Source: The Atlantic
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ALEXANDRA ROSE HOWLAND AND ELAINE CROMIE
An ancient faith is disappearing from the lands in which it first took root. At stake is not just a religious community, but the fate of pluralism in the region.
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. Evan owned a barbershop near a church. Catrin loved her kitchen, where she spent her days making pastries filled with nuts and dates. Their families lived there: her five siblings and aging parents, his two brothers.
The Almakos had watched neighbors and friends wrestle with the same question: stay, or go? Now 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 Almakos resolved to go. They spent their remaining time in Karamles agonizing over what to bring with them, and what to leave behind. “You don’t know what you’re going to take,” Evan told me. “You have to discuss a lot of things: that one important, that one not important.” In the end, choosing among their possessions proved too difficult. They decided to leave nearly every keepsake and heirloom, including boxes of pictures of their family and of their two young children, Ayoob, then 12, and Sofya, 10. Catrin insisted on taking one sentimental item, a small cloth weaving of Jesus made in Italy.
On the Almakos’ last night in Karamles, the people of the town descended on their house. It seemed as if they all had a present they wanted Catrin and Evan to take to family members in America: sweets, spices, clothes. Nothing you couldn’t find in the United States, but “you can’t tell them that,” Evan said. People in Iraq see the U.S. as a place of bounty, he explained, but it’s still fundamentally foreign. Of the family’s three suitcases, one was filled with these gifts from home.
One by one, each of their family members tried to persuade Catrin and Evan to stay in Karamles. Her older brother Thabet is a priest, and the town’s most dedicated defender. “Don’t leave,” Catrin remembers him saying. “Stay here.”
The last of the visitors, one of Catrin’s sisters, remained until past midnight. The family was set to depart in just a few hours, but Catrin couldn’t sleep. She lay awake cataloging everything she would miss about her home and worrying about the journey ahead. She had never flown on a plane. She had never been far from Karamles. Once they departed, she thought, it would be for good.
The family spent a few days in Baghdad. They had layovers in Jordan, Germany, and New Jersey. Finally they arrived, exhausted, in Detroit. They spent their first couple of weeks at a cousin’s house. Catrin was desperately homesick. Gradually, however, the family settled in. Evan found work in construction. Catrin got a job at the Salvation Army. They rented a condo. The shape of a new life emerged.
The Almakos had been in Detroit for less than three months when they heard that the Islamic State was marching eastward toward Karamles. The terrorist group and its precursor had long been active south of the Nineveh Plain. Still, Catrin and Evan had believed that their town was safe. They frantically tried calling and texting their family members. They were now 6,000 miles away from everyone they loved. No one answered.
The precarious state of Christianity in Iraq is tragic on its own terms. The world may soon witness the permanent displacement of an ancient religion, and an ancient people. Those indigenous to this area share more than faith: They call themselves Suraye and claim a connection to the ancient peoples who inhabited this land long before the birth of Christ.
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.
In part, this foreign-policy position is grounded in domestic politics. The conservative voters who helped elect Trump care deeply about oppressed Christians, and they convey their concern through an exceptionally effective lobbying machine in Washington, D.C. But the plight of Christians in the region is also a natural cause for an administration that views foreign policy as a struggle to maintain the West’s global clout. For Trump, Christianity can be a bulwark of Western values in a region full of perceived enemies.
Christians who want to stay in their home country, administration officials say, should have the choice to do so. But many families in the Nineveh Plain are ambivalent about their future there. They harbor the same fears that led Catrin and Evan to leave before the devastation visited by ISIS; life has only grown more difficult for Christian minorities since. When I interviewed families in the Nineveh Plain last year, almost all of them admitted that they would leave if they had the chance. Even those most committed to remaining worry that, no matter how much aid they receive from Washington, they are still vulnerable. Christianity’s survival in one of the places where it first took root will depend on whether they decide to stay.
Night had fallen in Karamles. It was August 6, 2014—the Feast of the Transfiguration, which marks the biblical story of Jesus being transformed and named by God as his son. For weeks, priests across the Nineveh Plain had been in contact with Kurdish military forces, called the peshmerga, about the imminent threat of ISIS, which had quickly advanced east. Earlier in the summer, it had taken control of Mosul, just 15 miles from Karamles. From inside Mosul’s Great Mosque, the cleric Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had declared himself the head of a new Islamic caliphate. Nevertheless, some in the Kurdish military said that they would defend the area.
