The travails Iraq has undergone in the decade since the invasion in 2003 have largely played out among, and between, the country’s major ethno-religious groups: Sunni and Shia Arabs, and Kurds. But Iraq’s Christians have suffered disproportionately since the fall of Saddam. Their numbers have fallen from at least 800,000 on the eve of the war to fewer than 400,000 today. Those who have been displaced internally continue to struggle to find a future in Iraq or Iraqi Kurdistan, and those who have fled the country have encountered little support from their western host countries.
Iraqi Christians are culturally and linguistically distinct from other Iraqi communities. They are ethnically Assyrian: non-Arab, non-Kurdish peoples who trace their heritage to the ancient Assyrian empire. They speak a colloquial dialect of Aramaic, though the majority of the liturgy and literature of the Iraqi churches is in Syriac, the classical form of middle Aramaic which produced a wealth of seminal Eastern Christian texts.
Persecuted extensively under the Baathist regime because of their ethnicity, the war and its aftermath exposed Iraqi Assyrians to the horrors of violence and criminality unleashed by Islamist groups, who subjected Christians to an extensive campaign of kidnapping, ransom and murder. As Iraq descended into civil war, Christians – having no militias or security forces of their own, and unprotected by a national security apparatus heavily tied to the sectarian gangs involved in the conflict – were cleansed from their neighbourhoods, either killed or intimidated with threats of murder. The most extreme culmination of the campaign came on October 31 2010, when an al-Qaeda affiliate calling itself the “Islamic State of Iraq” stormed the Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad during evening Mass, killing almost 60 people and injuring 80 more in the worst single attack on Iraqi Christians since 2003. Church bombings have become a habitual occurrence in Iraq: 72 have been attacked since 2004.
Thousands of internally displaced Christians fled from urban centres to stay with relatives or to attempt to establish themselves among Christian communities elsewhere in Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan has been a prominent destination. The autonomous region has been spared the upheaval the rest of the country has gone through since 2003, and the consequent security and stability, coupled with Kurdistan’s considerable oil reserves, have attracted economic investment and development. But the incoming Christians have been largely unable to make lives for themselves there. The journalist Matteo Fagotto interviewed some of them on his recent trip to Iraq. He found a community “who don’t feel they have a future in their own country”, struggling to find employment and housing.
The gravity of the problems faced by Christians in Kurdistan is reflected in the work of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). They have noted that the number of displaced families in Kurdistan has been dropping starkly, as they seek to move to neighbouring countries or the West. In a recent publication of the IOM, details emerge of exorbitant house prices, rising with the demand incurred by the large numbers of new arrivals, and difficulties with finding employment and schooling.
Resilient and dignified nations, whose tribes have long inhabited the same lands, Kurds and Assyrians have had a complex history, which has witnessed both camaraderie and betrayal. Many Assyrian militias fought alongside Kurdish ones against Saddam, and Assyrian villages and churches were destroyed in the Anfal campaign. Today, however, Assyrians and Kurds find themselves on very different ends of Iraqi politics. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the ruling body of Kurdistan, has expanded its authority and territory of jurisdiction since the war, while Assyrian politics remains ineffectual.
The Kurdish theft of Assyrian land, which began under the auspices of the no-fly zone, has continued unabated. In late 2011, a group of Kurds rioted unimpeded in Zakho, a northern Iraqi town, burning down defenceless Christian shops and homes. The KRG, which has been criticised heavily for arbitrary detention and freedom of speech and assembly violations, has intimidated Christian voters and political leaders seeking to assert the rights of Christians in northern Iraq, such as Bassim Bello, the governor of Tel Kippe, a largely Christian area in the Nineveh province. Bello and others wish to establish – under terms of ethnic self-determination according to demographics in the Iraqi constitution – a semi-autonomous governorate in the province in order to provide a safe haven for minorities.
The Nineveh region is a crucible of Assyrian civilisation and the only one in Iraq composed primarily of minorities, Christians around half of them. The KRG flooded the area with militiamen in the aftermath of the invasion, securing a presence in the territories, which belong to Iraq proper, and continues to refuse to allow minorities to train their own security forces to replace the occupying Kurdish forces. Bids in parliament for a referendum over control of the region have been vetoed by the Kurdish government, which hopes that an exodus of minorities and a continuing influx of Kurds to the area will swing the vote, and the control over oil and gas that will accompany it, their way.
The Assyrian-Swedish journalist Nuri Kino recently wrote a report on the horrors faced by the Iraqi Christians who fled violence in their own country for Syria, where anti-Christian violence has become increasingly common. He told me that while many are returning to Iraq, the Nineveh Plains in particular – almost all those who fled their homes in Baghdad have since had them occupied, and have no legal recourse to reclaiming prior residences – their focus is on migration to the West. But western states have been sending large numbers of refugees back in recent years: even Sweden, once the European country most receptive to those fleeing Iraq, has deported hundreds of Christian families in the past few years, back to peril, if not doom. So the extirpation of Assyrian Christians from their ancient lands continues: from old homes to new ones and back again, finding repose in none.
Mardean Isaac is a writer and graduate of the MSt programme in Syriac Studies at Oxford University