By Nathan Hosler
A few weeks ago, I traveled with the executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), Mae Elise Cannon, and Erik Apelgårdh of the World Council of Churches (WCC), to Iraqi Kurdistan. The intent was to expand CMEP’s work in the region, with a particular focus on the sustainability of the historic Christian communities and access to humanitarian assistance.
The Church of the Brethren is one of nearly 30 member communions or national bodies that comprise CMEP and I am the chair of the board. In this capacity, I participated to support CMEP’s work, but also to extend the ministry of the Church of the Brethren. This was an important step in meeting the mandate the 2015 Annual Conference statement “Christian Minority Communities.” The statement reads in part:
“As members of the global body of Christ we are concerned with the destruction of Christian communities in regions where Christians are targeted as religious minorities. While we are deeply concerned about the persecution of religious minorities regardless of religion or tradition, we feel a distinct call to speak out on behalf of those who are brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. ‘So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith’ (Galatians 6:10).
“We also are alarmed by the rapidly diminishing Christian communities in places such as Iraq, Palestine, and Syria. The elimination of these ancient yet still vital Christian communities would not only be a human rights disaster and a loss for the peoples of the region, but also a tragic loss of historic Christian witness in the land where the church first took root.”
With a strong organizational mandate and an invitation from a church leader in Baghdad, we worked to schedule a trip. However, only a few weeks before leaving, protests began in Baghdad and increased in intensity with violent government repression. As of this writing, more than 350 protesters have been killed. Additionally, there was the Turkish invasion of northeast Syria following the announcement and sudden withdrawal of many of the US troops from northeast Syria. Although we decided not to enter federal Iraq due to the protests, we went to the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Beginning in Erbil, we met with church leaders, humanitarian organizations, and with the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The church leaders spoke of the displacement and severe decrease of their members in the last years. Their numbers have dropped from 1.5 million Christians before the US invasion in 2003, to perhaps 200,000 presently. We saw a vineyard growing in a church yard that had once housed people who fled ISIS in Mosul. We also saw a new hospital being built. These and others were signs of a vibrant church community and ongoing ministry despite much hardship. It also highlighted a reoccurring message, that church based institutions are needed to both meet needs and provide a sense of future for the communities.
The next day we traveled with the Christian Peacemaker Team north to near the Turkish border. We heard of CPT’s accompaniment and human rights documentation on the cross-border bombing, as well as directly from the communities. Meeting at an Assyrian church in the village of Kashkawa, with people from eight different nearby villages, we heard of the difficult situation. One strong plea was for us to challenge the United States support and military assistance to the Turkish government. The day’s visit was concluded by a wonderful meal together around a long table and tea in the courtyard.
We continued on to Duhok. From there, we visited Alqosh, whose inhabitants fled as ISIS advanced, and then to Telskuf, which was occupied by ISIS–but everyone fled before they arrived. Although the town has been liberated for some time, only 700 families live in a town that used to have 1,600; even many of the present families are not originally from there. Nearby we briefly visited a Yazidi displacement camp where most occupants have lived since 2014. After one man walked past, our guide noted that his wife and daughter are still missing.
Throughout the trip we heard both words of affirmation and appreciation, as well as hard challenges. One worshiper after an evening service said, “Whenever we see you, remember that we are not alone but there are Christians around the world.” A few days later, a priest expressed anger that so many churches and organizations had come and not provided any assistance.
As we left the city of Duhok to drive back to Erbil and fly home, we saw buses of refugees arriving from the border of Syria. Traveling down the highway as we passed by the buses, we could see children looking out the windows.
On the way back, we briefly visited the Yazidi temple in Lalesh where abducted women and girls were welcomed back. We also visited ruins from ancient Assyria and the Mar Mattai Monastery (Monastery of St. Matthew) founded in the year 363, overlooking the Nineveh plan about 15 miles from Mosul. Both the ancient stones and the “living stones” are vibrant but also at risk.
As we move in next steps of this work, but also towards Christmas, I look forward to the moving of the Spirit to guide us in the way of peace and wellbeing for all.
— Nathan Hosler is director of the Church of the Brethren’s Office of Peacebuilding and Policy in Washington, D.C.