Christmas is a time of hope and joy, even for persecuted ancient communities on the verge of being wiped out by Islamic extremists in Iraq. Assyrians are a distinct ethnic group. They are among the original indigenous peoples of Iraq, Syria and parts of Turkey. Theirs is a rich and ancient culture that forms part of the cradle of civilization.
The vast majority of Iraqi Christians are of Assyrian ethnicity. Within the Assyrian nation, there are many religious denominations, including the Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean (Roman Catholic), Syriac (Catholic and Orthodox), Presbyterian, as well as Evangelical.
The line between the denominations is thin, said Mario Bard, a spokesperson for Aid to the Church in Need Canada, a Catholic organization that provides pastoral support and humanitarian assistance to persecuted Christians around the globe.
ACN works with all denominations. It is important to acknowledge that the Assyrian nation predates Islam and even Christianity. The Assyrians walked the Nineveh Plain before the birth of Jesus Christ. And they still speak Aramaic, one of the languages likely spoken by Christ.
Dwindling numbers of Christians in Iraq
There is no census information available for Iraq. But it is estimated that there were approximately 1.4 million Assyrians and other Christians in Iraq before a U.S.-led coalition ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
After the invasion, Iraq descended into lawlessness and sectarian violence. Without any Christian militias to protect them from gangs, terrorists and Islamic extremists, Christians were robbed, kidnapped and murdered with impunity. As a result, their numbers began to dwindle.
During the summer of 2014, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, launched a military offensive, capturing large swaths of Iraq, using mass murder, public beheadings and the enslavement of women and girls to subjugate captured territories.
An estimated 150,000 Assyrians fled their ancestral homes on the Nineveh Plain. Other areas were also cleansed of Christians, Yazidis and various minority communities. According to Aid to the Church in Need, there are only about 200,000 Christians left in Iraq. So where did the refugees go?
“The Christian Iraqis that left the country mainly fled to Turkey waiting to be resettled to the U.S.A. or Canada, depending on where they have family,” said Guy DesAulniers, co-ordinator of humanitarian aid at Development and Peace, the official international development organization of the Catholic Church in Canada and the Canadian member of Caritas Internationalis.
Assyrian and other Christian refugees appear to be caught in limbo, with nowhere to go. Turkey does not allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to operate on its territory. “The resettlement timeline is very unclear,” DesAulniers wrote in an email. “It seems they will be waiting for years before they are resettled.”
It doesn’t appear that the Christians are receiving a warm welcome in Turkey. “The situation in Turkey for them is very difficult because they are supposed to live in certain small cities they are assigned to,” DesAulniers said.
“In these cities, there is no work and the access to services is difficult because of the language barrier.” According to Caritas, Assyrians and other Christians have also fled to Jordan and Lebanon.
UNHCR camps and Canada
According to a few published reports, there are not many Christians in camps for refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) run by the UNHCR. So, where are the displaced Christians? Aid to the Church in Need doesn’t have any official answers.
But Mario Bard acknowledged that he’s heard the troubling stories about Christian refugees and IDPs not registering with the UNHCR, because they fear for their safety in the camps. “This is a real concern,” Bard said in a telephone interview. “I don’t know why there isn’t more information about it, because it’s huge.”
However, Bard also stated in a followup email that “violence in the camps of refugees is a problem in all refugee camps in the world. So, are the Christians more victims of the violence in the camp because they are Christians? The equation is really hard to say.”
A representative for a human rights organization said in an off-the-record briefing that they are aware that Christians prefer to go to churches for assistance as opposed to UN camps, because some Christians say they feel unsafe in the camps.
However, the NGO was not able to independently confirm those reports. According to Development and Peace’s DesAulniers, “the Christians in the region (including Christian Syrians) usually refuse to live in camps, not necessarily because they are persecuted. It is more a dignity issue.”
However, he conceded that there could be a fear factor. “Maybe for Iraqi Christians, it is also the fear of persecution because they are traumatized by the fact they had to leave their home fearing the persecution of ISIS in the name of Islam.” Canada tends to draw refugees from UNHCR camps for government-sponsored resettlement.
That means that persecuted Christians, even though they make up a disproportionate segment of the IDP and refugee populations, will likely be under-represented in government-sponsored resettlement initiatives.
