Despite the defeat of Islamic State forces on the battlefields of northern Iraq in 2017 and the advance of democracy in a country once ruled by the brutal Saddam Hussein, these are difficult times in Iraq, especially for beleaguered Christians of various ethnicities who have been dispossessed of their ancestral lands on the Nineveh Plain.
In the aftermath of the liberation of areas once under the control of the so-called caliphate, Shia and Kurdish forces are now attempting to consolidate their positions, vying to take control of land that does not rightfully belong to either of them.
According to a report released late last year by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think-tank that focuses on issues of international peace and security, there are reasons to hope that Iraq can resolve some of its national unity issues.
For example, the ICG contends that recent political developments in Iraq and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region create an opening to negotiate an end to disputes that erupted into open military conflict in 2017. The formation of new governments in Baghdad, Iraq's capital, and Erbil, capital city of Kurdistan, "presents a fresh opportunity to settle longstanding disputes between them," notes the ICG report, which is entitled Reviving UN Mediation on Iraq's Disputed Internal Boundaries.
The Kurdish people, who were effective and reliable allies of the West in the fight against the Islamic State, have long sought the establishment of their own independent, sovereign nation-state. And in 2017, the Kurds defied the Shia Muslim-dominated Iraqi federal government when they went ahead with a referendum on independence.
The tense situation quickly deteriorated into violence, with military clashes between the Iraqi army and Kurdish fighters, with Iraqi forces retaking disputed territories from the Kurds.
"This event shows that the conflict over Kirkuk and its oil fields remains explosive and could reignite without efforts to resolve it," states the International Crisis Group report, which was published on Dec. 14, 2018.
The ICG recommends that the United Nations revive "its stillborn mediation effort of a decade ago and work with regional and international partners to bring the two sides to the table and settle the issues dividing them." And the think-tank also urges the UN to "work to reach a permanent deal on the disputed territories."
Oil revenue dispute & national unity
According to the ICG, the disputed territory "encompasses an area with a rich blend of ethnic and religious communities." However, the think-tank contends that the conflict is driven, at least in part, by both sides' desire to claim the disputed territories' lucrative oil and gas reserves.
The International Crisis Group report also states that "the Kurds, who lay claim to Kirkuk and other disputed territories given their large Kurdish population, want to annex these areas to the Kurdish region."
Not surprisingly, notes the ICG report, "successive governments in Baghdad have strongly resisted this, aware that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) could use Kirkuk's oil to finance a viable independent Kurdish state." As a result, the struggle over the disputed territories "could therefore become one over the territorial integrity of Iraq."
Caught in the middle of the territorial dispute between the federal and Kurdish governments are the ancient Christian communities indigenous to Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq.
Assyrians are the original indigenous people of Iraq, Syria, Iran and parts of Turkey. They are not Arabs. And their ancient community predates the establishment of Islam and even Christianity. Many Assyrians still speak Aramaic, one of the languages likely spoken by Jesus Christ.
Many Iraqi Christians are of Assyrian ethnicity. However, many prefer to self-identify by their Catholic rites or Protestant denominations.
According to the U.S. State Department, there were as many as 1.4 million Christians in Iraq in 2002. However, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a Catholic non-governmental organization (NGO), estimates that fewer than 200,000 Christians remain in Iraq today.
According to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), 120,000 Christians were forced to flee their homes when Islamic State forces swept across northern Iraq in 2014, overrunning the Nineveh Plain.
The Christians sought refuge in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, often referred to as Kurdistan. Flash forward to 2019 and some Christians have returned to their villages on the Nineveh Plain, while others remain displaced in Kurdistan.
After the military defeat of ISIS by an international coalition in the late summer of 2017, approximately 10,000 internally displaced Christians returned to their homes, Carl Hetu, national director of CNEWA, said in an interview.
However, when the Kurds held their independence referendum, all hell broke loose. Military skirmishes between Iraqi military units and Kurdish militias forced many of the returning Christians to turn around and head back to Kurdistan.
Plight of Christians
"The plight of Christians became far worse following the Kurdish independence referendum in September 2017," confirms the Barnabas Fund, a United Kingdom-based Christian NGO that assists persecuted and vulnerable Christians. "This led to the Iraqi security forces seizing control of the oil fields on which the Kurdish government relied for their income and imposing a six-month air blockade, which created huge economic problems in the Kurdish region," the NGO told the Whig Standard.
"Refugees, particularly Christian refugees, were obviously at the bottom of the priority list for the Kurdish government and suffered accordingly," the Barnabas Fund's research department wrote in an email.
"The Iraqi government also seized control of many areas outside of the Kurdish autonomous zone itself which the Kurds had taken from Islamic State. This left Christians in those areas in an even more vulnerable situation."
Land grab and harassment
Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, Christians find themselves in a precarious position in northern Iraq. ACN's John Pontifex explained in an email that "the Nineveh region straddles the disputed border between federal Iraq and the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan."
According to Hetu, the Kurds are trying to buy up land that rightfully belongs to Christians but was abandoned when the religious minority was forced to flee the Nineveh Plain in 2014. "And the same thing is happening with the Shia-led government who is trying to buy all the land," he added.
"So the Christians are stuck in between, because they are under the gun," Hetu said of the land dispute on the Nineveh Plain. "And that's why right now, many are not going back to their villages, because the fear of more conflict between the Kurds and the state of Iraq."
According to Monica Ratra, a spokesperson for Open Doors Canada, displaced "Christians have recently faced harassment from Kurds." And she alleges that "Kurdish authorities and citizens have been involved in the so-called demographic engineering policies or 'Kurdification' for the Nineveh Plain and other parts of Kurdistan."
This process supposedly involves the purchase and/or confiscation of Christian lands, "thus changing the identity of historic Christian enclaves/villages, resulting in the emptying of Iraq of its Christian minority," Ratra explained in an email.
In addition, Open Doors Canada, which advocates on behalf of persecuted Christians around the globe, reports that "Christians can also face harassment and attacks from Shia militias." For example, the human rights group alleges that Christian women in Qaraqosh were sexually harassed by Shia militias.
However, according to Pontifex, some Christians living in the Kurdish capital of Erbil have "integrated well" into Kurdish society, having secured jobs and learned to speak Kurdish, "a very different language to their native Arabic."
Discrimination and tensions
The Barnabas Fund points out that when Islamic State forces marched across northern Iraq in 2014, "the Christian towns and villages in the Nineveh Plains were abandoned by the Kurdish Peshmerga." For this reason, asserts the Barnabas Fund, "the Christians are therefore understandably wary of trusting the Kurds for their future security."
The Christian NGO also tells of "incidents of Kurdish militia kidnapping Christian young men to use as conscripts in fighting in Syria."
As the Iraqi and Kurdish governments hammer out their relationship, borders, as well as an oil and gas revenue-sharing agreement, both sides should also commit to ensuring the survival Assyrians and other Christians on the Nineveh Plain. And that means recognizing the Christians' rightful claim to their ancestral homeland.