Will Christmas Come to Iraq?

Makeshift nativity scene in Assyrian refugee camp in Ankawa, Iraq.

Makeshift nativity scene in Assyrian refugee camp in Ankawa, Iraq.

By Geoffrey P. Johnston

The holiday season is in full swing, with many Canadians enjoying the carefree pleasures of Christmas office parties and concerts. Others are looking forward to attending Christmas Eve church services, or getting together with family and friends over a turkey dinner.

But halfway around the world, Christmas will be anything but carefree for Iraq’s persecuted Christian communities.

Forced to flee their homes to escape the onslaught of well-armed jihadists, displaced Christians live in a perpetual “crisis mode,” according to Carl Hétu, national director of the Canadian branch of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), a papal agency that provides humanitarian assistance and pastoral care.

Last summer, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, launched a military offensive, capturing large swaths of Iraq, using mass murder, public beheadings and the enslavement of women and girls to subjugate captured territories. Large parts of northern Iraq were cleansed of Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities.

“In August, it was total chaos,” Hétu said when contacted in New York City, where he was attending meetings at CNEWA’s international headquarters. Terrified Christians had no time to pack or gather the necessities of life, fleeing with only the clothes on their backs.

Last month, Hétu told the House of Commons foreign affairs committee that approximately 120,000 Christians have fled to the semi-autonomous Iraqi province of Kurdistan. The Kurds have welcomed the desperate Christians with open arms, despite struggling to defend Kurdistan against the jihadist threat.

The current living conditions for the displaced Christian population in Kurdistan are uncomfortable but not life-threatening, said Mark Huckstep, who visited northern Iraq in November. He’s a representative of the United Kingdom-based Barnabas Fund, a Christian non-governmental organization (NGO) that provides humanitarian assistance to Christians in need.

However, the internally displaced persons (IDPs) that Huckstep saw were “crammed” into churches, tents and portable cabins. And in a telephone interview from the NGO’s London office, he said that the Christian IDPs are “food-dependent on other people to survive.”

Relief efforts

Various Christian denominations in Iraq have come together to care for the displaced Christian population. “Every section of the church is taking care of different things,” Hétu said of the co-ordinated relief efforts. Huckstep agrees with that assessment. “One of the most heartening things about what I saw in Iraq was that the churches are working together,” he said.

For the last three months, CNEWA has been raising funds for relief efforts. The papal agency works with partners on the ground, including the Dominican Sisters, who have tremendous experience in delivering humanitarian aid and services.

“It’s much better than it was in August,” Hétu said of the current humanitarian situation in northern Iraq. However, IDPs with chronic medical conditions are in need of medicine and medical care. That’s why the Dominican Sisters have organized medical stations, partly staffed by displaced Christian physicians, to care for the sick.

Similarly, the Barnabas Fund, working with partner organizations, is supplying food, blankets, warm clothes and other necessities of life to the IDPs in Kurdistan. And the NGO has purchased a portable army camp, once used by British forces in Afghanistan, and it will shelter up to 800 displaced Christians.

Disappearing Christians

Iraq is home to the ancient Assyrian ethnic group that dates back thousands of years. And the vast majority of Iraqi Christians are of Assyrian ethnicity.

“The Assyrian Christians are members of various denominations such as the Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean (Roman Catholic), Syriac (Catholic and Orthodox), Presbyterian, and Evangelical,” Assyrian-American activist and author Rosie Malek-Yonan explained, via email. “It is important to note that some Assyrians choose to identify themselves solely by their ethnic name and others by their Christian denomination.”

For instance, many ethnic Assyrians prefer to identify themselves by their religious denomination, Chaldean Catholic. According to CNEWA, approximately 66% of Assyrian Christians belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church.

“Since the onset of the 2003 Iraq War, the Assyrian identity, coupled with an indestructible Christian faith, made them targets of hatred and destruction,” Malek-Yonan said.

According to Hétu, there were approximately one million Christians in Iraq in 2003. Since that time, Christian communities have been targeted by various Islamic extremists and criminal gangs. Many Christians have been killed, and many more have fled to neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. “We calculated that there are about 200,000 Christians left in Iraq,” he said.

Were it not for the generosity and tolerance of the Kurds, the majority of whom are Muslims, Iraq’s ancient communities might not have survived the recent rise of the genocidal Islamic State.

“The Kurdish government respects other religions, and the Christians are not being discriminated against,” Huckstep said. “Very different from what happens down in Mosul where ISIS is reigning.”

Despite facing great financial difficulties, Iraqi Kurdistan is doing what it can to assist Christian IDPs. For example, “they donated land for the Christian refugees to live on,” Huckstep said.

Danger at Christmas

Even in relatively secure Baghdad, Christians are feeling uneasy. “They already have a plan of escape” in the event that the Islamic State overruns the city, Hétu said.

Despite being afraid, Hétu believes that Iraqi Christians will celebrate Christmas. And others share that opinion.

“Despite the ongoing attacks, the Assyrians of Iraq have openly celebrated Christmas and attended mass and I believe they will continue to do so because their Christian faith is stronger than the fear Islamic groups attempt to instil in them,” Malek-Yonan declared. “This tenacity and defiance is the reason Assyrians have survived for thousands of years without a country.”

Similarly, Huckstep said that all the Christian denominations will celebrate Christmas in northern Iraq, “but with very little resources. I don’t think there will be feasting, or any presents.”

Writer and lecturer K.A. Ellis isn’t surprised that Iraq’s persecuted Christian communities will be celebrating Christmas. She believes that persecuted Iraqis identify with the trials and tribulations of Jesus Christ, while embracing the Christian theme of redemption, which offers hope in a time of despair. Ellis is currently enrolled in the DPhil program at Oxford Graduate School, where she is adjunct faculty, teaching professional ethics.

“It is difficult for those who have not suffered this way to understand, even more confounding for those who cause the suffering as it is a contrary reaction than the one they desire or expect,” Ellis said, via email, of the Christians’ resilience.

“Historically, the Christian church has been assumed to grow under persecution,” she said. “However, too much persecution, as is the case in Iraq, can lead to entire populations being erased from a region.”

Despite having lost loved ones, their homes and livelihoods, Hétu believes that Iraq’s battered Christians still hold out hope for a better future. “The hope is because they know that they are not alone,” he said. “They know that a lot of aid is coming their way.”

© 2014 Assyrian International News Agency.