Since the Islamic State’s invasion over large parts of Iraqi territory in 2014, ethnic and religious minorities were forced to leave their homes as a result of the military operations and a majority of them have not been able to return since then. The recent historic visit of Pope Francis to the country in early March 2021 was a moment of hope for Iraq’s Christians, a minority that has been particularly affected by the rise of ISIS.
Killings and Displacements
For some thousands of years, Iraq had been the home to many different religious and ethnic minorities such as the Chaldeans-Assyrians-Syriacs, the Yezidis, the Shabak Shi’a, the Sabeans Mandaeans, and the Turkmen Shi’a. According to estimates, 99% of the Iraqi population belongs to the Muslim faith, of whom 60-65 % are Shi’a and 32-37 % are Sunni. The remaining one percent of the population is composed of various other religious minorities. Before the rise of ISIS, there were an estimated 350,000 Christians, 500,000 Yezidis, 200,000 Kaka’i, and less than 5000 Sabean-Mandeans. When it comes to ethnicity, 75-80 % of the population is of Arab ethnicity, 15-20 % Kurd, and the remaining ethnic minorities include Turkmen, Shabak, Chaldeans-Assyrians-Syriacs, Armenians, black Iraqis, and Roma. They used to live in provinces of northern, southern, and central Iraq. Today, however, most of them were left with no other option than to flee to the Kurdistan region in the northern part of Iraq as they were persecuted first by the terrorist group Al Qaeda, and later ISIS.
At the onset of conflict with ISIS in 2014, between June 2014 and December 2017, ISIS invaded large parts of the northern territory of Iraq and carried out ethnic cleansing on an unprecedented scale. Iraq’s minorities were targeted and ISIS operated with impunity, carrying out large-scale attacks on villages in the Nineveh Plains and other regions. It kidnapped and took minority groups hostage, as well as attacked minority-owned businesses. They have claimed the lives of thousands of people and destroyed places of worship and temples, some of them representing some rare cultural heritage sites.
According to UNOCHA, approximately six million people had been displaced at the peak of the conflict. Those who were unable to flee remained trapped, under threat of death if they would not convert to Islam. Furthermore, the establishment of the “Islamic Caliphate” in the regions and the issue of many religious rulings are greatly violating human and ethnic rights of these minorities. Such measures. among others contributed to the marginalization and exclusion of these minorities by forced displacement and detention of women and children.
This conflict has undeniably put their cultural identity under a serious threat. For example, Mosul, a city characterized by its variety of cultures (and a population of 2.5 million people), began losing its cultural diversity when ISIS took control of the city. During the battle of Mosul in 2016/17 between the Iraqi government forces and the ISIS, over 830,000 people were displaced and according to the UN, ISIS executed hundreds of Iraqis and used civilians as human shields.
An impossible homecoming?
The marginalization and the control of most of the minority areas by ISIS between 2014 and 2017 had made it very difficult to restore these conflict-ridden areas. According to IOM, 4.8 million IDPs have been able to return to their homes following the liberation of occupied areas in 2017, but some 1.2 million are yet to return. Even though the international community and the Iraqi government have made efforts in establishing trust and reconciliation as well as reconstruction, thousands of people are either unable to return because of lack of prospects or they are unwilling because of fear and trauma.
A glimpse of hope
Pope Francis’s recent historic apostolic visit to the country between March 5-8, 2021 was considered as a “message of peace and unity supported on a pillar of diversity”, UNESCO said. It was the first-ever visit by a sitting Pope to Iraq. Upon his arrival and visits to different places, he was received by thousands of people, despite COVID-19 and security concerns. During his visit, he met with Iraqi religious leaders including Iraq’s top Shi’a Muslim cleric, Iraq’s most important religious leader, and visited multiple religious sites, carrying a unifying message of peace and coexistence among all communities in Iraq, particularly those which suffered from the conflict. By using what could be defined as “soft power”, he indirectly addressed the Iraqi government and called to end violence and extremism.
The Pope’s visit and the goodwill it generated also show that Iraq’s political leadership worked hard to provide a successful visit for the pope to Iraq. It also sent a political message saying that a better future could be built in Iraq with this alliance and that as a multi-religious country, they would be open for future collaborations with the west.
Only a glimpse of hope?
Even though the Iraqi population still is deeply scarred by the conflict, a spark of hope and validation was noticeable, and it felt like a turning point, for people of all faiths, as reported by the international media. Yet, many IDPs are yet to return home and still face persecution by the militia. The government, however, with the aid of other international actors remains committed to closing and consolidating existing IDP camps and settlements and efforts are underway to rebuild the country and restart local economies. Security concerns, lack of social cohesion, issues related to documentation, corruption, and irregular access to housing, food, health, and education will remain severe concerns in the future.