New Catholic Church and University Bringing Hope, Help, and Healing to Christians in Erbil
By Keely Jahns
Published On February 24, 2022
“Christians in Iraq will not become a museum exhibit for religious tourists to come and view.” – Father Benedict Kiely
It was August 2014. Erbil and the roads out of Northern Iraq were filled with hundreds of thousands of Christians living in encampments on roadsides, in shells of buildings and churches. Many stayed in church gardens and cemeteries, with 3nowhere else to go as they fled the ISIS insurgency, often searching for loved ones who had gone missing in the chaos.
The camps were filled with those who fled their indigenous lands on the Nineveh Plain. It was and is the seat of the most ancient practicing Christians in the world, with the first congregations said to have been established there by Saint Thomas himself. A region with a direct connection to the events of the New Testament, some of the remains of the disciple were kept in a shrine in Mosul, until the insurgency in 2014.
ISIS fighters had been closing in on small villages across Northern Iraq. For weeks leading up to this, the terror group insisted that Christians in the regions of which they gained control would be guarenteed relative safety as “people of the book,” a special designation within Islam for both Christians and Jews. This would afford them a legal status called “dhimmi,” which would require them to pay a special tax called “jizya” in exchange for protection, much like paying tribute to a mob boss.
While not ideal, it seemed that native Christians might have been able to survive, even in the face of an attack on their homeland. However, as the insurgency closed in, it became clear that the terrorists had no intention of sparing Christians, or any groups they deemed as “other.” There was an active slaughterings of villages, forced conversions, rapes, and extortion. The assets of Christian families were frequently seized. Cities and villages were emptied and looted, and ancient churches were burned, their relics often destroyed.
Surviving Christians in occupied territories had their homes and businesses marked with the Arabic letter nun or “ن” (Latin equivalent “n”) a shorthand for the Arabic translation of the word “Nazarene,” (a name which was originally adopted by the first Christians in the Roman Empire) which is now pejorative for Christians in these regions, considered to be a symbol of Islamic animosity toward Christians. The marking of homes with this symbol was almost always a precursor to extermination.
In the early morning hours of August the 6th, 2014, ISIS moved into the Nineveh Plain, in a wave of violence, horror, and chaos. Christians living on the Nineveh Plain were given three choices: convert, flee, or die. Many woke in the dead of night and fled on foot with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Stavro, an active participant in activities at AFFRME’s Olive Tree Center; who fled with his family at the age of 6, recalls an early memory of his escape:
“A part of us died that day. We had to flee our city overnight, because if we stayed, we would have starved or died. We walked many miles to get away, with so many dead people, burned houses, and bodies. We asked our parents when we could return to our joys, our schools, and normal life, but we had no answer. We didn’t know how we would survive, but we believed God was with us.”
Since the Caliphate was defeated, some Christians have been slowly returning, but have found it difficult to reestablish their lives. Only around 50% of those displaced have returned to the historically Christian towns on the Nineveh Plain. It has proven difficult to rebuild many areas that have had their businesses decimated and their agricultural industries greatly disrupted by the ISIS insurgent’s blatant destruction of farmland and equipment. Centuries old groves were laid to waste, such as the olive tree farm that AFFRME has helped to reestablish for survivors in Bashiqa.
As we have investigated previously, the Iraqi government affords few rights to those returning, and to those who have stayed. They struggle to be seen and heard in their country’s political processes and are often shut out of public political office, with few of their votes counted. The government in Northern Iraq is increasingly unstable after last year’s contested election. Even more concerning yet, is the growing presence of Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
Iran now describes the entirety of the Nineveh plain a “disputed territory,” in an attempt to influence a power vacuum left after the defeat of ISIS and by decade-long civil war in neighboring Syria. Both Iraqi government forces and Kurdish authorities claim authority in Northern Iraq. Turkish forces, backed by Iran, are launching bombing campaigns into historically Christian areas of Kurdistan. And now, even nominally Christian militias are finding themselves under the control of Iranian-run militia cells.
While it is true that, at the moment, Christians are not being killed for their faith in Iraq, persecution is now, according to Archbishop Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil, a “systematic persecution,” or, in the words of another priest on the Nineveh Plain, a “silent persecution.”
Everyone is feeling the pressure from these Shiite separatist groups. Even the historically Christian town of Bartella has had its main street renamed for “martyrs,” of the Islamic Shiite militia in an attempt to change the town’s Christian heritage. A massive billboard was placed in town that showed these “martyrs” alongside a picture of Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, who created Iran’s oppressive Islamic theocracy. Because of this threatening atmosphere, fewer than 1/3rd of 3,800 Christian families have returned to Bartella.
Archbishop Warda described life for Christians as “second or third class citizens,” with no rights under the Iraqi constitution. He also warned that, in times of political instability in Iraq, like the present chaos following the contested elections, it is always the religious minorities, particularly Christians and Yazidis, who suffer.
Yet, Christians in Erbil cling to hope for a brighter future. Just two years ago, a new college, Catholic University, was constructed in the suburb of Ankawa. This will provide education and employment opportunities for the people of Erbil, a higher visibility for Christians in the area, and a firm statement that they are there to stay. A Catholic church is also under construction in the Christian quarter of Erbil. Despite not yet having pews or a fixed altar, the first Masses were to be celebrated there at Christmas.
In the words of Father Benedict Kiely:
“[Despite] the struggles and dangers, there are signs of hope for the future, and positive developments, which [means] that Christians in Iraq will not become a museum exhibit for religious tourists to come and view. Even though the number of Christians is greatly diminished, there is now a core group, including many young people, who want to stay and make a future in their native land.”
America FRRME supports educational and occupational opportunities across Iraq, specifically for those who remain in and are returning to the Nineveh Plain, through our Nineveh SEED program. We also support healthcare and educational opportunities for Iraqis of all walks of life through St. George’s Anglican Church and Clinic in Baghdad.
We stand in solidarity with our Christian brothers and sisters across the Middle East and are an organization that is committed to helping Christians and other minority groups across denominational lines. We are committed to helping Iraqi Christians and Yazidis return to their homeland and rebuild their lives, while providing them with the resources for hope, help and healing.
Sadly, only around 50% of the Christians displaced by the ISIS insurgency in 2014 have returned. For the 50% that remain scattered in places like Jordan, we also are committed to providing hope, help, and healing. Our programs in Jordan, particularly at the Olive Tree Center in Madaba, are aimed at lifting refugees from poverty and providing them with opportunities to learn trades and find inner healing so that they can have bright futures wherever they choose to go in the world. While the refugees at the Olive Tree Center are by law not allowed to work, they are still being taught meaningful and pertinent skills for future careers in everything from carpentry to cosmetology.
Will you continue supporting our brothers and sisters in Iraq and the Middle East? Every donation goes toward rebuilding lives and reigniting hope in those who have lost everything.
Please pray for the people of Iraq, particularly those who have returned to build their lives in the face of continuing hostilities against the Body of Christ. Please pray for the programs that America FRRME and our partners are initiating in the region, that they will provide refugees with opportunities to thrive, as well as for the ongoing safety of our partners across the region. Finally, please pray for the people being served at the Olive Tree Center, that they will find hope, help and healing within its walls.