However, privately sponsored refugees do not necessarily come from UNHCR camps, and that increases the chances of persecuted Christians being resettled in Canada. For example, the Armenian community in Canada is sponsoring Christian refugees from Syria.
If Assyrians and other Iraqi Christians aren’t in UNHCR camps, where have they gone? According to Bard, some have been taken in by dioceses in Christian villages in other parts of the country. “You have some places that are still Christian in Iraq,” he said. “No so much anymore, but you still have some.”
“The Christian and Assyrians are living in the north of Iraq, more specifically in the Christian neighbourhoods of the cities in Kurdistan, like Ainkawa in Erbil,” stated DesAulniers. Although the media tends to portray relations between displaced Assyrians and their Kurdish hosts as placid, some in the Assyrian community paint a much less rosy picture.
Assyrian activists allege that Kurdish authorities have seized Assyrian lands, denied them full political rights and intimidated peaceful protestors. According to DesAulniers, the situation in northern Iraq is difficult for all IDPs, “but they can find some help from the churches and other humanitarian agencies.
The economy is very bad right now in Kurdistan, Iraq.” Although life is hard for the displaced, DesAulniers asserted that “the Kurds seem to treat them well; in any case, better than how they treat the Sunni displaced population.”
“Caritas Iraq, Caritas Turkey, Caritas Jordan and Caritas Lebanon provide food, shelter, non-food items, health, and cash assistance to Christian Iraqis,” DesAulniers said. “They also have centres for the support of children and women.”
Aid to the Church in Need is providing emergency assistance to Christians who fled the city of Mosul in northern Iraq. For example, the NGO provided food aid and other necessities of life to 13,500 families in October.
Aid to the Church in Need is also building pre-fab schools for displaced Christians in Erbil, the capital city of the Erbil Governorate, which is located in the semi-autonomous Kurdish controlled region of northern Iraq.
The education project is managed by the local diocese, providing educational instruction in the language of the Assyrians and other Christians. ACN provides this essential resilience assistance, “so a generation is not lost,” Bard said.
The charity has also constructed a prefab village for the Christian IDPs in Erbil. Bard said that all of the structures that ACN builds are not permanent, “because we hope that Christians can go back to Mosul and to their villages on the Nineveh Plain.”
Faced with the suffering of displaced Christians, Aid to the Church in Need made the transition from providing just pastoral support to also delivering humanitarian relief to the persecuted. “Because if we don’t, nobody will,” Bard said.
The history of the early Church is one of persecution and suffering. Do Iraqi Christians view their suffering through this historical and theological perspective? “That’s a good question,” Bard said. “Yes and no.” “Yes, of course, the bishops are saying we live with persecution,” he said. “We live what the first Christians were living. And that’s an honour.”
However, Iraqi Christians are not happy about their predicament, Bard said. But he is impressed by their “resilience” and “the way they speak about forgiveness.” That doesn’t mean that they have forgotten about the brutal murders of their families and friends by Islamic extremists.
“Of course, they feel very enraged sometimes,” Bard said. But he said that Iraqi Christians try to follow biblical teaching, such as Matthew 5.44: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Bard has interviewed Iraqi Christians for an ACN radio program in Montreal. “They say, ‘fight for us.’ They say the western world should do more. But they also say that we have to stay true to our faith — it’s not about hate, it’s about love.”
Even in times of conflict, persecution and suffering, Christmas brings joy to the faithful. “Even the worst conditions will not prevent them to attend the churches and celebrate Christmas,” DesAulniers said of displaced Iraqis.
ACN’s Mario Bard agrees. “Yes, there will be celebrations,” he said emphatically, noting that there are priests in the camps in northern Iraq. “You can celebrate in a refugee or displaced camp.” Ten years from now, will there be any Christians left in Iraq to celebrate Christmas?
“That’s another good question,” replied Bard. And he said that ACN estimates that there won’t be any Christians left in Iraq within five years, if current trends remain unchanged. “It would be a catastrophe,”
Bard said of the destruction of Iraq’s ancient Christian community, “because it is the root of Christianity. These are the people who were there first. So would we would have lost this root … we would lose a lot.”
by Geoffrey P. Johnston