- - Thursday, October 3, 2019

ALQOSH, Iraq — The long line of vehicles crowded the entrance to Alqosh, a Christian town in northern Iraq, on a Thursday last month.

People have come to shop and visit friends. At the mayor’s office, officials walk in and out of Mayor Lara Zara’s office getting stamps for various documents.

The mayor says that while the area today is secure from threats, such as the Islamic State, the lack of economic opportunity and investment presents a major challenge.

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“We have a lot of civil servants who are dependent on government salaries,” the Chaldean Christian mayor said.

Even collecting those salaries is a hurdle because the town lies in disputed areas between the region effectively run by Iraq’s Kurdish population and territory directly controlled by the central government in Baghdad.

Alqosh, an enclave with a large and ancient Christian population, reflects all the complexities of the country in microcosm.

Two years ago, Iraqi security forces fought brief skirmishes with the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government’s peshmerga militia to retake control of Kirkuk, Sinjar and other areas that the Kurds controlled during the war on ISIS.

Tensions persist between Irbil, the Kurdish region’s capital, and Baghdad. Christians in areas such as the Nineveh plains around Mosul have been caught in the middle.

To get to Alqosh, for instance, a visitor must pass through a security checkpoint manned by the peshmerga and then get clearance from an Iraqi police officer looking at the cars entering the town. The Iraqi flag mixes here with the Kurdish tricolor, and some say the town could be a multifaith model of coexistence — if current political winds prevail.

Iraq has one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world, but the population has shrunk dramatically in the sectarian fighting and political uncertainty that followed the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the sudden emergence of the radical Islamist ISIS a decade later. But there are signs of a comeback for those who have held on throughout the turmoil.

In Irbil, churches are being built and a Christian has been appointed minister of transportation and communications. Ano Jawhar Abdulmaseeh is a proud and jovial member of the community. His office is decorated with images of Christian history of the region that dates back almost 2,000 years.

He explained that Christianity came to the region with St. Thomas the Apostle but that Christians have faced many persecutions in the past century. These include pogroms against Chaldeans, Syriacs and Assyrians, the diverse communities in this area. More than 300 Christian villages were destroyed during the rule of Saddam Hussein, he recalled.

Christian refuge

The number of Christians in Iraq today is estimated at 200,000 to 350,000, and Mr. Abdulmaseeh said 90% of them live in Kurdistan and the Nineveh plains that border the region. Many have relocated from other parts of Iraq since 2003. Mr. Abdulmaseeh and Ms. Zara talked about links to the large Iraqi Christian population in Michigan.

The flight of Christians increased after Islamic State fighters sacked Mosul in 2014, forcing 150,000 Christians to flee the Nineveh plains for Irbil. Many refugees slept in streets, churches, gardens and schools in the Christian town of Ainkawa, a suburb of Irbil, in the days after they arrived.

Today, with the Islamic State’s “caliphate” straddling the Iraq-Syria border defeated and the Kurdish region’s economy steadily improving, things are changing for the Christian minority as well.

“We have a chance to thrive and not just exist,” Mr. Abdulmaseeh said. He spoke hopefully of the “golden years” ahead for the community after decades of hardship. To get to that vision is part of the Kurdistan region’s new government under President Nechirvan Barzani, who has vowed to build a “progressive and tolerant society” that will include “peaceful coexistence among all the religious and ethnic communities within the region.”

The Christian transport minister said he hopes the government can combat corruption and solve the disputes it has had with Baghdad. That will require the central government to give the KRG its fair share of the budget. With or without Baghdad, Irbil is pumping money into construction projects, such as a new road to Dohuk, a large and picturesque city on the road to the Turkish border. New bridges and multilane highways are rising.

Those infrastructure projects will enable towns like Alqosh and its estimated 6,000 Christian residents to prosper. The town forms the center of a district of 55,000, including significant Christian and Yazidi religious minorities, where farming is the primary occupation.

Although some projects are funded by international organizations such as USAID, more outside help is needed to entice people to stay, the mayor said.

“We need stability to stop people from emigration,” Ms. Zara said.

Support could also come from those in the U.S. who support religious freedom in the Middle East, which has been a particular focus of the Trump administration’s foreign policy. Toward that end, the mayor traveled to the U.S. this year to highlight the need to support Iraq’s Christian minority.

Reviving Alqosh also involves bringing back tourists who visited before 2014 to see a monastery on a mountain overlooking the town and other historic and religious sites.

But a short drive around the town illustrates the challenges ahead. Built on a hillside overlooking the Nineveh plains, Alqosh was only a few miles from the front lines in the long struggle to repel Islamic State forces from 2014 to 2016.

Now ISIS has been pushed back, but Iranian-backed Shiite Iraqi militias are active in the areas around Mosul. The central government, meanwhile, has been rocked by a string of violent popular protests over the weak economy and lack of jobs.

For those trying to rebuild their lives and community in the wake of the ISIS menace, there is hope that the tensions will blow over and give the region time to recuperate.

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