ANKAWA, Iraq/Kurdistan – In the famous Bible story, the ancient city of Nineveh responded to Jonah’s preaching and repented. Today, however, Christians on the Nineveh Plains, a fabled swath of land that overlaps the dividing line between northern Iraq and Kurdistan, have found it’s not quite so easy to change peoples’ hearts and minds.
Ironically, in 2008 the Nineveh Plains actually was floated as a possible safe haven for Christians from other areas of the country being driven from their homes by what would eventually come to be recognized as the Islamic State’s genocidal campaign.
In 2014, that genocide reached the plains. A cluster of villages that had been traditionally Christian for two millennia was wiped out, while tens of thousands of residents fled for their lives. Many headed for the Christian enclave of Ankawa in nearby Erbil, which is today claimed as the capital of an independent Kurdistan.
While in theory those fleeing Christians could have sought refuge in a UN-sponsored camp, very few ever did, fearing that the jihadist hatred that put them at risk at home wouldn’t have much difficulty penetrating the porous confines of a Muslim-dominated refugee camp either. Thus, they turned to the churches, turning courtyards, parks and streets in Ankawa into vast informal settlements.
Some of those Christians decided to leave the region altogether, most seeking new lives abroad in Australia, North America or Europe, but the majority stuck it out – in part out of a rugged determination that Christianity wouldn’t be wiped out of its historic homeland, in part with hope that the Iraqi government with U.S. support would eventually get the situation under control, and, in part too, for a simple lack of better choices.
By mid-2017, great optimism was in the air and talk of quickly rebuilding those Christian villages and resettling their residents created an air of optimism. Then came the Kurdish independence referendum, which badly frayed relations between Baghdad and Erbil and created fear of a wider regional conflict, and the long-anticipated return from exile slowed down.
Today things are once again moving forward, and Christians of this historic cradle of the faith are beginning to make their way back. That fact is all the more remarkable given that support for the rebuilding effort from public sources such as the UN has been all but non-existent. It’s been made possible almost entirely by private donors, many of them Catholic, such as the papal foundation Aid to the Church in Need supporting persecuted Christians around the world and the Knights of Columbus.
(The Knights are a principal partner of Crux.)
From 2014 to 2017, Aid to the Church in Need alone has delivered $4 million in help for the Nineveh Plains, including 20 emergency aid projects and 19 reconstruction efforts. Among other tangible signs of that help, convents in the Christian villages of Bashiqa, Teleskuf and Qaraqosh have been rebuilt.
Yet after all that’s happened, nobody is treating the goal of a stable, secure future for Christianity on the Nineveh Plains as an inevitability, or even an especially good bet right now. Experts on the ground warn that a great deal is at stake in the choices being made right now.
Stephen Rasche, a counselor to the Archdiocese of Erbil who serves as coordinator of the reconstruction effort, acknowledged that if the situation deteriorates, the reconstruction effort will become moot because Christians won’t want to return.
Rasche knows well that conflict over the future of Kurdish-controlled territories could still erupt anytime, and, although ISIS may be reeling militarily at the moment, they’ve proven surprisingly good at retreating and reloading, and no one believes the threat has been completely snuffed out.
What happens over the next few months are critical, he said, perhaps especially how a U.S. administration, which has voiced its concern for persecuted Christians repeatedly, chooses to deploy its resources and political influence.
A surprising share of the Christians of the Nineveh Plains have stuck it out this far, Rasche said, and there remains real hope of getting them home. Yet, he warned, nobody should expect their patience to be infinite.
“If there’s another major conflict, that’s the end for the Christians there. They won’t wait around to see this movie one more time,” Rasche said.
Crux is visiting the Nineveh Plains this week, taking the temperature of its embattled Christian community and the residual hope that still percolates here that the future will somehow be different than the proximate past – a hope that may seem either inspiring or naïve, depending on how one sees it, but which, nevertheless, against all odds, somehow endures.
Watch the Crux site for full coverage throughout the trip by John Allen and Inés San Martín.
John L. Allen Jr. and Ines San Martin