The entrance to Kirkuk is guarded by a giant statue of a soldier with a gun slung over his shoulder. The 70ft-tall monument is the largest military statue in the Middle East. The soaring cement and iron structure was erected in honour of the Peshmerga, who seized the city in 2014 after the Iraqi army chose to scatter rather than fight ISIS. But it does not simply commemorate past heroism. When the statue was unveiled in July, the city’s Kurdish saviours were sending a message to the government in Baghdad: Kirkuk is ours now. This week Baghdad replied by sending troops to retake control of the city.
Why should this tussle over one patch of the crazy quilt of 21st-century Iraq matter to us? Not least because thousands of Christians fled to the Kurdish-controlled zone when ISIS attacked Mosul and the Nineveh Plains. A new war, between the Iraqi government and the Kurds over an oil-rich province, is the last thing these refugees need.
Neither side seems willing to back down. Last month the Kurdish Regional Government held a controversial referendum. Ninety-three per cent voted in favour of establishing an independent state for Kurds, the Middle East’s fourth-largest ethnic group, who have long dreamed of self-determination. There is no easy way out for the region’s Christians. A community that numbered 1.5 million in 2003 has dwindled to as little as 200,000 today. Now that ISIS has lost its Iraqi foothold, the faithful are theoretically free to return to their towns and villages in the Nineveh Plains. But almost 13,000 homes there have been damaged or destroyed. So unless the community can build houses fast, many families will have nowhere to return to as both winter and the din of war edge closer.
We must pray that the strife over Kirkuk does not lead to all-out civil war. We must also do all we can to ensure that Christians can return speedily to their homes. Many fine charities are helping to rebuild Christian life in the Nineveh Plains. We should support them.
Some argue that, as Iraq seems doomed to instability, the most prudent option is for Iraqi Christians to emigrate. The knee-jerk response to this is that it is vital to maintain a Christian presence in a biblical land.
But, as Cardinal Vincent Nichols argued recently in these pages, there is another reason for the faithful to remain that isn’t rooted in ancient history: that Iraqi Christians bear within them the message of forgiveness and reconciliation. There is a slim chance that they can persuade the country’s disparate ethnic groups to let go of past grievances and build a new Iraq together.
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