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Iraq's Northern Plains Are Key to Assyrian Survival
By Julia Duin
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ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that does investigative journalism, isn't known for religion coverage. Why, I have no idea, as the field is indeed rich.

But earlier this month, it published a piece on Iraqi Christians that calls out the duplicity of the Donald Trump Administration for calling Iraq too dangerous for Christians on one hand, while deporting hapless Iraqis from the United States whenever it can.

Related: Timeline of ISIS in Iraq
Related: Attacks on Assyrians in Syria By ISIS and Other Muslim Groups

It's one of the few pieces of reporting out there this year on how Iraq continues to be a huge mess.

Even as U.S. immigration officials have pushed to deport hundreds of Iraqi Christians over the last few years, asserting in court that they are unlikely to be targeted in their homeland, another arm of the Trump administration has insisted just the opposite, saying that Christians in Iraq face terror and extortion.

Last September, a senior Trump appointee at the U.S. Agency for International Development told a government commission that in the part of northern Iraq where many Christians live, militias aligned with Iran "terrorize those families brave enough to have returned, extort local businesses and openly pledge allegiance to Iran."


The administration has sought to deport hundreds of Iraqis, many of them Christians, who immigrated to the U.S. years ago. To stay in the U.S., many of the Iraqis have to prove that if they are deported, they are most likely to be tortured by, or with the tacit permission of, the Iraqi government -- a higher standard than what is used in typical asylum cases. That gives DHS a strong incentive to emphasize Iraq's progress and portray the country's government as competent and willing to protect all its people.

President Donald Trump said in a January speech in Michigan that he would grant an "extension" to Iraqi Christians facing deportation, but DHS' effort to deport the Iraqis is ongoing, lawyers said.

The ProPublica team has been following this story for some time, with the same reporter having published this investigation last fall about the Trump administration's efforts to steer money and aid toward religious minorities in Iraq under the purview of Vice President Mike Pence.

So I am a bit confused as to where this story is going.

The United States and the United Nations are throwing money at this corner of the world. Yet it doesn't seem to be effective at all and the area is by no means safe to live in. We're not talking about big cities like Mosul; we're talking about the Nineveh Plains, a mostly flat region to the north and east of Mosul where Christians have lived nearly since the dawn of Christianity.

I turned to a Kurdish web site to get a better read of the current situation. A Jan. 31 piece gives us some history. When ISIS came to power in 2014, 90 percent of the Christians on the Plains fled to Iraqi Kurdistan. After ISIS was defeated, 30 percent of the diaspora chose to emigrate; 35 percent moved back to the Plains and the remaining 35 percent have stayed in Kurdistan.

Even though many internal actors such as the Chaldean, Assyrian, Syriac, and Evangelical Churches, KRG, NGOs, and international actors such as USAID, Aid to the Church in Need, Hungary, Samaritan Purse, SOS, Knights of Columbus, and others have offered important assistance towards reconstruction in the Nineveh Plains, the vast majority of Christians are not returning.

Every week, between 4-6 families flee the Nineveh Plains to the Kurdistan Region or go abroad, according to several local clergymen and local official estimates. As a result, hundreds of newly reconstructed houses lie empty.

Why? Because Christians do not feel safe at all. Why? Because of the uncontrolled militias that are more powerful than the Iraqi authority in the Nineveh Plains.

The Kurdish website is saying much the same thing that ProPublica said last fall. After ISIS was removed from the scene, the Americans controlling the area did not force the Hashd militias (backed by Iran), to also leave the area. The Hashd were originally part of a coalition to fight ISIS, but once ISIS left, the Hashd began terrorizing Christians, Yezidis and other groups that dared to move back to the area.

It's up to the United States to clean up this mess because it helped create it. Is that what Pence is trying to do?

I found two paragraphs from this story particularly haunting:

What happened to the Iraqi Jews in 1948 is happing to Christians now, and more aggressively, but with all the atrocious committed against the Iraqi Jews at that time, at least the Jews had a country to go to.

The Christians of the Chaldean, Assyrian, and Syriac Churches ( The Chaldean Assyrian Syriacs, or Sorayee ) have no country other than their ancestral lands: Mesopotamia, Beth Nahrin, the Land of Assyria and Babylon, now known as Iraq. If they leave, they will enter demise generation after generation in the diaspora, and the world will lose one of its most ancient communities and nations.

I spent two weeks in this very region in 2004, researching a book on Iraqi Kurds. I visited Al Qosh, one of the Christian villages on the Plains and saw the life these Assyrian Christians had created for themselves. I remember people talking about how Jews had lived in Iraq since Jews were deported from Jerusalem and surrounding territories to Babylon starting in 597 BC. When Jews left after World War II, they left 2,300 years of history behind them.

Back to the original ProPublica story, which supports the Kurdish view that the Plains are unstable at best:

While the Iraqi government has succeeded in defeating the Islamic State and winning back control of its territory, and does not itself engage in persecuting minority groups, religious and ethnic minorities have little faith the government can protect them against a multitude of active, semiofficial armed groups, experts said.

"My view aligns more closely with USAID," said Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, who visited Iraq in December. "Iraq seems to be in a situation of terminal collapse. With the continued presence of extremists and the unreliable central government, I find it hard to believe that Christians are safe and secure."

I am curious whether the coronavirus pandemic has made the deportation question moot for now. This Crux piece from last summer says the only villages that are secure are those with their own militias. Otherwise, the Hashd folks control the area and the Iraqi government lacks the will and manpower to force them out. has also done ongoing reporting on this region.

I wish ProPublica managers would actually send a reporter to the area to report on the situation on the ground. Having been there, I know it's possible. After all, it's already published two lengthy pieces on the deteriorating situation for Christians and other minority religions in northern Iraq.

During the unhappy reign of ISUS in that area, there was a lot of reporting coming out of the region. With them gone, the articles are fewer. Sadly, the problems are not.

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