Knox Thames is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement and Visiting Expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He previously served as the State Department Special Advisor for Religious Minorities under both the Obama and Trump administrations
Since the U.S. invasion and subsequent ISIS onslaught, the future for religious minorities in Iraq is increasingly uncertain. Once one of the largest Christian communities in the Middle East, Iraq’s Christian community has shrunk to an estimated 250,000 from over 1.5 million before the American intervention. Many fear the country known as the “Cradle of Christianity” will soon be a graveyard. And the world witnessed the barbaric treatment of Yezidis by ISIS.
When I served in the Obama and Trump State Department in a special envoy role focused on religious minorities, I made multiple trips to Iraq, hearing firsthand about the victimization of minorities. In my diplomatic engagements, I searched for ways to turn the tide against seemingly unstoppable currents that drove minorities out. Caught between religious extremists and discriminatory laws, theirs is a vexing problem with no obvious or immediate solutions. But we were able to make some progress. Christians and minorities feel forgotten, so the Pope’s recent visit provided a high-profile shot in the arm for these efforts.
Pope Francis’s unprecedented visit to Iraq in March focused on Muslim/Christian relations and the plight of persecuted Christians victimized by terrorists. He held a mass in a Baghdad church where al Qaeda had killed dozens of Christians in 2010 and did the same in Qaraqosh, a Christian town in the Ninewa Plains occupied by ISIS in 2014. He also visited Church Square in Mosul to demonstrate the failure of ISIS’s genocidal efforts and the promise to rebuild.
That the Pope’s final day was spent in Erbil was fitting. When the ISIS juggernaut was attacking, Kurdistan became the last haven for Iraq’s ancient Christian communities and other religious minorities. Kurdistan opened its doors when Christians were literally running for their lives.
The Pope’s final major event was in Erbil before 10,000 people. Francis proclaimed that “Today, I can see at first hand that the Church in Iraq is alive.” It is due in large part because of the Kurds. When ISIS was conquering Mosul and Sinjar, fleeing Christians were able to seek refuge in nearby Kurdistan. Some Christians would complain to me about their situation in Kurdistan, which did have its problems, but Kurdistan is light years ahead of much of the region.
Kurdistan has differentiated itself from other parts of Iraq by promoting interfaith cooperation between diverse communities and treating religious minorities as equal citizens. Churches flourish, including congregations of new believers, in ways unthinkable elsewhere in Iraq or other parts of the Middle East. Communities like Bahais and Zoroastrians are recognized. Looking at their positive example, the Kurds provide a potential roadmap for other Muslim majority countries to consider.
What needs to happen next to ensure these ancient communities remain? How to restore the unique religious tapestry of Iraq with its multitude of different faiths? The key challenge will be keeping minorities safe and restoring their places of worship.
I know from my many visits security is the most challenging issue to address and the most important for reviving minority life. Reconstruction and returns will happen more quickly if there is security. If left unaddressed in concrete ways, the fear of violence will persuade minorities to abandon their ancestral homelands for good. Ninewa and the Yazidi province of Sinjar are awash with rival militias, making returns dangerous. This dynamic creates push/pull factors for Christians and other non-Muslims: pushed out by rising extremism and instability while pulled out by family and friends who have escaped to the West. I and others across two administrations raised the importance of minorities playing an active role in their own protection. If not, they won’t go back and will leave.
The other issue is cultural heritage protection. The horror of ISIS depravations against Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities grabbed headlines. Yet, ISIS also destroyed religious and cultural sites belong to religious minorities and Muslim communities. The loss of historic cultural and religious sites remains a challenge to any successful rebuilding effort.
I am proud of the groundbreaking work we did to equip religious minorities with the tools they need to protect their religious and cultural heritage. Partnering with the Smithsonian Institution, we launched a program in northern Iraq to train impacted religious communities on restoring buildings and protecting movable artifacts. It was a first, bridging the gap between religious actors and heritage professionals. It showed such promise that we convened the training a second time. Under the Smithsonian’s expert guidance, these trainings demonstrated how religious actors could mitigate the impact of terrorism on their cultural sites while helping them determine how best to safeguard. We are also able to provide U.S. government funding to restore ancient religious sites.
Others are doing this work too. UNESCO’s “Revive the Spirit of Mosul,” funded by the United Arab Emirates, aims to restore several of the city’s most symbolic religious sites: the Al Nouri mosque complex and Al Hadba minaret, as well as the Al Tahera and Al Saa’a churches. These rehabilitation efforts can revive Mosul’s historical diversity, create jobs, and provide young people with skills. Also, by preserving cultural heritage sites with religious significance, the effort can help restore the unique way of life of religious minorities and bring communities together across religious lines.
Preserving religious heritage fits with the UAE’s promotion of interfaith tolerance. Pope Francis first visited the region in February 2019, going to Abu Dhabi, where he signed the Document for Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together with the Grand Imam of Al Azar. UAE helped bring about this momentous event promoting Muslim/Christian understanding and cooperation. This is hopeful.
In closing, the challenges facing Iraqi Christians and religious minorities will take years to address. But the news is not all bad. There are positive stories of returns, and the Pope’s visit was a wonderful reminder of Iraq’s history of religious diversity. And if it had not been for Kurdistan opening its doors and the United States, the United Nations, and the UAE funding restoration efforts, the Pope’s visit would have been less hopeful.