Christians, Shias face uncertain future in face of Iraqi violence

Archbishop Jean Sleiman of Baghdad. Credit: Aid to the Church in Need.

In the midst of advances by Sunni insurgents, Iraq’s remaining Christian community  and the country’s majority- Shia population face threats to their future, and continued violence.

In response to the developing situation, the United States is deploying 275 troops to protect its embassy in Baghdad and its citizens in the country, and is also removing a portion of its diplomatic presence.

Members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a militant group that operates in Iraq and Syria with the aim of establishing a caliphate in northern Syria and Iraq, overtook the country’s second-largest city, Mosul, and the city of Tikrit, 95 miles north of Baghdad, on June 10.

The group had seized portions of Ramadi and Falluja earlier; Tal Afar was seized by ISIS June 16; and the group briefly held parts of Baquba, 37 miles outside of Baghdad, the following day.

ISIS currently controls much of the Sunni areas of northern and western Iraq, as well as cities along the Euphrates river in northwest Syria.

The organization, which had been called Al-Qaeda in Iraq, seeks to establish a Sunni state within the majority Shia region. In February 2014, Al-Qaeda cut ties with ISIS over disagreements regarding ideology.

According to National Public Radio, ISIS is “boasting of mass executions of Shiite members” of Iraqi security focus, and while the organization promises safety for civilians in areas they control, they must follow sharia and repent of previous cooperation with the Iraqi government, or face death or punitive amputation.

Shiite mosques have been the target of attacks and gunfire in Mosul and other ISIS-controlled regions; when the group took over Ar Raqqah in Syria last year, they imposed the jiyza tax on the city's Christian inhabitants.

Given the organization’s advance upon the capital, a “substantial number” of the personnel working at the American embassy will be moved to another location,  according to reports by the New York Times. The U.S. State department has not disclosed the number of staff members who will be relocated, but has said that the embassy is not scheduled to close.

The embassy, which boasts a staff of 5,500, is the largest United States embassy in the world, and was meant to act as a significant diplomatic presence in Iraq after American forces left Iraq in 2011.

Politicians and religious freedom experts are concerned that ISIS will pose a serious threat not only to Shias, but also to the country’s remaining Christians.

During the Iraq War, from 2003 to 2011, the country’s “Christian community has suffered intense religious persecution on top of the effects of the conflict and, as a result, it’s shrunk by well over 50 percent,” said religious freedom expert Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute in a June 10 article in National Review Online.

Many of the Christians who remained in the country relocated to Mosul, Shea explained, saying that the fall of Mosul to ISIS will have serious “implications for Iraq’s Christian community.”

In recent years, tens of thousands of Christians have moved from Mosul, Baghdad, and other Iraqi cities, to the relative security of Iraqi Kurdistan and its largest city, Arbil.

In a June 12 statement, Congressman Frank Wolf (R- Va.) worried that the violence in Iraq would affect innocents across the country, “not the least of which are vulnerable religious minorities which for centuries have inhabited these lands.”

Archbishop Emil Nona of the Chaldean Archeparchy of Mosul said June 11 to Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity, that he worried that "now there is probably no one left” in Mosul from the city’s Christian community.

“We have never seen anything like this, a large city such as Mosul attacked and in chaos.”

Despite these threats, Archbishop Jean Sleiman of Baghdad told Aid to the Church in Need June 16 that Iraqi leaders should work together – and not rely on international intervention – to resolve the crisis.

 “In responding to this crisis, the international community should think of the common good, not their own interests,” Archbishop Sleiman said. “They should think of peace.”

While ISIS “needs to be stopped,” he continued, “it needs the Iraqi leaders to work together to stop it. That is more important than getting the international community involved.”

“I hope Iraqi leaders will find a consensus about how to tackle this situation or there will be a tragic outcome. I don’t know what will happen next.”

“We should all pray for peace and solidarity and for a solution to the crisis,” he urged.


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