Mosul, Iraq -- It's not the crushed buildings, open bomb craters, or even the bloodstained floors where the bodies of ISIS fighters have been rotting since the liberation of the Old City of Mosul that shock especially. It is the clumps of beard hair in the ruined churches. ISIS fighters used most of the 45 churches in the old city for shelter, target practice, and torture and, in the case of the Dominican church, as a place to hang their victims from inside the bell tower. As the battles intensified, many fighters shaved off their regulation long beards, which ISIS required of every man in Mosul (all of them were Muslims at that point), fighter or not. Rather like former Nazi troops shedding their uniforms before the approaching Allies, the soldiers of the caliphate thought they would evade capture if they got rid of their facial hair. The clumps were everywhere as we walked through the destroyed churches last week. The many dead bodies of ISIS fighters found in the desecrated churches are evidence that, for some, the barbershop escape plan came too late.
With my traveling companion, Catholic journalist Edward Pentin, I got to within a few miles of Mosul last year as the bombing intensified. We reached the abandoned Christian town of Karemlash. The damage was bad: ISIS had burned many of the houses and rigged them with IEDs, and, of course, desecrated both of the churches -- in every church they captured in Iraq, every visible cross or image was defaced.
We made that visit to assess the damage and the possibilities, if any, for the displaced Christian population of the Nineveh Plain to return. People seemed optimistic, if security could be guaranteed and aid were granted, that they would go back and rebuild their houses and their lives.
This time, as we were driven around the Old City last month, getting out and walking gingerly through the rubble, which still concealed bodies and bombs, the Iraqi police general who was guaranteeing our safety kept turning to us and saying, "Mosul very good, yes?" Unfortunately not. The rather sinister fellow in the dark glasses and heavily dyed black hair was attempting to show us that life was back to normal in Mosul, but that is far from the case. The city still has no bishop or priest, and only ten Christian families have returned, from a population of more than 3,000 families in 2014. The Syriac Orthodox archbishop, who has not come back, has reportedly told his people to follow his example.
Across the Nineveh Plain, where Christians trace their roots back to the time of the Apostles, many Christians have returned nonetheless, some to the region's formerly largest Christian town, Qaraqosh, but only because they are employees of the Iraqi government, which would not pay their salaries otherwise. The people we spoke to, in numerous villages and towns, so optimistic after the defeat of ISIS last year, are now living in a kind of no man's land. Their houses are slowly being repaired, but there are no jobs, and the security is precarious. Like the many Germans who after World War II took pains to deny, downplay, or deflect any involvement of theirs with the Nazis, the Christians' neighbors in Mosul today, who stole their houses and welcomed the ISIS fighters warmly, would now have us believe that they were only putting on a show of support, to protect themselves. Perhaps the barbershop strategy works.
"We are so weak," one priest told me, "and no one in the West will protect us." It's not only the danger that ISIS sleepers and supporters could reemerge. Christians are also caught in the escalating tensions between the Iraqi government and the Kurdish desire for independence. The Shabak, a Shia group, is now surrounding the formerly Christian town of Bartella, buying houses and changing the demography of the area. The whole Nineveh Plain is now called "the disputed territories."
"Disputed by who?" a parish priest experiencing the pressures of demographic change said to me. "We have always lived here. Show me the Kurdish cemeteries, if they claim this is their land."
The despair becomes most palpable when the conversation turns to the question of U.S. assistance, or the dearth thereof,. During the 2016 presidential election, candidate Donald Trump made much of his support for persecuted Christians throughout the world. I was in Iraq before the election and again last March, not long after Trump took office. Every person we met, priest or layperson, supported Trump, loathed Obama, and believed good things were coming. Now, they say, it was all talk, empty words.
In May 2017, Vice President Pence declared that the defense of persecuted Christians would be a "foreign-policy priority" for the administration: "America will support these people in their hour of need." Last October, to great acclaim from many Christian groups, he announced that the U.S. would bypass the United Nations and direct funds through faith-based groups and USAID (United States Agency for International Development). That aid has yet to appear. Obama holdovers, sources tell me, are directing funds to "dialogue programs" on the Nineveh Plain. It is unlikely that people who lost their homes, whose churches were used for torture, and whose dead were exhumed and decapitated are ready for teatime diplomacy.
Meanwhile, the number of Middle Eastern Christians admitted to the United States in 2017 dropped, because of the administration's restrictions on immigration from various Muslim-majority countries. One senior cleric in Iraq told me wearily that it might be better to stop holding conferences full of beautiful words and to start taking action to alleviate the crisis.
Even amid the broken buildings and crushed bodies in Mosul, and in every town we visited, we brought a smile, and sometimes laughter, to the battered Christians there when we mentioned how ISIS fighters who returned to Europe were being received there. Rehabilitation, jobs, and apartments for the jihadis. For the persecuted Christians, not so much. Such grim amusement is about the only kind available to them these days.
Benedict Kiely, a Catholic priest, is the founder of Nasarean.org, which supports persecuted Christians in Iraq, Syria, and around the world.