Catholic priests in Iraq face a “very complicated” situation in shepherding their beleaguered flocks in a region devastated by war and genocide.
Three shepherds spoke to the Register this week during the State Department’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. The priests, who represented a few of the many victims of persecution by the Islamic State (ISIS), came to Washington to discuss international aid efforts and how to rebuild the shattered lives of the minorities in the region.
Chaldean Father Thabet Habib, a pastor to the Iraqi Christian towns of Karamles and Teleskov, told the Register that the Christians are “returning after the liberation from ISIS … so the people now feel at peace, but they have some worry about the future, about the situation in Iraq and in Nineveh. Our existence and our peace is conditioned by the situation of Iraq.”
“They have another worry about some plans to create demographic change by other groups, by [the] Iraqi government sometimes,” he added. “Our land is the first thing we have to protect.” Father Thabet explained that there are Iraqi militia in the Nineveh Plain, “accused by the common opinion that they have a good relationship with Iran.”
“When we returned after the liberation, a leader of this militia, he wanted to take the lands in Karamles and rebuild a house,” he said. “That leader declared, ‘I am a leader in the militia, the PMF [Popular Mobilization Forces]. I killed many ISIS members.’”
After refusing the militia leader’s request to rebuild a house for himself in the town, Father Thabet received death threats on social media. However, he said in that case the Iraqi government intervened and did not permit the militia leader to rebuild the house.
“We hope to live in Iraq, modern Iraq, not [with] militia but official forces to protect the people,” he said. “We want to resolve this problem because maybe the PMF was founded in that time when the ISIS arrived to Baghdad … but the healthy situation [is] to have official forces; Iraqi forces belong to Iraq, not to these groups.”
Father Thabet said that in all the region’s towns, roughly 40% of the Christian families have returned, except in the town of Batnaya, where “destruction is the highest and [there are] some problems from the militia.”
Praise for U.S. Help
He praised some of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s efforts in the region, saying they have been helpful with equipment to clear rubble and restoring electricity as well as helping with hospitals in the towns. However, he said there was room for improvement.
“We hope this aid will be more efficient, more direct with the groups, because using these funds and budget through many NGOs and institutions — that means you have less money from this budget,” he said. “So it should be more direct and more flexible, so in this way we can reach good goals.”
Father Thabet praised the Trump administration’s increased focus on the issue, particularly the efforts of Vice President Mike Pence.
“I hope to meet him because it’s unusual to listen, to hear about this language to help the Christians; before, we didn’t hear this,” he said. “Now, with the new government, with Mike Pence, we are usually hearing about the help for the minorities — especially in Iraq — so it’s a new thing.”
“We hope this will be a normal procedure, to help the minorities in Iraq and in the Middle East,” he added.
The priest outlined several things Iraqi Christians need to feel safe to remain in their homeland.
“For the Iraqi Christian the logistics are very important, to give him rights and to protect his identity in the towns,” he said. “Reconstruction of these towns and create the dignity of work; develop the zones, so in this way we can protect the Christians in Iraq and they will stay in Iraq and continue their mission started 2,000 years ago.”
Serving the Diaspora
Syriac Father Muntaser Haddad comes from a different perspective. He left his hometown of Qaraqosh in 2013, before the onslaught of ISIS. He is now the pastoral administrator at St. Ephrem Syriac Catholic Church in Jacksonville, Florida.
He has kept in touch with his family, who fled Iraq as ISIS descended on the town, and he has spoken to the Christian diaspora in the U.S. and abroad as his Syriac Catholic Church assists in aid efforts.
Father Haddad said that when his local bishop asked him to come serve the diaspora in the United States in 2013, there were around 50,000 Syriac Catholic Christians in Iraq. Now there are only about 15,000, according to Father Haddad’s estimates.
When he left in September 2013, the community was “facing many problems from Islamic radicals, movements which is what ISIS came from; and these movements, they exist in Iraq.”
“As a Christian city we are surrounded by hundreds of Islamic cities there,” he explained. “We were feeling that they want to control our cities there, but they couldn’t do this because there were governments supporting us; but ISIS was a good chance for them to practice what they feel against us.”
He said that even back in 2013 the Christians felt “sooner or later” persecution would begin. He described the bombing of buses by “radical Islamic movements,” which left many killed or injured, as the community used those buses to transport thousands of students from Qaraqosh to Mosul.
“Our cities have been attacked twice by ISIS,” he said. “The first time my parents were there with my brothers and sister. They fled to Erbil to Kurdistan; and after one week, they told them, ‘Well, there is no more ISIS there so it’s secure there; so you can go back.’ They went back.”