On this night, however, ISIS was on the move, and the peshmerga decided to retreat. Around 11 p.m., Catrin’s brother Thabet rang the bell atop St. Adday, the main church in Karamles, which is loud enough to reach every house in the small town. Coming so late at night, the familiar toll could only be a dire warning. Within a couple of hours, nearly all 820 families were on the highway out of town, heading east toward safety in the large, predominantly Kurdish city of Erbil.
Thabet waited until he believed that everyone had evacuated before leaving himself. Even as his people fled, Thabet had tried to remain optimistic. “I had a small hope that maybe ISIS would not come,” he told me recently as we drove on the dusty highway that stretches west from Erbil toward Mosul. But as Thabet watched the peshmerga fall back, leaving Karamles undefended, he realized his town was lost. Within a few hours, ISIS fighters would arrive.
From a young age, Thabet felt called to the priesthood. He loved serving as an altar boy in his Chaldean church, which grew out of an ancient, eastern rite of Christianity that is today aligned with Roman Catholicism. After years of seminary education, including a stint in Rome, Thabet was ordained in 2008, when he was in his late 20s. Pictures of him and his family in the years before the ISIS occupation, and especially before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, suggest a relatively idyllic life. Politically, the situation was very different for Christians during that time: Saddam Hussein oversaw a series of brutal religious crackdowns while he held power, but his regime tolerated the country’s Christian minority. One of his most visible advisers, Tariq Aziz, was a member of the Chaldean Catholic Church.
Now Thabet watched as everyone he knew and loved fled his town. A small Christian enclave on Erbil’s outskirts swelled with the arrival of 13,200 displaced Christians from across the Nineveh Plain. Some people, including Thabet, had left without collecting basic necessities. “When I arrived, I was disoriented, because for two days, I didn’t sleep,” he recalled. “I had to take a rest and buy some clothes.”
With nowhere else to go, some of the Christian refugees slept in the courtyard of a church. “We gathered the people from the gardens, from the streets, and created a small place for them,” Thabet said. Eventually, many of the residents of Karamles settled into the second floor of an unfinished apartment building; it had a roof but only two walls. For 40 days, Thabet’s parishioners lived in the building, along with hundreds of refugees from other towns.
It soon became clear that the community’s displacement would not be measured in days. Families began dispersing around Erbil; some were able to rent apartments, while others moved into hastily constructed camps. Thabet became his people’s unofficial leader in exile: part priest, part beloved uncle, part unofficial mayor. As relief money and other assistance began arriving from groups such as the Knights of Columbus, it flowed through church officials like Thabet. When people needed clothes or a place to stay, they came to him.
It took more than two years for the Iraqi military to recapture the Nineveh Plain. A few days before Karamles was liberated, Thabet ascended a small mountain above the plain as government soldiers fought across the region. Peering down through binoculars, he watched as smoke rose from his hometown. When the fighting was over, he was the first resident to reenter the town.
The devastation that awaited was breathtaking. The hands of one life-size statue of Mary, robed in bright blue, had been chopped off at the wrists. The bell of St. Adday, which had ushered residents to safety the night ISIS arrived, now sat lopsided in its tower. The church itself had been partially burned black; Thabet believes that fighters may have set off explosives a few days before they made their retreat. Decapitated statues of Mary and Jesus surrounded the altar, along with the remnants of angels that had been shot off the walls. Thabet found a torn piece of his ordination vestments in the rubble—the only object he has to remind him of the day he vowed to serve his community.
Slowly, Thabet and the other priests in the area began the process of reconstruction. Leaders in each town created detailed assessments of local buildings and calculated the damage across the Nineveh Plain. Thabet posted a large, color-coded map of Karamles by the door to the rectory. One little square represented his parents’ house, tinted red to indicate that it had been destroyed. Another showed Catrin and Evan’s house—looted, but largely spared. In total, 672 houses were damaged or burned. Nearly 100 had effectively been demolished.
In the fall of 2017, the first of Karamles’s residents started coming home. Slowly, the streets filled with small signs of community life: people watering their yards and calling after roaming children, men sitting and talking in bright-red plastic chairs beneath string lights that crisscross at the center of town. As of this spring, 450 families have returned, though in many cases to unfamiliar houses—those of relatives, neighbors, or strangers who chose not to come home. A sign near the church, in Arabic and misspelled English, declares wellcome back.
