Iraq is home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 there were around 1.5 million Christians in the country. The number has dropped precipitously to only 250,000 today. While war and conflict have been a part of Iraqi life for almost two decades, certain groups have suffered disproportionally. The post-2003 insurgency, ISIS, and Iranian proxies have made the survival of Iraq's Christian community an open question. The ongoing exodus of Christians has serious implications for Iraq.
According to Harvard University's Pluralism Project, pluralism has four main points: energetic engagement with diversity, the active seeking of understanding across lines of differences, the encounter of commitments, and dialogue. The Pluralism Project's robust definition of the term underlines why it is so important. Indeed, Iraq's ambassador to the United States said as much when he stated that Iraq is "not Iraq without its minorities."
Related: Timeline of ISIS in Iraq
Related: Attacks on Assyrians in Syria By ISIS and Other Muslim Groups
Former Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) High Commissioner on National Minorities, Max van der Stoel, lays out the difficulties of nation building with disparate minority groups. In his landmark 2001 essay, Van der Stoel says that “Minorities will not forever tolerate a situation where their national identities are considered second rate. So, as we have witnessed in the past century, we either find ways of facilitating the peaceful break-up of States, or we have to try to keep multi-ethnic States together… It is more often the case that such schisms cause violent conflict."
Iraq appears to be incapable of either a peaceful break-up or solidifying in the face of ongoing violence. The result is that Iraq's pluralistic federal experiment is failing. For Assyrian Christians, the government's shortcomings were made obvious when ISIS was approaching the Nineveh plains. The Kurdish peshmerga was tasked by Baghdad with defending the area. However, they fled before the fighting even began and local Christians were forced to evacuate. It took over two years for the Iraqi military to recapture the Nineveh Plains.
The harsh reality that their historical homeland was abandoned without a fight was the final nail in the coffin for Iraq's Christian population. Even though return is now technically possible, few have opted to. Additionally, when the remaining Assyrian Christians were asked if they would leave, given the choice, most admitted that they would. Open Doors, a Christian persecution watchdog, sums up their situation well; "although ISIS has lost territory in Iraq, their ideology remains and has influenced society." As long as these persecution drivers remain in Iraq, whether from former ISIS members or Iranian proxies, Christians will continue to leave in droves.
In the face of ongoing conflict, groups have risen to protect and assist Christians in northern Iraq. The Nineveh Plain Protection Unit (NPU) was established after the 2014 invasion of the Islamic State by local ethnicities. The group places an emphasis on minorities forming their own defensive units to protect their homelands, in contrast to the ill-fated peshmerga defense of 2014. The government of Iraq officially recognized the NPU's status as part of their Nineveh Liberation Operation Command in 2016. In a similar fashion, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has become heavily involved in northern Iraq, providing more than $350 million in support of reconstruction efforts.
Will these efforts stem the mass exodus? According to Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil in Iraqi-Kurdistan, the future is bleak. He says that "we may be facing our end in the land of our ancestors. We acknowledge this. In our end, the entire world faces a moment of truth." Only time will tell if his haunting words are true. If minorities continue to leave, Iraq's pluralistic federal form of governance will be seen as unable to provide basic protections. The Iraqi government, with the assistance of the United States, must do more to ensure that one of the most ancient communities in the Middle East can survive and thrive for another millennium.
Benjamin Harbaugh is a former intern in the Office of International Religious Freedom at the Department of State and a graduate student at The American University in Washington D.C. where he currently studies U.S. foreign policy and security. He is passionate about supporting vulnerable communities around the globe and has worked alongside the persecuted Church in countries such as Cuba, Russia, Vietnam, and more. Engaged in the relationship between government action and religious freedom, Ben believes in the importance of U.S. involvement for Christians around the world. When he isn't studying, Ben enjoys long-distance running and traveling with his wife.