Former Republican congressman Frank Wolf, a leading voice on human rights during his time in Congress and now a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, has just returned with a disturbing report from his fifth visit to Iraq. While U.S. forces have made great progress on the battlefield, Christian and Yazidi areas he visited have been decimated by years of war. The horrors of war — rape, forced conversion, enslavement — have scared those who survived. He went to areas where U.S. Embassy personnel are not permitted — Sinjar Mountain, Sinjar City, Bartella, Qaraqosh, Nimrud, Irbil, Dahuk, and Mosul, where a Christian population that once reached 1.5 million people has been reduced, by Wolf’s estimate, to 250,000. In some towns structures have all been destroyed and families live in tents wary of Islamic State sympathizers who may be in camps for displaced persons. His written report does not mince words:
Three years on and following the liberation of most of the Christian and Yazidi villages in northern Iraq, including Mosul, there is an ever-increasing concern that many of the ethnic and religious minority communities will be unable to return homes due to the destruction, and the growing political tensions between the central government of Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government and other non-state actors. If something bold is not done by the United States and the international community, I believe we will see the end of Christianity in the cradle of Christendom and a loss of religious and ethnic diversity throughout the region which could result in further destabilization across the Middle East and present a threat to U.S. national security interests.
In a phone conversation, he stressed that this is a critical time for these communities. “There’s a lot of vitality,” he said. “People are on the road. But the number-one issue is security.” Hundreds of Christian families have returned to homes in the Nineveh plains, but they will flee and others will not return if they do not have a sense of personal security. Once at the mercy of Islamic State fighters, they now confront the presence of Shiite militias, Iran’s proxies in the area. In these areas, there is no U.S. Embassy, consulate or base for ordinary Christians to go to, no one they can identify as sympathetic to their plight.
There are geopolitical as well as humanitarian issues at stake, Wolf writes:
Coordinated by officials in Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus and overseen by Gen. Qassam Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force and responsible for expansionist operations, Iran is developing a land corridor stretching from Iran, through Iraq and to the Syrian port of Latakia on the Mediterranean. If achieved, this will aid Hezbollah and Assad and become a direct threat to Israel and to US regional interests and national security. Iran will be able to supply militia in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon with guns, materials and soldiers. In addition, this development will fuel the Sunni-Shia rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia and incite sectarian violence. In a post-ISIS Iraq, where power vacuums will exist, this needs to be addressed in order prevent the insidious spread of Iranian influence.
In order to achieve their goals, the Iranian regime is currently sponsoring the purchase of Christian land by Shia Shabaks – a minority group of Shiite Turkmen – in the Nineveh plains. Christians are agreeing to sell their land to Iranian funded Shabaks because they fear their land will be taken from them anyway. However, this is an insidious plot devised by the Shiite clerics in Iran to cleanse the Nineveh plains of Christians and establish a Shiite – dominated region of Iranian influence stretching from Iran in the east to Hezbollah in Lebanon in the west.
Wolf has met with Capitol Hill staffers and will be testifying before the House Foreign Relations subcommittee responsible for global health, human rights and international organizations chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.). He told me what is needed is a small group with fresh eyes to assess the post-Islamic State situation. “Then there needs to be a top office to implement” reconstruction, security and other immediate needs. “If the administration does take bold action, there will be a Christian community. If not, there will not be,” he says. “Between now and the end of the year, if the Christian community sees action, I’m hopeful they will stay.” He repeats that the most vital need is for “the right person who has a presence” in the area.
If the Christian community disintegrates, Wolf notes, “The Iranians will be able to jump in a car in Tehran and drive to the [Mediterranean] Sea.” Moreover, an ancient Christian population revered by many Christians around the world where one can still visit tombs of biblical figures such as Jonah, Daniel and Ezra will be lost, an avoidable tragedy.