By Carl Anderson – Wall Street Journal –
Iran-backed militias are keeping minority groups from returning home post-ISIS.
Before visiting Iraq last month, I met with Pope Francis. He told me that “a Middle East without Christians is not the Middle East.” Baghdad’s ambassador in Washington often says that “Iraq is not Iraq without its minorities.” Consider these sentiments as Christian towns in Iraq increasingly look neither Christian nor Iraqi—but Iranian.
The public identifies the threat against Christians in Iraq and Syria as emanating from Islamic State. After a hard-fought war, ISIS is no longer a territorial power. But the religious minorities persecuted under the caliphate remain in peril, thanks to the Iraqi government’s tolerance of Iranian influence.
Five years ago, ISIS swept through Northern Iraq, killing and displacing hundreds of thousands of Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities. The Obama and Trump administrations each declared ISIS’ actions “genocide.” The proof lay not only in the dead but in the collapse of communities that had survived for millennia. There were as many as 1.5 million Iraqi Christians before 2003. Today some 200,000 remain.
The explosion of ISIS across Iraq was intense but burned out quickly. The group swiftly took control of the ancient Christian homeland of Nineveh in 2014 but was forced out within three years. With their towns liberated, displaced Christians hoped to return, rebuild and work for a better future. The Knights of Columbus, the Catholic service organization that I lead, has committed $25 million to help with rebuilding and returning to the area.
The Trump administration also promised to prioritize the needs of these minorities after previous aid programs had overlooked them. Water and power facilities, schools, hospitals and other public works have been refurbished and rebuilt, courtesy of the U.S. government. Groups like the Knights of Columbus have rebuilt homes and other structures as well. But during my visit, I learned of new threats that could undermine these projects and keep Christians from returning home.
As ISIS fell, a different menace took its place. Iranian-backed militias known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces, quickly took root in the devastated, previously Christian towns. Baghdad claims power over the Nineveh region, but in reality the militias control much of it. They have made life nearly unbearable for Christians attempting to return to towns like Batnaya, where the Popular Mobilization Forces have stripped Christian family homes of plumbing, wiring and other metal.
Locals, church leaders, and American and Kurdish government officials warn that the Iranian-backed groups have extorted Christian families and seized their property. Credible reports of violent crimes have emerged. Iranian proxies now are conducting a program of colonization in the Iraqi sector—building homes and centers for the use of Iraq’s Shiite majority in historically Christian towns.
Iran has two goals. First, it wants to build a “land bridge” to Syria through Iraq. Second, it aims to alter fundamentally the demography of Nineveh in favor of Tehran. The Christians are at best collateral damage. Fearing for their lives, without even a semblance of the rule of law in their hometowns, many are fleeing the country rather than face the militias.
The genocide ISIS conducted is now being facilitated and even actively continued by Iran’s proxies with the tacit support of the Iraqi government. The situation is beyond demoralizing for anyone who has stood by Iraq’s minorities and prayed for their triumph after years of adversity.
Plenty of aid has been directed to the Nineveh region. But it will be undermined unless the country’s overall security situation improves. This is one reason that it is important that these fragile communities are supported throughout the country: in Nineveh, but also in Kurdistan and in Southern Iraq.
American officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, have urged Iraq to remove these irregular militias and take control of the region. Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has proved unwilling to comply so far. The U.S. government is not amused by Iraq’s dalliance with Iranian proxies. Neither are those who have advocated for and supported displaced communities.
Washington’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization should encourage Baghdad to rethink its embrace of Iran-backed militias. If Iraq wants Iraq to remain Iraq, it should get serious about protecting minorities before it is too late.
Mr. Anderson is CEO of the Knights of Columbus.