Apart from praying and lamenting, is there anything else that concerned outsiders, such as the Western churches, should be doing to help Christians and other religious minorities in northern Iraq? That is a real question, not least because Iraqi Christian leaders are in a quandary themselves.
Until a few weeks ago, Mosul and its environs remained a bastion, however depleted, of ancient Christian communities whose collective memory goes back to the faith’s earliest years. To understand the varieties of Iraqi Christian, you have to study theology.
Some have roots in Nestorianism, which stressed the difference between the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ. Some have their origins in the Miaphysite doctrine, holding that Christ had only one, divine nature. Within both categories, some have reconciled with the church of Rome, others haven’t.
Some (like most mainstream Christian churches) hew to the teaching laid down in 451 that Christ had both a divine nature and a human one but was a single person. All this helps to explain why a single Iraqi town can have several Christian bishops, each with his own sonorous titles. Chaldean Catholics (Christians with Nestorian roots who have been reconciled with Rome for 500 years) are the biggest group.
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Exact figures about Iraqi Christianity are hard to come by. It is often asserted that about 400,000 to 500,000 Christians live in the country, down from a total before the 2003 war of perhaps 1.5m. Other observers think as few as 200,000 may be left. The majority of the remaining Christians live in the far north of the country.
Last month, when the extremist Sunni fighters of ISIS over-ran Mosul, thousands of Christians joined other townspeople in fleeing; many Christians headed for an immediately adjacent area, known as Nineveh Plains.
That district had long been a stronghold of Christians as well as lesser known religious groups such as Yazidis and Mandeans. If Nineveh Plains seemed marginally safer, that was only because Christians and others were being protected by the Kurds, who have responded to the Sunni advance by expanding the area under their control. Since then, ISIS and the Kurds have been battling over the Plains; some Christians have moved even deeper into Kurdish-controlled territory.
All this highlights the dilemmas facing the Iraqi Christians. Should they try to secure their future by massing in a “safe area” and seeking to maximise the autonomy of that area? In the last few years, Iraqi-born Christians in America have promoted this idea, while some clergy inside Iraq were more doubtful, arguing that plenty of Christians were still scattered across the country.
And if there is to be a safe area, should it be Nineveh Plains, or somewhere under the formal control of the Kurdish regional government, such as Ainkawa, a suburb of the Kurdish capital Erbil? A meeting of bishops in Erbil at the end of last month seemed to come round to the idea of a haven, possibly in that very city.
Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako, leader of the Chaldean Catholics, acknowledged the dilemma in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic charity: “Possibly the future [for Christians] is Kurdistan.”
Asked if Iraq had any future as a federal state, he responded: “No…maybe a symbolic unity.” If Iraq breaks up, he was implying, the Christians’ natural home would be with the Kurds, rather than the Arab Sunnis or Shias. But as he added, there are also some Christians left in Baghdad and Basra further south. Kurdish friendship wouldn’t help them.
John Pontifex, a spokesman for the charity, said the idea of a safe area was gaining fresh traction because recent events had been so disastrous. “The story of the Iraqi Christians has been one of catastrophe piled upon catastrophe, and the prospects look very bleak—so in this context, the safe haven seems like one of the few remnants of hope.”
The Nineveh Plains idea is still being mooted. In January, Iraqi-born Christians in America were pleased when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki proposed making the Plains into a full-blown province. This seemed like an answer to their prayers for a secure space for Christians and other minorities, to which the Iraqi Christian diaspora could return in safety. Moreover, the area is often described as “floating on a lake of oil”. The Kurds, though, didn’t like this proposal at all. Now, as relations deteriorate fast between Kurdistan’s regional leaders and the Baghdad government, Christians may have hard choices.
Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce, told me he thought the Nineveh Plains option should be kept alive. Christians were grateful for recent Kurdish help, but the relationship between Kurds (mostly Sunni Muslims) and Christians had not always been benign, noted Mr Manna, a leader of the large and entrepreneurial Iraqi Christian community in the Detroit area. Many people were now speaking of Iraq’s likely break-up into three parts, but as Mr Manna put it: “why not into four—with a fourth part for the Christians and other small minorities?”
Still, as others recall, geography alone would suggest that Christians don’t have much hope if their relationship with the Kurds is adversarial.
In any case, before anything can happen, the American administration has to acknowledge that the survival of Christian and other religious minorities in Iraq is a real problem. That’s what Mr Manna and some felllow Iraqi-American Christians will say in Washington, DC, this week as they lobby legislators and the State Department.