As the second half of Mosul liberation is underway, the United States needs to ensure that policy to help religious minorities in Iraq and Syria not only helps them flee, but also helps them rebuild shattered communities on their ancient lands.
We can’t just accept that ISIS—poised to lose its strongholds—will win in its quest to eradicate some of the world’s oldest continuous Christian communities. We must resettle Iraqi and Syrian Christians, help rebuild destroyed infrastructure when we can, and, above all, remember that a secure environment for all faiths and ethnicities in the region will ensure that the Christian community will recover and thrive.
The refugee application process starts with the United Nations, which must ensure as they select candidates for resettlement that no religious or ethnic group, particularly minorities, is the victim of discrimination. Less than one percent of Iraq’s population is Christian, and the United Nations high commissioner for refugees says 15.4 percent of Iraqis accepted for resettlement in fiscal year 2016 were Christian. But what if these families just want to return home?
Just days after the start of the Mosul offensive, as the coalition began recapturing towns east of the city, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako toured a Bartella church damaged by ISIS with two Iraqi generals, about a mile from the front lines. Surrounded by members of Iraq’s elite counterterrorism forces, they portrayed unity and joy, even in desecrated sacred spaces.
The cleric’s message was that even as terrorists gutted churches and brought death or jizya to occupied areas, the Christian community, which has suffered greatly under the scourge of ISIS, refuses to be torn apart.
“These are our lands,” Sako declared, lauding Iraqi fighters who erected makeshift crosses on churches destroyed by ISIS and “did it with pride.” ISIS left insults written on church walls as they fled, as well as tunnels burrowed underneath houses of worship, but Sako stressed they couldn’t kill the “joy and trepidation” of liberation. He implored Christians to stay or return home when able and to not give up what the terrorists did their best to destroy.
Sako said last month that giving certain religions priority in refugee admissions “ultimately harms” the Christians of the Middle East, and he even branded it as “a trap.” The patriarch cautioned against policies that could unnecessarily stoke tensions and feed “propaganda and prejudice that attack native Christian communities of the Middle East as ‘foreign bodies.’” These are their lands, too.
Few things anger ISIS as much as interfaith cooperation. They understand that when a potential recruit has no contact outside of the mosque, when he or she has been raised to believe that those of a different religion are heathen, it’s easier to persuade that person to commit violence on the basis of faith. Their latest video from Egypt, “And Fight Against the Polytheists Collectively,” takes aim at the Coptic population there and extends their wrath to church leaders in the region and Pope Francis. It scorns Muslim leaders who interact with Christian clergy and celebrates those who commit violence against churches.
ISIS knows ignorance is their ally, and unity spells defeat. They can’t feel too good about the fact that Baghdad-backed Christian militias and Peshmerga joined the Iraqi Security Forces in the Mosul offensive or that the force bearing down on Raqqa about to bring down their declared capital is female, male, Arab, Assyrian, Kurdish, Turkmen, Circassian and Armenian.
While ISIS was beheading stuffed bears in occupied west Mosul to warn residents against celebrating Valentine’s Day, the Chaldean Catholic Church was throwing a big neighborhood Valentine’s party in Baghdad. What’s needed for Christians to be safe is comprehensive security: a country where Christians can celebrate midnight Christmas Mass in peace, where Muslim families breaking the Ramadan fast at a Baghdad mall aren’t incinerated by a car bomb, and where Yazidi families will be whole again as they celebrate Batzmi.
Let Iraqi and Syrian Christians make a new home elsewhere if they wish. But let’s also support Christians who will not let the terrorists take their homeland’s churches and parishioners. As armies advance farther each day, let’s remember that ISIS has not won, and that life has already begun returning to liberated towns. Let’s not write off the extinction of ancient communities as a foregone conclusion.
Bridget Johnson is a senior fellow with the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center and D.C. bureau chief for PJ Media.