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The head of Iraq’s Chaldean Church can be forgiven for a little ouchiness. “Those who have the right to talk about the future of Nineveh Plain are mainly the indigenous people of the region,” he said following the early July liberation of Mosul.
Patriarch Louis Raphaël Sako for three years watched nearly his entire flock be made churchless and homeless by Islamic State, or ISIS. Many of them also were kidnapped or killed. World leaders declared it genocide but did little else to stop the militants until launching a military offensive in late 2016. In February I attended a Chaldean service where he officiated, probably a thousand worshippers crowded into a hall big enough to hold a few hundred in Iraq’s safe Kurdish region, all displaced Christians huddled against the world.
As Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi arrived July 9 in Mosul to declare the city’s liberation, Sako and many Iraqis felt more than elation. For them, it’s like stepping from the film version of their three-year nightmare into the living, breathing reality of it. Destruction they’ve only heard about, or seen in bootlegged cell phone videos, they now must walk through, wondering how to begin again.
Iraqi flags now fly above buildings once topped by black ISIS flags, and some Mosul residents are returning.
More than 1 million people—half the city—have been displaced from Mosul, and an estimated 86,000 homes have been destroyed. ISIS destroyed more than 40 churches and reduced to rubble nearly all Mosul’s landmarks, from the tomb of the prophet Jonah to the Grand Mosque, a site pictured on Iraq’s 10,000-dinar banknote.
Study drone footage of Mosul and think Philadelphia, comparable in population and historic and geographic importance: Independence Hall a heap of wreckage, Christ Church bombed beyond recognition, the graves of Benjamin Franklin and other notables lost, the Liberty Bell looted, and all bridges across the Delaware ripped from their banks. Tree-lined neighborhoods lie in ruin, accessible only by armored tank.
As the Iraqi army freed up the city, beleaguered residents emerged from holes in the ground, looking like Auschwitz victims. Women held captive by ISIS militants had to be put on IVs for dehydration and malnutrition.
Yet Iraqi flags now fly above buildings once topped by black ISIS flags, and some Mosul residents are returning. The Iraqi government has pledged $100 billion to help returnees, while the United States has announced another $150 million. Overall the United States has made $1.3 billion in humanitarian aid available, but much of it is going through the UN and has not reached those targeted by ISIS. A shortage of Trump appointees at the State Department, I’m told, means Obama holdovers are calling shots and do not see Iraq’s Christians as vulnerable or as a priority to securing the region.
Millions in money won’t matter if Iraq and its allies don’t realign methods, if they don’t listen to local stalwarts like Bishop Sako. Mosul and its Nineveh province ran well early on in the U.S. occupation under Gen. David Petraeus because Petraeus ran a democratic council of city elders, welcoming even former Baath Party members who signed a pledge of good faith. Mosul’s stability unraveled as Baghdad insisted on centralized, not federalist, governance and as Washington played along, favoring Shiite outsiders.
Now the neighborhood has grown tougher. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter warns against counting on Russia, insisting Moscow has been ineffective in the fight against ISIS. Former Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari warns against cooperation with Iran, which wants to carve a corridor from Tehran to Damascus through Mosul and Nineveh. Iranian recruits, he said, “are breathing down our neck.”
As Dawlat Abouna, a church layman and former editor at the Baghdad Monitor, told me, “Neither the Kurds nor Iran nor any other side can serve the Iraqi Christians; the only way to serve them is a united Iraq far from sectarianism.”
All leads back to letting locals lead. But it will take more fortitude than ever before. Iraqi Christians, Bishop Sako said, must “leave useless quarrels” and recognize with Muslims their need to fight corruption and terrorism together with their long history surviving as neighbors, a history that now includes surviving ISIS.