After that, Father Haddad said, “My parents came to visit me in United States; once they arrived, ISIS attacked our city again, so they destroyed everything: They burnt all the houses there; all the churches have been burned and destroyed.”
“My uncle, he was one of the missing people” after the second attack, he said. “We don’t know where he is.”
Father Haddad said that many people had remained in the city before the second attack by ISIS because they didn’t think they would come again. “That’s why many people stayed there, and many people have been missing,” he explained, saying that after the second attack he heard stories of persecution, including forced conversion to Islam, which Christians did “to save themselves.”
In the aftermath of ISIS, Father Haddad also heard from friends and relatives in Iraq that the U.S. was “helping prepare the cities to be good to live in.” While he applauded these efforts, he thinks that more needs to be done to help Iraq’s Christians recover their identity and humanity after the persecution they faced.
“You are helping financially maybe, providing security there, but we need more than that; we have to build the humans there, because what happened with ISIS — they destroyed the humanity,” he explained. “I can tell that before ISIS we have one kind of thinking; after ISIS, it’s a different humanity there. That’s why we have to rebuild the man in the Iraqi people, and we have to prevent other countries from affecting our population in Iraq.”
Taking a Stand
Father Haddad said he spoke with a priest friend in Iraq the day after ISIS attacked Qaraqosh in the fall of 2014; his friend reminded him of where their identity is rooted.
“He told me, ‘Yes, we lost our belongings; we lost our houses there — but we have faith.’ So [to] that statement, I said, ‘Well, yes, the devil is attacking us.’ ‘But if we have faith, we don’t care about other things,’” he emphasized. “That’s why many people return.”
He said the Christians who have chosen to leave do so because “there is no honest government there; even the people who return back to our city there, there is security, but I can say it’s fake security.”
“I don’t know how to build hope there, but I think we have to provide education with the new generation,” he concluded. “We can use churches because, as Christians, we believe that if the pastor is strong, the flocks will be the same.” He said that if Iraq’s pastors receive support and have hope for the future, then “we can save others; we can keep them there.”
Chaldean Father Salar Kajo could serve as an example of one of these strong Iraqi Christian pastors that Father Haddad believes to be vital to the future. He serves the Chaldean Archdiocese of Al Qosh, which includes the Christian town of Teleskov. In this role, Father Salar made a perilous stand between two militias in October 2017 to help the Christians there continue to rebuild after ISIS.
He told the Register about how his town became caught in the middle of a fight between Peshmerga fighters from Kurdistan and Iraqi central government forces and why he responded by remaining there.
“The red line or the border between these two forces is Teleskov, where I am as parish priest,” he said. “They started fighting, and the families, you know, they were scared — they left Teleskov. And I decided to not leave because we started having families returning back, and we rebuilt many houses. We had many things there, and, seriously, I didn’t want to leave another time.”
“I decided this. And the young people, they said, ‘Okay, if you stay, we will stay.’ And we were all night waiting [to see] what will happen,” he continued. Ultimately, U.S. intervention saved the day, after Father Salar said he called the U.S. ambassador and many others.
“I said, ‘Please stop this, because they are attacking the families,’” he recounted of what he told the U.S. about the anticipated skirmish. Father Salar was very grateful that the U.S. was able to put a stop to it.
As that incident demonstrated, Iraq’s Christians still have to worry about security and also the “tensions between security groups there,” Father Salar said.
“We don’t want these militias,” he emphasized. “Every group, they have their militias — in the future if these militias or the political parties will not go in harmony, they will attack each other. It means we will have in [the] future many attacks.” In contrast, “putting them in the same army or in the same official security system, this is good also for us.”
He said those who return face many obstacles beyond simply rebuilding, including an inability to find employment.
“The problem is not now who will rebuild the house, but what do we do?” he said. “The economic life, the jobs, the work and the young people, we have to form that life from zero there.”
“Many of them worked in agriculture, and we have a crisis now in agriculture; there is no rain, and also selling the product is very difficult,” he explained. “Many of them lost their work, their jobs because of the three years [away]. They are trying in any way to have another job or to restore their jobs, but it’s difficult.”
Churches Give Hope
Regarding the future of Iraq’s Christians, Father Salar said, “I have hope, and many of the families, until now in Iraq, they have hope. We can also write the story of Christianity in Iraq, and we want help now because we are very weak.”
During an event Thursday on the importance of preserving holy sites in the Middle East, Father Salar pinpointed the source of that hope.
“We decided to start with their houses,” he said of the rebuilding efforts, “but the people insisted on starting with the holy places, the churches and the monasteries, and they said this is the only sign of hope that we have, and we will return because of this. Thank God we could in many places rebuild and reconstruct the churches, and they are now open to the prayers and to the Mass for these people.”