A clergyman and altar servers process during Mass July 20, 2014, at St. Joseph Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad, Iraq. Chaldean Christians in northern Iraq are determined to continue their 2,000-year-long mission despite the near-deadly blow inflicted by Islamic State forces and new challenges from nongovernment militias, said a priest ministering in the region. CNS photo/Ahmed Saad, Reuters

Chaldeans in northern Iraq face uncertainty in return to homes

By  Dennis Sadowski, Catholic News Service
  • July 18, 2019

WASHINGTON -- Chaldean Christians in northern Iraq are determined to continue their 2,000-year-long mission despite the near-deadly blow inflicted by Islamic State forces and new challenges from nongovernment militias, said a priest ministering in the region.

"The situation is so complicated in Iraq, but our faith and principles are that Christian religious communities should be there. Our mission is to be there and not in another place," Chaldean Father Thabet Habib told Catholic News Service July 17.

"We have faith at this time. We feel the hope. That gives me a sense to be optimistic," the priest said after addressing a session during day two of the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.

Father Habib recounted a story of determination on the part of Christian families who were forced to flee towns and villages on Iraq's Ninevah Plain just ahead of advancing Islamic State forces in August 2014 to an audience of 300 at the United States Institute of Peace. The session was part of a daylong look at religious freedom in development and humanitarian assistance.

The villages of Karamless and Teleskof, where Father Habib serves as a parish priest, were virtually destroyed by the Islamic State. Residents in the communities, located about 15 miles east of Mosul, were sheltered and supported by the Archdiocese of Irbil.

After coalition forces liberated much of the Ninevah Plain region in November 2016, about 45% of residents have returned with more expected in the next year, the priest said.

"We found our churches burned and desecrated and our homes burned, looted and destroyed," he said. "My own family home was destroyed completely, but still count this as our home and we are determined to return and rebuild."

Father Habib stressed it was important to tell the story of destruction and suffering so that the story is not overlooked by the rest of the world. He also said that since being forced to flee to Irbil he better understands "clearly the important place of Christianity and minorities to the future of Iraq."

"In this belief, I am not alone," he said. "In fact, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States has said Iraq without minorities is not Iraq."

Despite such comments, Father Habib said, minority religious communities, including Yazidis in the region, continue to face threats from nongovernment militia. He called on the Iraqi government to clamp down on the militia in order to assure transition to democracy in the country.

"In this way, we can protect and keep the ancient cultures of Iraq," he said.

Father Habib also cautioned the representatives of humanitarian and development agencies present, including the U.S. Agency for International Development, which coordinated the day's events, that they must not solely determine how best to rebuild a community.

"There must be honest conversation and dialogue with the people to define priorities and not to have all needs made by the decision of the donor," he said. "After this honest consultation, there is the need for the donor to make decisions which show the good will, moral values and the good name of the donor country or agency.

"Promises which are never fulfilled or always delayed, this brings great harm, not help. On the other hand promises which are made with honest intention and are fulfilled with proper focus of the people, reflect what is the best in us all and fill us with hope for the future," Father Habib added.

He particularly cited aid from the U.S.-based Knights of Columbus and the government of Hungary as addressing specific needs that have helped Karamless and Teleskof "in a flexible way that has us restore our communities more quickly."

"We are optimistic that they will survive," Father Habib said. "In other towns where we were not able to move quickly, the towns have remained empty and other groups have tried to take control. The future of these towns is not so optimistic."

In a panel discussion that followed, U.S. diplomats assigned to posts in Iraq and USAID staff discussed the work to rebuild communities in northern Iraq, many of which are home to religious minorities.

Andrew Peek, deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, acknowledged to the gathering that security threats remain for some minority religious communities in northern Iraq.

He and others echoed Father Habib's call for the Iraqi government to deliver on promises to protect persecuted religious minorities.

"It is our view that security comes both up from the bottom and down from the top," he said in calling for Iraqi officials to ensure that local police forces "reflect" the communities they serve.

Carl Anderson, CEO of the Knights of Columbus, told the assembly that he also witnessed security concerns in northern Iraq's Christian communities during a visit earlier this year.

The Knights of Columbus' role in rebuilding portions of northern Iraq has continued since 2014 with the organization spending $25 million to help in the recovery of persecuted communities in Iraq and Syria. The Knights and In Defense of Christians released a report in 2016 documenting hundreds of killings of religious minorities by the Islamic State group in the region. The report led then-Secretary of State John Kerry to determine that genocide was occurring at the hands of the insurgents.

Anderson pointed to the actions of one nongovernment militia, the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, as particularly troublesome.

"Our organization and others, along with the United States and other countries, have spent millions of dollars to assist returnees by targeted communities to Ninevah. But this is being threatened by the unaccountable PMF forces, which the government of Iraq in Baghdad seems unwilling or unable to control. That must change," Anderson said.

"Reports of abuse by PMF forces is common and as a result minority communities fear to return and every day more slip away from Iraq," he added.

Later, Anderson told CNS the organization is "pushing diplomatic and public attention on" the need for greater security for returning religious minorities in northern Iraq. "We have to keep shining the light," he said.

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