I remember the Nineveh Plain well. I was being driven from the Kurdish city of Dohuk in far northern Iraq to the regional capital of Erbil further south and around me in all directions stretched a flat plain. To the west were low-slung hills and in my mind I could hear the footsteps of conquering Babylonian armies as they sought to overrun the city of Nineveh in 612 BC.
Irrigated by the Tigris River, it’s actually a fertile place with crops everywhere — assuming that they’re allowed to grow.
Several millennia later, it was the ISIS armies whose footsteps were heard on this plain back in 2014 when the events at the heart of this story take place.
I must say I envy The Atlantic’s Emma Green for getting sent to Iraq to do this fascinating piece along with a photographer or two. (My 2004 trip there was entirely self-funded).
The call came in 2014, shortly after Easter. Four years earlier, Catrin Almako’s family had applied for special visas to the United States. Catrin’s husband, Evan, had cut hair for the U.S. military during the early years of its occupation of Iraq. Now a staffer from the International Organization for Migration was on the phone. “Are you ready?” he asked. The family had been assigned a departure date just a few weeks away.
“I was so confused,” Catrin told me recently. During the years they had waited for their visas, Catrin and Evan had debated whether they actually wanted to leave Iraq. Both of them had grown up in Karamles, a small town in the historic heart of Iraqi Christianity, the Nineveh Plain.
But the 2003 invasion of Iraq had changed everything, including the impression that Christians had had it easy under Saddam Hussein. Once he was gone, it was payback time.
… More and more Christians in the region were deciding to leave. The graph of the religion’s decline in the Middle East has in recent years transformed from a steady downward slope into a cliff. The numbers in Iraq are especially stark: Before the American invasion, as many as 1.4 million Christians lived in the country. Today, fewer than 250,000 remain — an 80 percent drop in less than two decades.
The Almako family does decide to leave for Detroit. Less than three months later, the town was invaded by ISIS, just after all its Christian residents had fled for Erbil. It took the Kurdish and Iraqi militaries (with American help) two years to flush them out and this story deals with the decision each family must make as to whether to stay in Erbil, return to Karamles or seek refuge overseas.
What’s different with these Christian Iraqis is that, for once, an American president thinks about them. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that religious freedom activists worry about them, like Johnnie Moore (who represents a key Donald Trump spiritual adviser, Paula White).
But the fate of Christianity in places like the Nineveh Plain has a geopolitical significance as well. Religious minorities test a country’s tolerance for pluralism; a healthy liberal democracy protects vulnerable groups and allows them to participate freely in society. Whether Christians can survive, and thrive, in Muslim-majority countries is a crucial indicator of whether democracy, too, is viable in those places. In Iraq, the outlook is grim, as it is in other nations in the region that are home to historic Christian populations, including Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. Christians who live in these places are subject to discrimination, government-sanctioned intimidation, and routine violence.
They do, however, have an influential and powerful ally: the United States government, which, under President Donald Trump, has made supporting Christianity in the Middle East an even more overt priority of American foreign policy than it was under George W. Bush or Barack Obama. Since Trump took office, the Nineveh Plain has received significant amounts of investment from the U.S. government.
One thing Green reminds us of is that two years after the U.S. invasion, the Iraqis rewrote their constitution declaring Islam the country’s official religion and forbidding any law that contradicts the “established provisions of Islam” — which could be just about anything. A lot of Americans were furious at the time, asking why we’d invaded Iraq only to help the place become a theocracy, which it definitely wasn’t under Saddam.
The new constitution brought in all sorts of onerous things.
ID cards designate citizens as Muslim, Christian, Mandaean, Yazidi. Non-Muslim men cannot marry Muslim women. Children of mixed parentage are automatically classified as Muslims if one of their parents is Muslim, even if they are born of rape. For many Christians living in northern Iraq, discrimination is a part of life: Many non-Christians won’t hire Christians at their businesses. Families closely monitor their daughters out of fear that they’ll be targeted for sexual violence.
The story notes that the Trump administration wants Christians to stay in Iraq to keep up the religious balance of power; hence very few have been allowed to emigrate to the United States since Trump took over.
Meanwhile, the facts on the ground are getting grim and the Christians don’t want to linger in a place where their long-term survival is so poor. However, a lot of American dollars are flowing toward the Nineveh Plain.
The ideological bridge between the Nineveh Plain and Washington has undoubtedly worked to Christians’ benefit. In October, USAID announced even more funding: a new investment of $178 million, bringing the total U.S. government investment to nearly $300 million. …
Whether American support, and access to American largesse, will be sufficient to sustain Iraq’s Christians is an open question. One State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to be interviewed by the press, told me that the U.S. efforts to help Iraq’s religious minorities are unprecedented, but may also be unsustainable.
In other words, the idea of a religiously pluralistic Iraq sounds like it could work, in practice, but it ain’t flying in the minds of these Chaldean Christians who simply want to be in a place where their daughters aren’t going to be kidnapped or harassed and where their fathers can find jobs. In the new normal that is today’s Iraq, many majority Muslims discriminate against Christians. In contrast to this optimistic National Catholic Reglister piece last fall about Christian resiliency, the Atlantic piece suggests the true situation is way more dire.
The article ends in the town of Al Qosh, birthplace of the Old Testament prophet Nahum and the site of a lovely monastery where I spent a few hours. It is now a solely Christian town.
Al Qosh, the piece points out, used to be partly inhabited by Jews but the atmosphere grew so tense post World War II, that every last Jew eventually moved to Israel. Will the Nineveh Plain likewise be bereft of Christians in a decade or two?
Do try to read this piece, as it illustrates why American ideas of religious pluralism don’t work, when they collide with the reality of life in the Muslim-majority areas of the Middle East.
Over the years, I’ve traced what’s been happening with minority religious populations in the East and it’s not a pretty picture. Whether it’s the Uiyghur Muslims of China or the Coptic Christians in Egypt, persecution of minority religions is way up. Naturally, people are clustering where they can find support and so the future looks more tribal, not less.