Ever since the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), there’s been rising alarm regarding the future for Christians in the Middle East. A Catholic priest who recently returned to his village in northern Iraq after six years in Rome described what he found as “shocking,” but doubled down on the need for Christians to survive.
Father Karam Shamasha left the town of Telskuf in the Nineveh Plains headed to Rome back in 2014, only weeks after ISIS conquered northern Iraq, historically the cradle of Christianity in the country.
“Our presence is a salt in this region,” he said. “Our presence in this country is not only religious, it’s also educational. We have the mission of creating a peaceful atmosphere in this country, demonstrating with the testimony of our faith, love and serenity, that there are ways of living that go beyond violence and war.”
Speaking with Crux, he discussed the many challenges Christians face still today, two years after the alleged defeat of ISIS: “ISIS has not disappeared,” he said. “We have many problems, including religious ones, because the mentality was not eliminated.” Shamasha also urged Christians in the West not to take freedom of religion for granted, noting that when the faithful in Iraq hear of terrorist attacks in countries such as France or Austria they “panic” because if these happen in countries with strong governments and law and order, then what’s left for nations facing political instability?
The priest spoke from Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region, via Zoom. What follows are excerpts of that conversation, held in Italian.
You returned to Iraq a few months ago, after studying in Rome for several years. What did you find on your return?
I finished my studies two or three months ago. I was in Rome, and I went straight back to northern Iraq, where my people are and where I’m incardinated as a priest. Slowly, I’m resuming my pastoral activities, while also my educational responsibilities. What I found on my return was shocking, because most of the people have left, gone abroad, and most of those who remain have many difficulties, including related to COVID-19, as much of the world, added to great economic challenges and political instability. Upon my arrival, I ran into problems that I had never encountered when I was the parish priest of my town before heading to Rome.
It must be said, however, that despite the many challenges we face, there’s much work to be done: from a religious point of view, there’s a lot to do to help the faithful, as they have the psychological scars caused by the violence, horrors and challenges posed by ISIS. Trust that was broken needs to be rebuilt, along with many material things.
When did you leave for Rome, before, during or after ISIS took over your village?
I went to Rome about 20 days after ISIS conquered the Nineveh Plain. I was the priest of Telskuf. The town was taken by ISIS on August 6, 2014, and I left for Rome around the 20th. I did a doctorate in moral theology, and now I’m back.
Is your family still in Iraq?
Most of them are living abroad, as are most of my friends. Emigration began before 2014, because the discrimination against Christians is something that we’ve had in Iraq since before ISIS: it did not begin overnight.
I would say that today, there’s not a single Christian family in Iraq that doesn’t have relatives living in abroad. Those who remained are mostly people who had strong jobs, perhaps teaching or in government.
But of those who left, many had stable jobs, but were victims of discrimination, and the rise of ISIS was a final straw in terms of trust.
For example, in my village, ISIS was defeated a few weeks after the occupation. Yet people were not allowed to go back home for over two years: Telskuf was still a “red zone,” with ISIS causing havoc seven miles from our homes. In this situation, when people saw that they had lost everything and were not going to be able to return, many others decided to flee.
It must be noted, however, that for the faithful of our parishes who had to flee, things were not easy either.
In what sense?
Christians who decided to emigrate abroad did not find any European country ready to welcome them, nor refuge in the United States or Australia. They chose instead to welcome people of other religions. Nobody wanted to welcome Christians, and I wouldn’t be able to explain why. Hence, many Christian families who fled Iraq are still today in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, and have been for more than five years.
In these countries, they cannot find jobs because they don’t have access to documents as refugees, and they also face the challenge of not speaking the language.
Why this refusal of countries to receive Christians? Is it due to the fact that they don’t go to United Nations-sponsored refugee camps for fear of Muslims?
Many Christian families encountered problems in refugee camps, it is true: they could not, for example, wear the cross around their neck because the neighbours inside the camp were also extremists. We fled ISIS with all these difficulties, and we went abroad to refugee camps to find the same problems. Iraqi Christians, before ISIS, lived very, very well. It is not easy for families to live in such a bad situation overnight, because before they were fine.
For years the Catholic Church has been trying to dialogue with Islam, with Pope Francis even signing a major declaration on Human Fraternity with the grant Imam of Al Azar University. Is it possible to achieve peace between Muslims and Christians in countries like Iraq or Syria?
We are called to be in dialogue. Christianity is a religion of peace, not one that seeks to create enemies. We always seek to create friends; this is our vocation. Dialogue is a vocation present in our religion and it is something we have to seek, always.
But …with whom can we have this dialogue? Because it is beautiful to see this brotherhood, these meetings, taking place. But in the end, these people who participate in the dialogue, when they return to their countries, can they speak well of Christianity in their mosques, universities, schools? Some may, but for many it is difficult to speak of Christianity in a beautiful way.
Today if we talk about Iraq, when we talk about respect for Christianity, be it from the government or from many of the other citizens, it exists in principle. But when we talk about laws, periodically we see ones that foster discrimination. For example, a few years ago a law came out stating that when a father joins Islam, all his children automatically convert.
So, if we speak of dialogue, we have to clarify that this dialogue must also take place in the countries of the people who participate in this dialogue.
We have to conduct this dialogue in a respectful way. Everyone can have their own particular religious worship, but the freedom that Muslims in Iraq have, Christians should also have.
How do you react to news of terrorist attacks in the West, for instance, what we saw in France or Austria these past days?
They generate panic for us. Because if these attacks against the human person can occur in countries that have strong governments, law and order, how can we defend ourselves, when we don’t have any of these guarantees? It’s very difficult for us to live in peace, continue with our faith, go to church.
We are trying to resume all our pastoral activities after the COVID outbreak, but we always have this fear (of an attack). The daily masses have already returned, with the prayers in Aramaic.
With so much against the odds, why do Christians want to stay in Iraq?
Because, in the end, our presence is a salt in this region. We are not called only to seek a beautiful or peaceful life. Even though we might face challenges, Christianity in our land is so important because we’ve has been here since the first century, with the Apostle Saint Thomas bringing the Good News to this land.
But our presence on this country is not only religious, it’s also educational. We have the mission of creating a peaceful atmosphere in this country, demonstrating with the testimony of our faith, love and serenity, that there are ways of living that go beyond violence and war.
It’s also important to make the West understand that our presence in this region is historical, and very relevant: Christianity is not present only in the West. For us to let others know that we are defending our faith, despite our difficulty, it is the mission that we have facing our siblings who live in the West.
Because many times, Christians in the West, accustomed to a relative religious freedom and peace, they don’t see the importance of praying, of going to church, taking it for granted.
Us who live here, but also in many countries where Christians are persecuted in Africa or in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have to show that despite the difficulties, despite knowing that one can be killed for going to Mass, we remain strong in our faith witnessing it daily.