Destroying the Islamic State isn't the end: Christians and other minorities need more help
12/15/16 7:01 PM
On Oct. 30th, the clear ringing of church bells could be heard over the city of Qaraqosh, just a few miles southeast of Mosul. For the first time since the Islamic State had launched its genocidal rampage across Northern Iraq, Christians had returned to give thanks for their newly liberated homes. As the Islamic State loses more ground, it is critical that the international community ensures a future for religious minorities not just in Iraq, but across the Middle East.
Unfortunately, even with the imminent liberation of Mosul, many Christians in Northern Iraq are cynical about their future chances of survival. My organization, International Christian Concern, interviewed internally displaced Christians to hear their thoughts on the future of their communities. For their security, their names are changed here.
Habib of Mosul believes that the Islamic State has left a lasting impression on the culture in the region. Asked whether or not he would be returning to Mosul in an interview with ICC, he said, "We are glancing at hope again, but I think defeating ISIS will result in another kind of problem which could last for at least six months. I don't think that I will be back to Mosul again. I can feel settled here in Erbil." He added that the Islamic State's atrocities will leave a more lasting mark. "Foreign ISIS troops will leave or die, but what they did during the last two years is preparing thoughts for the next generation. [They've created] a death culture."
Yet others are still hopeful, and plan to return home. Omar, originally from Qaraqosh, told ICC, "I started thinking 'leave Iraq', I lost hope to get Qaraqosh back and settle down again there one day. My mind totally changed when operation of liberation started. I would love to be part of a Christian neighborhood again." Many other former residents of Qaraqosh that were interviewed felt that they could return to the city if its security was restored by the government.
Through our interviews, there is a clear dichotomy between those from Qaroqosh, a previously predominantly Christian area, who want to try and return, and those from Mosul see no real future for Christians in that region. Akram, a local religious leader seemed to confirm this by saying, "For sure, Christians from Mosul will never be back there. They can't live anymore among Sunni Arabs who deceived them when ISIS attacked."
It is clear is that there are differences based on geography. Those form Qaraqosh and Bartella see a possibility of returning to the majority-Christian area in which they once lived with added protections. Those from Mosul tend to be the opposite, seeing little chance of being able to reconcile and live next to their Sunni neighbors once again.
No matter the wishes of individual internally displaced persons, it is clear that problems of security, humanitarian needs, and social reconciliation still face the people of Iraq, no matter their religion or geography. If religious minorities are expelled by way of religious persecution and humanitarian crisis, what will remain is a region dominated by a homogenous ideology with ill effects for the future of Iraq.
To address these problems and needs of post-Islamic State Iraq, a holistic plan is needed in which governments, non-governmental organizations, and individuals work together toward a common goal of healing and assistance based on the ideal of religious freedom and respect.
To this end, it seems clear that some security force will need to remain in the region to protect religious minorities. Similarly, the judicial system must be quick to uphold the rights of religious minorities and address discrimination wherever present. In the wake of the genocide against minorities, it is also vital that these groups be given a greater voice in the government to advocate for policies that will ensure their future in the region. Also vital is the need for regular and constructive dialogue between religious leaders to prevent future sectarian violence in the region.
Only when the rights of others to worship as they please are respected can Iraq move on from its recent history, based upon atrocities and sectarian violence. Only then can those displaced by the violence of the Islamic State return to their native homelands and rebuild their lives securely and with dignity.