Yet even now, the town’s liveliest blocks are dotted with empty homes awaiting owners who may never feel safe enough to return. Some Christians left the region entirely; others started new lives in Erbil.
Some of the residents of Karamles view ISIS as an extreme expression of a hostility that predated the terror group’s rise, and remains after its defeat. In Iraq, discrimination is written directly into the constitution. Drafted two years after the 2003 U.S. invasion, the document declares Islam the country’s official religion and forbids any law that “contradicts the established provisions of Islam.” This shapes life in mundane yet meaningful ways. 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.
Trump-administration officials argue that a smaller Christian population in the Nineveh Plain will result in long-term damage to the region. In certain respects, they are right. Fewer Christians means less representation in the Iraqi government and less of a chance that Baghdad will heed Christian concerns. A smaller Christian community might also embolden the enemies of diversity. Countries with more religious freedom tend to have lower levels of xenophobia and faith-based violence.
Birnadet Hanna, a historian who lives in Karamles, said her supervisor, who is Muslim, was surprised to see her return to work after the Iraqi military pushed ISIS out of the region; he was concerned for her safety. Other colleagues told her that she should leave: Christians do not belong in Muslim Iraq, they said. She now believes that some of her Muslim neighbors may have been sympathetic to ISIS’s worldview. The rise of the caliphate—and the sinking fortunes of Iraq’s Christians—empowered them to be more open about their bigotry.
Chaldean worship services offer a rich sensory experience, filled with reminders that this tradition developed in the first few hundred years after Christ. The sexes usually sit separately, and women cover their head with lace as a sign of modesty. Acolytes swing sweet incense, trailing clouds of smoke through the aisles. Mass is celebrated in a dialect of Aramaic called Sureth—the native language of Christians here and a sibling of the language Jesus spoke.
Mass is also the venue where top clerics can flex their political muscle, making arguments meant to reach far beyond the pews. At a recent service in Ankawa, one of the most powerful bishops in Iraq, Bashar Warda, demonstrated his ability to influence his allies in the West.
That Sunday, as parishioners sang and chatted softly, a line of men in dark suits filed in: the then–U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Douglas Silliman, and his staff. Warda, wearing vestments and a neat haircut and close shave, greeted the Americans confidently, making sure they had English copies of the sermon he was about to deliver. His message seemed intended more for them than for his own flock.
“If the rest of the world truly believes that there should be a multi-cultural Middle East,” Warda said, “it must also speak honestly in rejecting the ever-changing and conditional forms of Muslim tolerance towards minorities.” He placed special responsibility for helping Christians on the United States. Iraq’s non-Muslim minorities are “the victims of the last regime change in Iraq and victims of the failure of the political system since 2003,” when the U.S. invaded, he said.
After the sermon, Silliman told me the U.S. is committed to providing support for these groups. “I can’t imagine this part of the world, especially the Nineveh Plains, without the diverse religious and cultural history,” he said. “They’re very holy communities, they have deep histories here, and we want to make sure that they continue.” He was soon whisked away to his next stop: a private meeting with Warda.
Dating back to the Obama administration, Iraqi Christian leaders and their advocates in Washington have engaged in a protracted campaign to net more money for Christians in the Nineveh Plain. Foreign governments have funneled money for stabilization through the United Nations Development Program, which, until 18 months ago, was by far the biggest player in the region’s development. Early on, however, Iraqi religious leaders, led by Warda, voiced discontent with the UN’s performance. The organization hired workers who overcharged and underworked, they claimed. Their results were often shoddy. (The UN’s deputy special representative for Iraq, Marta Ruedas, told me the organization’s budget constraints were to blame for half-finished housing projects in the region. The UNDP has completed housing work in Bartella and Bashiqa.)
Delegates from the region’s churches worked with an international NGO to convene a group they called the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, which hired local men to rebuild houses in their towns. Relief funds would be put to better use if they went directly to the churches, the group argued.
Sam Brownback, the former governor of Kansas and the U.S. ambassador for religious freedom, told me that the administration’s support for religious minorities (which includes both Christians and Yazidis, who were likewise targeted by ISIS) is a continuation of the project of the Iraq War, delicately avoiding the fact that the American war helped create the conditions for ISIS’s rise. The U.S. government is promoting democratic principles, he argued, including the protection of religious minorities. “I think it’s important for Iraq, and I think it’s important for us. I think it’s important, really, for that region,” he said.
