ASIA/IRAQ – Eight years after the night of the great flight before the jihadist offensive, uncertain data on the “return” of Christians to the plain of Nineveh
Qaraqosh (Agenzia Fides) – Exactly eight years have passed since the events which, on the night of August 6-7, 2014, forced tens of thousands of Christians to leave the towns and villages of the plain of Nineveh, facing the offensive of the jihadist militiamen of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (Daesh), and after the withdrawal of the peshmerga militias stationed in the area (see Fides 8/8/2014). That dramatic night, as Sr. Luigina Sako told Fides (see Fides 7/8/2020), the jihadists of the Caliphate occupied the villages of the Plain inhabited by Christians, ordering the population through loudspeakers to abandon their homes. Most fled, taking only the clothes they were wearing with them, finding first refuge in the suburbs of Erbil and other towns in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Eight years later, the data and reports on the “return” of Iraqi Christians to their homes and villages from their historical roots still appear controversial, and cannot be deciphered with simplistic keys.
In recent weeks, several local media have reported signs of a silent but steady exodus of Christian families from the towns and villages of the Nineveh Plain. At least thirty Syrian Catholic families who had returned to Qaraqosh – a town in the plain where a festive crowd had also welcomed Pope Francis (see photo), during his apostolic visit to Iraqi soil in March 2021 – decided to pack their bags again and to emigrate abroad, mainly to seek better employment opportunities elsewhere. On July 26, the deputy governor of the province of Nineveh, Sirwan Ruzbiani, met with representatives of the local Syriac Catholic archieparchy of Mosul. After the meeting, he expressed in a note his bitterness “at hearing the news that Christians continue to emigrate, despite our efforts to induce them to stay at home”. Often, access to the incentives provided on paper by the authorities to encourage the return of displaced persons remains de facto excluded. Instability and insecurity, the persistence of sectarian pressures and tensions and the presence of illegal militias weigh heavily. There is no lack of concrete signs of a vital return to normality, such as the summer camps for boys and girls in which 600 young people from the Bartella region have participated in recent weeks, organized under the patronage of the local Syrian Orthodox archdiocese. . But Christians still make up 7% of the more than 600,000 displaced people still living in the Kurdistan region. According to data provided by local authorities, only 40% of Christians who fled Mosul and the Nineveh Plain during Daesh’s rule have returned to their areas of residence in recent years. No more than 100 Christian families live in central Mosul today. As Agenzia Fides reports (see Fides 22/12/2020), at the end of 2020 there were already 55,000 Iraqi Christian refugees in Kurdistan who had been expatriated in previous years, mostly moving to countries in North America, Australia and Europe, as well as to other countries in the Middle East. Even then, this multitude of expatriate Christians abroad represented about 40% of the approximately 138,000 baptized Christians who had found refuge in Kurdistan after fleeing Mosul and the towns and villages of the plain of Nineveh when the militias arrived. jihadists.
Similar exodus flows of the Christian population are also recorded in other regions of Iraq. A recent report by the Rudaw Media Network (a publishing group based in Kurdistan) collected testimonies from priests and lay people confirming a sharp and gradual decline in the local baptized population. According to the testimonies collected, approximately 300 Christian families live today in the Basra region, whereas 50 years ago, the same region had 5,000 Christian families.
The data provided by the surveys carried out on the ground show how complicated and, in some respects, unproductive it is to try to counter the exodus of Iraqi Christians to other countries with instruments, mobilizations and strategies of an exclusively political nature. or economic, including the many “fundraising” operations carried out on behalf of Christian communities in the Middle East by Western groups and acronyms. As Palestinian Archbishop Michel Sabbah, Patriarch Emeritus of Jerusalem of the Latins, also underlined, the questions and also the uncertainties hanging over the future of Christians in the Middle East “are not primarily a question of numbers, though the number is large, but a matter of faith”. (GV) (Agenzia Fides 6/8/2022)