Just weeks after returning to the homes they had fled when ISIS overran their towns in 2014, Christians in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains once again had to flee for their lives in late October.
This time, they were fleeing a turf war between the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish forces that had helped to liberate the region from ISIS.
In the summer and early fall, Christian families had been returning to the towns of the Nineveh Plains, an area north and east of Mosul. Attempting to rebuild their lives, they had organized crews to clean up debris and worked to reopen schools.
Then, in a September referendum, voters in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region overwhelmingly voted in support of independence from Iraq. But instead of strengthening the Kurdish negotiating position with the Iraqi government, the independence vote prompted the government to retake disputed areas from the Kurds by force—including the Nineveh Plains.
As the military confrontation escalated and mortars flew, the largely Christian civilian population suffered. World Watch Monitor reported Oct. 25 that as thousands were fleeing back to the refugee camps, two boys, ages 12 and 14, were wounded in the violence.
“It’s going to be like the wild, wild west unless there is some major intervention from the U.S. or the West,” said Todd Chasteen, vice president for public policy at Samaritan’s Purse. “If there is no outside support, it seems unlikely that there is going to be enough security and protection to give people confidence to move back to their homes.”
The issue goes beyond who has governmental control of the region, said Frank Wolf, distinguished senior fellow at the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative.
“They are concerned about losing their property,” Wolf told Decision. “There is an effort now by some Shia [Muslims], funded through Iran, to buy up Christian properties and have non-Christians live in them in order to change the population of the Nineveh Plains. There is a saying in the Middle East: ‘First the Saturday people, then the Sunday people.’”
The saying, Wolf explained, refers to the way Muslim-majority countries such as Iraq, Egypt and Yemen forced nearly all Jewish people out of their countries, and the fear is that now there is an attempt to do the same to Christians. In 2003, Wolf said, some 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq; today, the number is about 250,000.
After spending more than three years as refugees, Christian families from the Nineveh Plains now face a difficult choice: return to their ancestral homes—with no certainty that they will be safe—or give up and seek permanent refuge in other nations. Most want to stay, Wolf said, as long as they can feel sure that there will be sufficient security, jobs and education.
“We are reaching almost a tipping point,” Wolf said, adding that the next three to six months will be critical: If Christian families decide not to return home, Iraq’s Christian population will dwindle even further.
The United States appears poised to act. At the annual summit of a group called In Defense of Christians on Oct. 25, Vice President Mike Pence announced a major change in how the State Department will provide aid to Christians and other religious minorities in the region. Pence said that effective immediately, the U.S. would “stop funding ineffective relief efforts at the United Nations, and from this day forward, America will provide support directly to persecuted communities through USAID.”
“We will no longer rely on the United Nations alone to assist persecuted Christians and minorities in the wake of genocide and the atrocities of terrorist groups,” Pence said.
“The United States will work hand in hand, from this day forward, with faith-based groups and private organizations to help those who are persecuted for their faith. This is the moment; now is the time. And America will support these people in their hour of need.”