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.
For the most part, American money has gone toward rebuilding schools, clinics, and water and electricity systems. In Erbil, Warda has also leveraged a powerful network of largely private Christian donors to build an array of civic institutions: a brightly decorated private school, where children study in four languages; a Catholic college, where Christian girls can attend free of harassment; a new hospital. Without infrastructure like this in place, clergy and aid workers argue, there is no chance that Christians will remain in the country.
Infrastructure alone cannot rebuild social trust or stabilize the government, however, and it cannot guarantee people’s physical safety. Christians fear that they’ll return to their lives only to be displaced again. 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. The groups in northern Iraq are among many around the world that may merit protection from the U.S. government. Eventually, he said, the U.S. will have to evaluate whether it is actually making a difference in the long-term stability of Iraq, and whether other places, and people, are more in need of those investments.
Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, regional powers have vied to determine the country’s fate, and nearly all of them have laid claim to the Nineveh Plain. To the north is Kurdistan, a semiautonomous zone controlled by the country’s Kurdish ethnic minority. To the south is territory governed by Baghdad, which aggressively contests Kurdish autonomy. In the fall of 2017, around the time Christian families began returning to their homes, Kurds passed a referendum declaring total independence from Iraq. Baghdad retaliated, banning international flights from Kurdistan’s airports and moving to capture some of the ambiguous territory between the two regions, including portions of the Nineveh Plain. This has left some Christians stranded: In one town, Batnaya, people who had hoped to rebuild their homes after ISIS’s defeat had to leave again to avoid the new fighting.
The east-west axis is no less fraught. To the west lies Syria, where, until recently, the last strongholds of ISIS remained. To the east lies Iran, which continually works to expand its influence on its longtime neighbor and frequent rival, and to support the interests of Iraq’s Shiite majority. Shiite-affiliated groups have been gaining influence in the Nineveh Plain in recent years, as Iran has allegedly taken an interest in the area as a strategic foothold in the corridor that runs through Erbil and Mosul to Syria. This has left Christians fearful that their homeland is becoming a prime target in Iran’s efforts to become the dominant power in the Middle East. In May, the U.S. State Department ordered the evacuation of all nonessential personnel from the embassy in Baghdad—and the consulate in Erbil—based on fears of possible attacks from Iran.
But in recent years, Christian leaders claim, the Shabak have found a powerful backer in Iran. Shabak leaders have denied ties to the nearby Shiite regime, and the U.S. State Department hasn’t found definitive evidence to suggest the alleged connection, according to the official. Nonetheless, Christian leaders believe that the group is trying to push their communities out of the Nineveh Plain.
Ten minutes down an anarchic highway from Karamles lies Bartella, another historically Christian town, one that Thabet fears may represent the future of his own community. Traditionally, ethnic groups in Iraq have tended to stay within their own towns. For many years, the Shabak lived as neighbors of the Christians in the Nineveh Plain; the valley around Karamles and Bartella is dotted with small Shabak villages. But when Shiite political parties rose to power after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Shabak groups began buying up property in historically Christian areas—with the help, Christian leaders believe, of Iranian financial backers.
The situation in Bartella is always in the back of Thabet’s mind as he tries to persuade his people to return to, and remain in, Karamles. In the West, integration and diversity are seen as laudable goals. In Iraq, according to Thabet, the mentality is different. The Shabak and Chaldeans have different cultures and customs. They interpret social cues and gestures differently. They speak different languages. “It’s better for us if they move to another village,” Thabet told me.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Christians face similar existential threats. In Turkey, the government takes an active role in religious repression. Armenian Christians live with near-daily threats and vandalism from neighbors who are given impunity by local police. In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi proclaimed his desire to prevent violence and discrimination against Christians, but has largely proved powerless to do so. He recently celebrated the opening of a massive cathedral east of Cairo, declaring of Muslims and Christians, “We are one, and we will remain one.” Yet the Copts, Egypt’s largest Christian minority group, have been victims of routine bombings and mass shootings over the past several years. On Palm Sunday in 2017, explosions at two churches left more than 40 dead. This past November, Islamic militants attacked buses driving through the western desert, killing seven people and wounding others.
