Stephen Rasche says the next six weeks will be critical for saving some of the world’s oldest Christian communities from extinction.
Rasche is coordinating a task force trying to return tens of thousands of Christian families to the ancient Iraqi towns from which they were driven by ISIS three years ago.
U.S. and Iraqi forces drove ISIS out of the region last fall, but the string of historic Christian towns in the northern tip of Iraq that have now been liberated stand in varying states of destruction. The towns now face a “critical need over these next 60 days at the latest — really at the end of September — to get in enough work and enough of a core group of the population back so that it can demonstrate a viability for the recovery of the town,” said Rasche, who works for the Catholic Archdiocese of Irbil and is now chief coordinator of a newly formed Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, a coalition of the major Christian denominations in the region.
Rasche and others involved in the reconstruction say time is of the essence for rescuing a community that was among the first converted to Christianity by the Apostles in the decades after the death of Jesus Christ.
“Christianity in Iraq is on the brink of extinction. They have gone from 1.5 million people to somewhere south of 200,000,” said Andrew Walther, the U.S-based vice president of communications for the Knights of Columbus, which recently announced a $2 million infusion to rebuild the town of Karemles. “With the new school year coming and these towns having now been liberated (from ISIS), people’s attitude is ‘well, we are either going to return home now or we are going to leave forever.’ ”
The effort is based on rebuilding one town at a time, providing design assistance, building supplies and other support to help residents repair their war-damaged homes enough to return from their exile in Kurdistan. And it is remarkably cheap. For many residents, a few thousand dollars will be enough to restore their home to livability and allow them to return — though ultimately government support will be needed for infrastructure like water an power systems and to guarantee long-term security for the communities.
The recipients of the aid are overwhelmingly but not exclusively Christian. The aid project is also serving a smattering of other persecuted religious minorities, including Yezidis and Shabak Muslims.
The first $2 million tranche of funding for the project came from the Hungarian government this spring. That downpayment has already returned about 1,000 Christian families to the town of Teleskov, the northern-most boundary of the August 2014 ISIS offensive that chased more than 100,000 Christians out of the Nineveh Plain.
The evangelical relief group Samaritan’s Purse its focusing its effort in the town of Qaraqosh, where it hopes to help rebuild about 600 homes. “The life of Christians who fled who are now in Irbil, who left their homes, I would say life is not great for them,” said Aaron Ashoff, the group’s regional director for Europe and the Middle East. “What is the future for Christians who would return to the historic Christian communities in Ninevah, we don’t know. But if they want to return to these communities, we are going to help them.”
But these efforts are racing against time. The Iraqi school year begins in October, and Rasche says families currently living as refugees in Kurdistan are unlikely to return to the area once the school year has begun, uprooting their children again.
And after three years away, if the families do not return this year, they may simply give up hope of ever returning to Iraq, said Joop Koopman, spokesman for Aid to the Church in Need, a worldwide Catholic organization that is another major donor to the reconstruction effort.
“If a significant number of Christians don’t return soon, it may dash the hopes of any renaissance for the Nineveh plains,” Koopman said.
Most of the Christian refugees have been living in Irbil, where the local Catholic diocese has provided millions of dollars of rental and food assistance.
The church’s charity has been a lifeline for the Christian community, but it also been a barrier to government support.
“It essentially ended up that the Christians, having been supported in some fashion by global Christians, were judged to be in a category where they didn’t need any more help from the U.N. and the State Department,” Rasche said this week in an interview from Teleskov.
“We sat in meetings where people told us if we laid off on the amount of aid that we were providing so that their standards dropped … then the U.N. would be happy to step in.”
Walther and others who have advocated on behalf of the Iraqi Christians say the Obama administration was reluctant to address their plight.
“The archdiocese of Irbil has received no direct government funding from the U.S. or U.N.,” Walther said. He blamed the Obama administration’s “mindset” that “people get aid on basis of immediate need only, and the rationale is that you don’t want to discriminate against any individual.” While that principle makes some sense, Walther said, it does not take into account the prospect that an entire community might be extinguished.
Julian Dobbs, an Anglican bishop who heads a relief group called Barnabus Aid, said he has already seen a dramatic shift in tone from the Trump administration, indicating that persecuted Christians will see much more support.
“Under the previous administration, I was told personally by the State Department … that they had absolutely no determination to assist Christian minorities in Northewestern Iraq,” Dobbs said. By contrast, the Trump administration has repeatedly referred to Iraqi Christians as victims of genocide who are entitled to special protection.
“ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide against Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims in areas it controls or has controlled,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday. “The protection of these groups — and others subject to violent extremism — is a human rights priority for the Trump administration.”
The U.S. House also passed a bill in June that would require the State Department to address the needs of Iraqi and Syrian religious minorities targeted by ISIS, and to allow federal relief dollars to flow through church-based charities. “We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper,” said the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., in an interview. “These people — a large number have been slaughtered, the women have been raped, the men beaten, their churches destroyed… and we have not helped them.”
His Democratic co-sponsor, Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, said there is a bedrock American principle of separating church and state, which makes it hard for the U.S. government to provide aid targeted to a specific faith group. “But freedom of religion is also a great American value and a great export of ours,” she said, “and they were specifically targeted because they are Christians and Yezidis.”
State Department spokesperson Pooja Jhunjhunwala said that while U.S. humanitarian aid is based “solely on need, regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation,” the department has provided more than a billion dollars in aid to Iraqis, which includes aid to members of minority communities.
In addition, “separate from U.S. humanitarian and stabilization assistance, since 2008, the Department and USAID have provided more than $100 million in assistance specifically for Iraq’s religious and ethnic minority communities,” Jhunjhunwala said. “We have also led international initiatives to highlight the plight of these minority groups.”
Walther of the Knights of Columbus said helping the Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities is not just a humanitarian mandate — “it is also important in order to ensure that ISIS’ program of genocide and religious cleansing is not successful, even after they are defeated militarily.”