Iraq's Christians Need Sanctuary, and the West Should Provide It

In March, Arab leaders, led by Egypt's President Sisi, announced they were forming a joint military force to counter ISIS as well as Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen. How, or if, this might impact Iraq is unknown.
Others call for the reintroduction of American combat troops, beyond the current 3,000 American trainers and advisers. Among the serious proposals is the strategy report issued by the Institute for the Study of War last September. It proposed sending an initial deployment of 25,000 American troops, with the caveat that "this strategy contains a high risk of failure and the near-certainty of U.S. troop casualties."

The report does not assess the human cost for Iraqi civilians, or how the U.S. ground presence would spur jihadi recruitment. Nor does it evaluate whether the American public could stomach the inevitable videos of our troops confronting jihadists taking cover behind human shields of abducted Yizidi and Christian women and children, and of captured American soldiers being crucified, beheaded, and burned alive in cages.

This week both Washington and London committed to sending more military trainers to Iraq, though a ministers' meeting of the coalition against ISIS did not adopt any course changes in their meeting in Paris on June 2. And no one at CentCom is any longer publicly talking about a Mosul offensive for the foreseeable future.

A non-military alternative now underway is improving refugee conditions, which will buy a bit more time for the exiled Christians. Churches in Kurdistan and Jordan, supported by the international aid community, have begun moving the Christians from tents and shipping containers and other makeshift housing into still-crowded but more-permanent housing. Informal schools are being set up for their children. (The government in Baghdad has lately begun to take an interest and is considering whether to accredit some of the schools.) However, in these places of sanctuary – even in Iraqi Kurdistan — the displaced Christians are prevented from putting down roots; they are denied legal status, and so their ability to take jobs, start businesses, build homes, and become full citizens is restricted. And so these sanctuaries can be seen only as temporary measures, as the Christians there will remain indigent wards of the churches and without rights.

Were the administration to use its leverage with the Kurds and Jordan to obtain work permits for the Christians, they would have the option of starting over within the region. But, for reasons already mentioned, getting the U.S. to act on behalf of the Christians is a long shot. And such a measure will certainly have no chance without the backing of American churches, which, despite generous aid to the displaced Iraqis, have been politically inactive on their behalf.

Refugee Christians in Kurdistan and Jordan continue to be at risk from ISIS cells. As shown with the 21 Egyptian Copts beheaded on Libyan shores last February, Christians are sought out as jihadists' targets. A suicide truck-bomb attack hit Ankawa, a Christian suburb of Erbil, Kurdistan, in April. The U.S. consulate is there, but so is a main refuge settlement for Nineveh's displaced Christians. On Amman's outskirts, Iraqi Christian refugees report that jihadists knock on their doors at night demanding an Islamicjizya tax or their daughters. Canon Andrew White's Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (I serve as acting chair) is hastily working to move them to a safer neighborhood.

Persecution weighs heavily on these Christians. Health workers report fewer new pregnancies among the displaced Christians. In May, Sister Diana Momeka of the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena told me that 14 Catholic nuns from her convent have died from the ordeal of displacement. "This is cultural and human genocide," as she told Congress. "This uprooting, this theft of everything that the Christians owned, displaced them body and soul, stripping away their humanity and dignity."

Grand-strategy historian Walter Russell Mead, addressing a conference in May at the Hudson Institute, summed up the choices faced by Jews, Kurds, Maronite Christians, and other religious minorities during epic political chaos such as this: "Fort up or flee." Iraq's displaced Christians don't have a serious option to fortify.

The only achievable strategy under the current circumstances is to prepare for an orderly resettlement of these Christians (and Yazidis) in the West. It is a bitter development for the Church and for them, being discarded after 2,000 years of history, through no fault of their own. But it is the most humane of the alternatives. Otherwise they face indigence and exile or, worse, slaughter at the hands of jihadists. Widows, orphans, and the most deeply traumatized should be given priority.

Some vow to stay and fight, and they should be allowed to do so. Each family should be able to make its own decision about whether to go or to stay.

Some Church leaders in the region are adamant that Iraq's Christians should remain, and Western countries that open their doors are accused of deliberately destroying Iraq's Christian communities. But many of the displaced are desperate to get out. Father Benedict Kiely, a Catholic pastor and founder of the charity, visited Kurdistan in May. There he got a sampling of opinions from the priests running camps for the displaced. "For their people they try to put on a brave face," he said, "but privately they told me they see leaving as the only option." A Syriac Orthodox priest told him in despair, "We are finished. We must leave." A Catholic priest exiled from Baghdad: "We can rebuild community somewhere else, but we can't rebuild people. We must sacrifice community to save the people!"

A million members of Iraq's Christian community have already shaken the dust from their feet, as the Scriptures would put it, and immigrated to the West over the past decade. These remnants of an ancient Christian church, many of whom still pray in the language of Jesus and his disciplines, should be helped to do the same. A year after ISIS destroyed their world, these minorities deserve the right to rebuild their lives and regain their dignity.

This column was originally published in National Journal.

Nina Shea is director of Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom and co-author of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (Thomas Nelson Publishers, March 2013).

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