Although the status of minorities differs across the region, these cases share an important quality: They have all taken place in countries that, at times, have stressed a singular religious identity. These countries failed to protect the rights of minorities, if they tried to at all. Christians, like other religious minorities in the region, are left with the same impossible choice Catrin and Evan wrestled with years ago: stay or leave. Families must balance a desire to remain in their home—and the home of their ancestors—with a desire to live free of discrimination and dread.
For Christians reared in a church with such a deep sense of place, moving brings up the terrifying possibility that they will lose an essential connection to their faith. On a Sunday morning last fall, I joined Catrin and Evan for Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a large Chaldean Catholic church in Detroit. The metro area is home to the largest Chaldean diaspora community in the world: 160,000 Christians from Iraq live there, according to the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce. Middle Eastern Christians who belong to other traditions, such as the Assyrian Church of the East, also have a presence in and around the city, along with a large population of Iraqi Muslims.
Life in America is slowly becoming more familiar. At first, Catrin could hardly understand English, let alone a Michigander accent. Evan would translate for her in Walmart or Meijer, a midwestern grocery chain, although he now sheepishly admits that his translations were sometimes incorrect. After four years, they were able to buy a modest house, which Evan renovated with the help of relatives and friends. They’re trying to save up for furniture; when I visited, the only item in their living room was a potted plant.
Catrin and Evan told me they miss Karamles intensely: the smell of the air in spring, the taste of vegetables grown in its soil, the beauty of its streets decked out for Christmas. Most of all, they miss the people. Life in Karamles is largely organized around socializing with family and neighbors; Catrin used to spend hours chatting and laughing with her friends. Neighbors and cousins would sit in rows outside the shops, gathering news and shaking the hands of passersby. In Detroit, Evan said, he has found that most people keep busy and stay in their own home. Catrin works part-time, and he keeps long hours to make enough money to cover their mortgage and taxes. Yet they are resolute that leaving was the right decision. “I think everyone should leave Iraq,” Catrin told me. “It’s unsafe. You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
She doesn’t know, however, whether her brother will ever leave. As long as there is a Christian community in Karamles, Thabet believes it is his duty to remain. “He’s a leader,” Evan said. “The leader takes care of everybody. That’s the difference between me and him.”
Thabet feels a responsibility to rebuild the town and to instill in the next generation a sense of pride in its history. But he knows the dangers of staying in Iraq, and the limits of his power to keep his community intact. Since Catrin left for the U.S., more siblings have left Karamles. One sister departed for Jordan. Another sister stayed in Erbil after fleeing ISIS. She’s scared to move home.
About 35 miles northwest of Karamles, a town called Alqosh sits nestled below the mountains that divide Iraq from Turkey. For Christians in the Nineveh Plain, Alqosh is a place of national and religious pride, a way station for important figures in the ancient Christian world that some here compare in significance to Jerusalem or Rome.
There’s another history to Alqosh. Back through the winding roads of town sits a tomb said to belong to Nahum, a biblical prophet believed to have lived in the region during the seventh century b.c. Whether or not Nahum is actually interred here, Jews prayed in this place. The building was a synagogue, and the walls are covered in Hebrew. One engraved stone promises, “This will be your dwelling place forever.”
Jews lived in Alqosh for centuries, and in Iraq for thousands of years, although the priest who showed me around, Father Araam, knew about them only from stories. The Babylonian Talmud, which is the major text of rabbinic Judaism, was written here. Then, over a few short years, the Jews disappeared. Almost all of Iraq’s remaining Jews were effectively expelled from the country in the late 1940s and early 1950s amid intense political pressure and mob violence.
Priests in the Nineveh Plain see this history as a warning. Their communities, too, could one day be nothing more than overgrown tombs. If Christians continue to leave the Nineveh Plain and other areas like it, a powerful history will come to an end. In the Protestant mind-set dominant in the U.S., the body of the Church is wherever the people are. But for the ancient Christian groups of Iraq, this is not the case. The people I met there constantly reminded me that Assyrian culture was founded before Christianity. They point to the remnants of ancient aqueducts and settlement mounds, evidence of the empire that once flourished in this region.
For them, Christianity is not just a faith. It is an attachment to a place, a language, a nationality. Scattered across countries and continents, that sense of identity—as a people, not just as members of a religion—is much more difficult to maintain. Securing the fate of the Nineveh Plain is crucial “to protect our identity, our patrimony, our language,” Thabet told me. “We are the original people of Iraq.”
Support for this article has been provided by the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs of the Henry Luce Foundation.