as the nearby city of Mosul fell, the Iraqi authorities repeatedly assured the surrounding Christian towns that IS would not threaten them. Then the Kurdish army, the Peshmerga, suddenly abandoned them, without telling them they were pulling back. People flooded into the streets, seeking information or assurances from neighbours, confused by the contradictory messages. Then, as the sound of gunfire and shells inched nearer, they packed a few precious belongings into their cars, heading north and east into the autonomous Kurdish region. The roads became a vast, congested parking lot as people fled to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Sister Nazik told me, "I thought I'd be gone a couple of days, but it was three years before I could come back. All my books from my studies at Oxford had been destroyed." When the sisters returned to their convent in Qaraqosh, they found the floors littered with empty Viagra packets. Their home had been used by IS as a rape centre. Girls had been held there, tortured and violated daily for two years. So began the process of reclaiming their convent and their community from the savagery that is the IS hallmark.
Now, with help from supporters overseas, the nuns are once more educating hundreds of children to a high standard, providing spiritual guidance and leadership. Sister Marie-Theresa was proud that within an hour of school registration opening in July, all the places had been filled.
Sister Nazik summarised their challenges as follows: security, stability and employment opportunities. The nuns are keen to raise the funds to offer training projects enabling local people to open small businesses (income-generating projects, in charity jargon), rather than leaving. They understand the financial pressures facing families, but they are also trying to preserve their outpost of Christianity in the Middle East.
Readers of ICN are familiar with the collapse in the numbers of Christians living in Syria, Iraq, Israel and Lebanon. While we, who live in peaceful, prosperous countries, are in no position to judge Christians who seek work outside a war zone, we can at least support religious communities who make the continuing Christian presence viable. That means giving financial backing to the sisters whom I met in Qaraqosh and Telusquf. A direct and practical way of doing that is by donating to BOAT, the Blackfriars Overseas Aid Trust in Oxford (address at the foot of this article).
Only the deluded believe that IS has been destroyed; I interviewed Kurds, Iraqis and Yezidis, all of whom believe that IS soldiers have simply shaved off their beards. They live in Muslim towns across Iraq, intimidating their neighbours into silence, or receiving protection from locals who still agree with their ruthless jihad and their barbaric methods. They will bide their time, knowing the West has such a short attention span that we will wind down our presence at the first opportunity. No wonder there has been so little justice for the women enslaved by IS or the families of those massacred and dumped in mass graves. In a system where the Iraqi and Kurdish political class is so single-mindedly dedicated to self-enrichment, there is no political will to hold IS to account. Nor, it seems, is there Western political will to demand more of the Iraqi and Kurdish officials overseeing this mess.
The sisters working on the Plains of Nineveh face the most fundamental questions about the human race: is it possible for people of different faiths and races to coexist in mutual respect and tolerance? What does it say about Jesus's message, so fundamental to lived Christianity (as opposed to lip service), if we cannot coexist? And what does it mean for us to profess our faith in the comfort and privilege of our secure communities while our coreligionists in Iraq risk their lives each day?