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Isak Rool Bello: Failed by the West (©Abigail Frymann Rouch)


Isak Rool Bello was employed as a plumber in Baghdad in 2004 when he was set upon by masked men who beat him with metal piping, breaking his left thighbone. “I was working for the US army, so militias punished me,” he explained, looking lost. His mother, three sisters and two brothers had been killed the year before, when a cruise missile fell on their family home. The neighbourhood was obliterated so their bodies could not be found. Isak fled Baghdad and was taken in by a Franciscan priest in Mosul, but a decade later fled again when Islamic State (IS) captured the troubled northern city. The priest has been granted asylum in France; Isak hoped for resettlement, and surgery on his leg, in Australia, Canada, or Germany. But after almost three years in limbo in Jordan his health failed, and in April he died. There are hundreds of Iraqi Christian refugee families in Amman. They apply for asylum and wait; they cannot earn a living. Many suffer ill-health. Local priests supported by small charities pay rents for sparsely-furnished flats. Scared to enter a UN refugee camp, they say they receive no UN aid.

Christians’ long-term future in Iraq has been thrown into question since the US-led 2003 invasion, which was followed by a chaos that crescendoed into the appearance of IS three years ago. Since the US intervention, three-quarters of Iraqi Christians have sought refuge abroad. There have also been complaints that they miss out on international aid and asylum places. Given the West’s role in Christians’ vulnerability, does it not have a particular responsibility to them?

Successive waves of violence across the country have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and caused widespread traumatisation. Some three million Iraqis are still displaced and the battle for Mosul drags on. A both/and approach is needed: making Iraq safe for its religious and ethnic minorities will only succeed in the context of making coexistance possible for all citiens, and Iraqi society will only flourish when all its members are included and valued.

For Iraqi Christians, the invasion was especially catastrophic. The rallying cry for resistance offered through the mosque — to oppose the “Crusaders” — scapegoated the small Christian minority. Coalition troops attending Iraqi churches, the US army taking over a Catholic seminary in Baghdad, or the arrival of Evangelical missionaries hardened opinion against Christians, making them vulnerable to kidnap and murder.

The coalition’s efforts to include minorities in the new Iraq backfired. The governing council it assembled — 13 Shia, five Sunni, a Turkman and a Christian — politicised sectarian identity.  The coalition assumed that the 2005 elections would exorcise Saddam’s toxic legacy, but sectarian divisions deepened and coalition troops were unprepared for the scale of the Sunni-Shia violence, and ill-equipped to safeguard civilians.

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