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Mosul, Iraq will soon be liberated from ISIS’ deadly, genocidal reign, but those returning home still face a difficult road ahead.

The people of northern Iraq saw their world shattered in the summer of 2014, as a jihadi plague in Toyota pickup trucks tore across their ancient homelands. Now, two years after the wanton genocide and other atrocities wrought by ISIS, media reports show town after town being liberated across the once Islamic State-controlled territory, as coalition forces push through and liberate Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

But as Iraq’s indigenous ethnic and religious minorities return in droves from refugee camps throughout Kurdistan, Turkey, and elsewhere — saving them from spending yet another cold winter in temporary lodging — an entirely new set of challenges awaits.

1. Right of return

The biggest challenge for many of the region’s displaced peoples, regardless of their ethnic or religious background, is the simple right to return home. ISIS genocide of the region’s Assyrian, Chaldean, and Syriac Christians (whose religious identities stretch back to the first century in their ancient homeland), as well as Yazidis and other minorities, has left hundreds of thousands in a potential housing crisis following the Islamic State’s perverse campaign.

As ISIS swept across the fertile Nineveh plain region two years ago, these people were forced to flee for their lives, leaving behind all they knew.

“Without an appropriate plan for the placement of civilian escape corridors from Mosul and shelter for Mosul civilians,” Kristina Olney of In Defense of Christians, an American non-profit whose mission is to ensure the protection and preservation of Christianity in the Middle East, writes at The Hill, “Nineveh’s largest town of Qaraqosh [also known as Bakhdida], formerly home to 50,000 Christians and only 20 miles outside Mosul, and the other smaller minority towns, could be flooded with a massive refugee wave from Mosul and thus preclude the return of their original residents, who themselves are now refugees and victims of an ongoing genocide.”

2. Right to property/reparations

Even if every home and business were returned to all affected, things still won’t be back to normal, obviously. Aside from the massive trauma that many of these populations have suffered, many were robbed of their possessions while fleeing. While the topic of exacting reparations from perpetrators and co-conspirators in ISIS’ rise is a long way off, Jeff Gardner of the U.S.-based Restore Nineveh Now told CR in a phone interview, the losses have been massive.

“Nobody’s even asked how much is missing,” he explained over the phone, explaining that that even just a random sampling of any handful of refugees in Kurdistan will yield “millions of dollars” in losses to ISIS militants.

3. Safety

The common refrain after any holocaust like that seen in Iraq and Syria is “never again”; the difficulty lies in ensuring that the refrain isn’t a mere platitude. There are palpable concerns that these populations would be returning to Nineveh only to face a similar persecution on some other front down the road.

“Many members of minorities feel betrayed by the larger ethnic or sectarian blocs in the country who they consider failed to protect them [from ISIS],” Olney explained in an email to Conservative Review. Many of the displaced were even betrayed by their own neighbors, who did nothing as ISIS trucks rolled through cities like Mosul and Qaraqosh.

“Sectarian violence has divided Iraq along ethno-sectarian lines. Those who are returning home will need time to build trust with their neighbors and be assured of security,” she added.

The best way to ensure the security of these long-persecuted peoples, Jeff Gardner says, is to simply make sure they affirm and ensure their basic rights to self-defense. One of the most effective ways of doing this, he says, would be arming and training the Nineveh Plain Protection Unit — a native Christian militia.  Similarly, conservatives have also long advocated for the arming of the Kurdish Peshmerga.

“These people have suffered a real trauma,” Gardner said, “Real, effective, local security that they actually trust has to be there.”

4. Autonomy

The current, ISIS-related geopolitical nightmare has made several things clear about the state of Iraq post-U.S. pullout, not least of which is the fact that the country’s religious and ethnic minorities require a great deal more representation and autonomy than they enjoyed under the post-Saddam Hussein federation.

While the task is complex, and even daunting, In Defense of Christian’s Kristina Olney remarked that the situation presented “an historic opportunity for displaced communities to be resettled and for communities to establish local governance and provide for their own defense within the existing political frameworks.”

While some in human rights circles have discussed the idea of turning the Nineveh plains region into an internationally-respected safe haven for the Iraq’s indigenous minorities, perhaps a better answer lies in giving the area the same semi-autonomous status currently enjoyed by the Kurdish Region of Government in the northeast. In fact, that plan that was considered by the Iraqi parliament in 2014.

“If we don’t decentralize, the country will disintegrate,” stated Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in 2015, voicing a complete departure from predecessor Nouri al-Maliki. “To me, there are no limitations to decentralization.”

5. Justice

War crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide have been committed, and justice must be sought for ISIS’ innumerable victims. I have previously written a great deal about the various means through which this can be carried out, but ultimately those responsible for devising, inciting, funding, and/or carrying out these atrocities will have to be held accountable by some competent body, be it Iraqi or international.

6. Even if defeated, ISIS isn’t going away, nor is its message

The end of Islamic State-controlled territory won’t be the end of ISIS or the global jihadist movement. ISIS will undoubtedly move underground, change its strategic focus, and adjust its mission through a different set of tactics. It’s what happens every time the civilized world “wins” a battle in the war on terror.

Meanwhile, al Qaeda is reforming elsewhere in the region. The game of Whac a Mole continues. As written numerous times before, the challenge for governments who genuinely seek an end to these kinds of atrocities will involve an international jihadism paradigm that actually focuses on the jihad itself, not just the latest terror group or set of tactics.

The fact that church bells in Nineveh are now ringing out for the first time in years is a cause for celebration. However, if the next steps after Mosul and Nineveh’s liberation aren’t handled properly, this victory promises to be hollow and short-lived.


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Nate Madden is a Staff Writer for Conservative Review, focusing on religion and culture. He previously served as the Director of Policy Relations for the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative. A John Jay Fellow, Citadel Parliamentary Fellow and National Journalism Center alumnus, Nate has previously written for World Magazine, The Washington Times, Catholic News Service, Patheos, Ethika Politika, and The Christian Post. Follow him @NateMadden_IV.

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