Following the liberation of Raqqa, the Economist headlined an article “To the victors, the toils”. While we can all rejoice that the blood-soaked reign of ISIS terror has ended, the challenges facing Christians returning to their homes are certainly daunting.
For one thing, there are far fewer of them. The Christian population of 1.4 million that lived in Iraq in 2003 has dwindled to fewer than 250,000. This represents a catastrophic decline for a Church that traces its faith back to the Apostle Thomas and which continues to pray in Aramaic, the language of Our Lord.
That the cradle of Christianity risks being eradicated should be of compelling concern to Christians of all denominations. The implications go far beyond the Christian world. They are truly geopolitical in nature. Iraq was one of the region’s only four remaining countries with robust Christian communities. They were advocates of modern education, medicine and citizens’ rights, having historically served as a moderating influence and bridge to the West. Their extinction – following that of other minorities, such as Yazidis and Jews, over the past 70 years – would signal the end of pluralism in the Arab world.
Their survival comes down to two issues: funds and basic security. Since 2014, the US has provided more than $1.4 billion in humanitarian aid for Iraq. But very little of it has reached the beleaguered Christian and Yazidi communities. Furthermore, there is no protection for religious minorities in the overwhelmingly Muslim camps, which the minorities are terrified of entering. UN programmes also exclude the local churches, which try to minister to these populations with piecemeal donations from private sources.
Hence the enormous significance of US Vice President Mike Pence’s recent declaration that President Trump has ordered the State Department to stop funding “ineffective” UN relief efforts. From now on US Aid for International Development (USAID) will provide humanitarian assistance directly to “help those who are persecuted for their faith”.
Private organisations have already stepped up through the heroic Nineveh Plains Reconstruction Project, funded by the charity Aid to the Church in Need and the Knights of Columbus. Together with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse, they are aiming to generate $250 million to rebuild the roughly 13,000 private homes that were burned down or otherwise destroyed. Nevertheless, the commitment of the present US administration will be transformational for this suffering community of Christians.
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