Finally, the battle to liberate Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, from the bloodthirsty clutches of the Islamic State is underway.
With Iraqi Christians, Yazidis and other minorities suffering nothing short of genocide, the Iraqi military is currently engaged in a serious, systematic, albeit long-overdue campaign to crush ISIS and restore safety and stability to northern Iraq once and for all. Baghdad is working with a coalition that includes Iraqi Kurdish paramilitary forces known as the Peshmerga, backed up by U.S. intelligence, air support, special forces and tactical advisors.
The big question, as I see it, is not whether this coalition will ultimately be successful in liberating northern Iraq from ISIS (I believe they will be), but what happens the day after ISIS is gone. How will order be restored? How will the Christian community begin to rebuild their lives? And how will Baghdad help, rather than harm?
To this end, I wholeheartedly support an initiative by senior Iraqi government leaders to create a new province in northern Iraq — including the Nineveh Plain — that would specifically serve as a safe haven for Iraqi Christians, Yazidis and other minorities.
There once were some 1.5 million Christians living in Iraq. Today, after so many years of war and terrorism and now a systematic effort by ISIS to annihilate the Christian community, there are today fewer than 350,000 professed followers of Jesus Christ in the country that was the birthplace of Abraham and Sarah and the home of many Biblical prophets, from Daniel and Ezekiel to Jonah and Nahum, to name just a few.
To their credit, a number of current Iraqi leaders are being clear that they don’t want their Christian community to have to flee to Europe or America to find protection from ISIS. They don’t want ISIS to be successful in their declared mission to “break the cross” and annihilate Christ-followers in Iraq. What’s more, some of them have come to recognize that the only way to build a stable, healthy, lasting republic is to help Christians there not only survive but thrive. Among other things, that means giving Iraqi Christians a real stake in governing themselves.
The creation of a new province in northern Iraq has been a topic of discussion for several years within the upper echelons in Baghdad. With the liberation of northern Iraq finally underway, the discussion is now picking up tempo, as is international support for the idea.
Last month when I was in the States, I had a very encouraging phone conversation with Congressman Jeff Fortenberry who has spent a great deal of time examining the issue. He recently introduced a bipartisan resolution towards this end and is urging both Congress and whomever is elected the next President of the United States to support a new Iraqi province to protect the Christians.
Fortenberry has impressive street cred on the issue. Earlier this year, the Nebraska Republican led the effort to persuade Members of Congress to officially define the ISIS slaughter of Christians as genocide. In March, the House passed Fortenberry’s resolution by a unanimous vote of 383-0. Two days later, the Obama administration finally agreed to formally define the actions of ISIS as genocide.
Working closely with Fortenberry and his colleagues on these matters is Robert Nicholson, an Evangelical Christian and public policy specialist based in Manhattan. Nicholson has written and spoken extensively on the subject of protecting and strengthening persecuted Christians in the Middle East. After talking with him at some length, and reading a good deal of his work, I believe Nicholson is making a principled and effective moral and strategic case for the U.S. fully backing the creation of such a new province. I especially commend his most recent article, “The Strategic Case For A Safe Haven In Northern Iraq,” to your attention.
“This province would not be an externally created construct,” Nicholson wrote with several colleagues earlier this year. “It would be a political recognition of the province’s underlying ethnic and cultural makeup, building on what has already been taking place. Indeed, on January 21, 2014, Iraq’s Council of Ministers ‘agreed, in principle, to turn the districts of Tuz Khurmato, Fallujah, and the Nineveh Plains into provinces,’ pursuant to Articles 61 and 80 of the Iraqi Constitution. What remains is for the United States, its allies in the coalition against ISIS, and regional partners to support the Iraqis as they begin a transition toward greater federalism and greater protection for the country’s most vulnerable communities.”
I agree, and I’m committed to doing everything I can to encourage more support in the House for Rep. Fortenberry’s resolution, and to create a Senate version, too.
Four times in recent years, I’ve had the opportunity to visit, preach and teach in northern Iraq. I’ve traveled twice across the Nineveh Plain, and had the honor of meeting with persecuted Christians there. Indeed, it has become a great passion of mine to find ways to support and encourage and even fund the pastors and Christian leaders of Iraq. I don’t believe the creation of a new province and thus a safe haven will solve all their problems. But I do believe it’s vital that Western Christians stand with our brothers and sisters, especially as they face genocide. We should do everything we can to help them recover from the tyranny of ISIS, and to help the Iraqi Church be a witness and blessing to their Muslim and Yazidi neighbors who have suffered so greatly under ISIS, as well.
[This column is based on my personal beliefs and opinions. I share them in my personal capacity as an American citizen and an author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of The Joshua Fund, which is a non-profit organization and takes no political or legislative positions.]
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