Iraq remains a dangerous and difficult place for everyone there but especially for its religious and ethnic minorities. Assassinations, kidnappings for ransom, expulsions from villages and towns of whole communities and illegal occupation of properties remain common throughout the country.
The Ecumenical delegation of bishops, which went to Iraq recently, as guests of the Chaldean Catholic Church, heard horrendous stories of people being frog-marched out of their houses, villages and towns, their property confiscated by ‘Islamic State’ or simply taken over by erstwhile neighbours. Women and children are missing and many of the younger men were simply murdered.
The refugees are at pains to point out that the story of their woes precedes, by many years, the evil advent of Isis. Since 2003, Islamic extremists have been blowing up churches, kidnapping clerics, looting shops and attacking Christian, Yazidi and Shabak homes more or less with impunity.
It would be very easy simply to be overwhelmed by these tales, as well as by the present state of refugees in Iraq, Kurdistan, Turkey, Jordan and further afield. They are living ‘on the very edge’ of survival in tents, converted containers, old schools and unfinished buildings. Apart from material needs, there are huge social needs such as unemployment, a lack of educational facilities, overcrowding in the camps and shortages of electricity and water, leading to public health issues.
Such sad experiences and such difficult conditions cannot, however, be the last word about these people. I have visited many refugees, in different parts of the world, and I can honestly say that I have rarely found such a high morale anywhere else. In many cases, this is explicitly linked to people’s faith. Again and again, we heard that their faith was all they had left but that it was vital as they sought to resurface from the vicissitudes that have overtaken them with ‘heads bloodied but unbowed’. For them the question is not why evil exists but how they have been saved from it.
It is true that some wish to leave Iraq immediately because they feel that they were betrayed by their neighbours and colleagues who have compromised with Isis or capitulated completely. They cannot see themselves returning to their homelands no matter what. The international community should certainly find a formula for helping them resettle in other countries. The majority, however, wish to return to their homes, villages and towns but under international protection. It certainly seems possible to put together a force that is not Western led, rather like the AU force in Somalia, but which has the support of the international community. Such a force would give confidence to the refugees and would provide an umbrella for, say, five years, while relationships are rebuilt.
Some of the refugees wish to stay on in the Kurdistan Regional Government areas because of the remarkable hospitality shown to them by the Kurdish people in their hour of the gravest peril. Again and again, we were told by Kurdish leadership and by ordinary people that the KRG was not ‘Islamic’ and everyone was free to practise their own faith. In many places, certainly, the Christian presence is public and high profile. Yazidi temples also remain open and accessible. A Kurdistan that was genuinely characterised by freedom of belief would be a beacon of light in the darkness now drawing over not only Iraq but the whole region. If the refugees are to stay, room will have to be found for their culture, languages and religions in the public life of the KRG. Understandably, the people in KRG wish to emphasise the importance of the Kurdish language, but the Christians speak Arabic as a lingua franca and their liturgical language remains Aramaic (the language of Jesus and of the early Church).
The churches (Chaldean, Syrian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox and Assyrian) seem to have worked together very well. The camps, run by the churches, are well organised and clean. There are clear rules about what is socially unacceptable and the pastors of the different churches seem to have important roles in organising and directing the life of the camps. Every camp has facilities for worship, education and medical care, showing clearly Christianity’s abiding concern for these areas of human life and of society.
Not that the camps are limited to Christians; the churches have also helped Yazidis, Shabak and Kakoyeiah people on an equal basis. As a Yazidi leader, in one of the camps, said to me, ‘our religion hasn’t got the structures to help us in this situation. The churches have and we are grateful for all their help.’
Much, of course, needs to be done. The Indian sisters from Kerala are doing a magnificent job in providing primary health care for those in and around Erbil. The Iraqi orders are providing some education for the children but many young boys seem to be out of school. There have been no outbreaks of epidemics in the camps but constant vigilance is needed. Although some counselling is provided by the parish priests, there seems to be an urgent need for trauma counselling. Whilst some of the refugees are in employment, many appear to have time on their hands. Schemes for micro-enterprise which enabled people to have small businesses like a hairdresser’s or a small grocery would be very useful. They would require careful setting up with group responsibility for paying back loans but, in these contexts, I can see them working.
The bishops, as community leaders, would like to move towards the provision of permanent, low-cost housing for at least some of the refugees. Such building projects would provide employment for a number of people, although some would also need training in trades like plumbing, electrical work etc. This will require training centres to be established so people can be trained in these trades.
One burning question is whether Christians should form militias to resist Isis and other forces of extremism. Some clearly have taken this option in both Iraq and Syria. The view of the leadership seems to be that they should instead join the army or the Kurdish Pesmerga, who have been effective against Isis, even if limited by their lack of heavy armament and logistical support. There appears to be strong moral support for those desiring to protect the weak, the elderly and the children, as well as the historic properties of their community. In doing this, they should be assisted by the international community.
On the wider question of Iraq’s future, community leaders were unanimous that the minorities should be included and should play an active part in discussions about the future polity of the country. At the same time, those helping these communities from the West must respect their identity and integrity as indigenous Iraqi communities, some of which predate the arrival of Islam. Even unintentional westernisation should be guarded against as it will alienate these communities from their context.
On every side, we heard leaders and people urging us ‘to tell the story’. Whilst some European countries have been generous in welcoming community leaders to tell their stories, Britain was criticised again and again, for refusing visas even to established church leaders on the grounds that as Christians they would not wish to return. This is clearly false. Most leaders we met care deeply for their communities in Iraq and would only think about leaving, if at all, in the most extreme circumstances. Britain has welcomed hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people who are having difficulty in understanding the Christian basis of its values. Why are we jibbing at the very people who are likely to find such values most congenial?
I am most grateful to the charity Aid to the Church in Need and to Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Catholic Church for giving me an opportunity to see such a living testimony of faith and hope in the most testing of circumstances. A Yazidi refugee said to me, ‘evil will not prevail, the good will’. I pray that may be so.
Michael Nazir-Ali was Bishop of Rochester from 1994 until 2009.