Interview: Emanuel Youkhana, Head of the largest Christian Relief Organization in Iraq

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This footage is an extended interview with Archimandrit Emanuel Youkhana, priest of the Assyrian Church of the East and head of the most important Christian relief organization in Iraq, CAPNI. Here he talks extensively about why, even after the Islamic State has collapsed, he thinks Iraqi Christendom is about to die out, and why he does not expect things to get much better.

The interview was conducted in English.

Shotlist

  1. [0:00:00 - 0:00:21] Youkhana: They fled in August [2014] from the Ninive plane, from Mosul in June. They were expecting to celebrate Christmas back home. Now, we are approaching Easter and there are no indicators that they will be able next Christmas. It is open ended. The timeframe is open end.
  2. [0:00:21 - 0:00:54] Youkhana: This disaster broke the coexistence, the links between the different religions. Wherever you go, ask a Yezidi or Christian. They feel they have been betrayed by their next door neighbor. Arab Sunnis.
  3. [0:00:54 - 0:01:46] Youkhana: It is not an issue of security from IS. IS will be defeated sooner or later. But is defeating IS enough for Christians to go back? Everybody you ask will say no. First, what is the guarantee you have it will not happen again? Second, what is the future, what is the outcome of this disaster. And then of course, the material side, infrastructure etc. To go back to my original point - it is beyond the material damage. So the plans should be beyond the material.
  4. [0:01:46 - 0:02:14] Youkhana: Honestly speaking, we became a tiny minority. The trust in our partners in Iraq is gone. So without support of the international community - sorry to say it and it is unpleasant to say it - we are in our last minute and Christianity in Iraq will be a museum.
  5. [0:02:14 - 0:03:10] Youkhana: Christians, we are aware, were at 1.5 million 20 years ago. Now, the most optimistic figures are speaking about 350.000. So, I am always asked from my German colleagues, Abouna [arabic for father, title of a priest], what do you think about the future of Iraq. I’d say Iraq is a blessed country. We have enough economic resources, we have enough human resources - so at the end of the day there will be a good model of Iraq. Sooner or later. But my concern is that when we achieve that model - will there be any Christians left in Iraq? There is a big question mark, it is a big concern. So far, the indicators on the ground are not in our interest.
  6. [0:03:10 - 0:04:35] Youkhana: Dozens and dozens of families are leaving every day to Amman, to Istanbul. Two days ago, I visited with a journalist the St. Peter and Paul Church where we are hosting IDPs [internally displaced people] from Ninive plane. There, they said in the beginning, in September and October, there were 52 families there, now they are 27. ‘Ok, what happened to the 25’, I asked. ‘Did they get a better accomodation?’ No, 20 of them left to Istanbul and Lebanon. There is this bleeding. Yes, we are in the last minute if nothing is done. [long pause] This is the unpleasant reality. Maybe it is politically incorrect to tell it, I don’t know. But this is what we see everywhere. We will keep fighting to the last minute for a living Christianity, a living Church - not just a museum. But it is not an easy challenge. It is not an easy challenge.
  7. [0:04:35 - 0:05:13] Youkhana: Speaking of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, I think it is the last hope for the so called Iraq. But even this hope is not unconditional hope. I trust the Kurdish leaders but I don’t trust the Kurdish Islamic imams and clergy. The question is, who is controlling the street when the moment comes.
  8. [0:05:13 - 0:05:33] Youkhana: We, the Eastern Christians, including myself, my Church and my Patriarch - we are big liars. We claim we always lived in peace together. No, sorry Sir.
  9. [0:05:33 - 0:07:22] Youkhana: I am strongly against migration. And really, I am against any program to resettle Christians outside of their home countries. Migration is an individual solution for individual cases. But we need to think about a solution for 300.000 plus Christians in Iraq, one million plus Christians in Syria. So far, we here in Iraq, the Church, we are not able to convince the people because the realities on the ground are not helping us. Churches have been calling for a couple of months for the fast return of the IDPs to their home towns. We became tired of calling upon the Western allies to liberate the Ninive plane so people can go back. [long pause] We are limited in our capacities. All we can do is [raise] arguments that not everybody can accept: emotions, preaching that these are your roots, it is your identity, you have to fight for it, our forefathers, 2000 years ago, passed through similar chapters, as Christians we should be patient, we don’t pray for lighter crosses but stronger sholders. All this we preach. But these are all emotions. We need to do something on the ground - which we can’t.
  10. [0:07:22 - 0:07:52] Youkhana: Military, militias, they all deal with the outcome. This is needed of course, but we need to deal with the roots. The start point of the problem is the constitution of this country. We are religious countries. When the constitution comes to claim ‘Iraq is an Islamic country’ - discrimination is right there.
  11. [0:07:52 - 0:08:37] Youkhana: As long as my Iraqi ID shows that I am a Christian and he is a Yezidi and he is a Muslim we are classified. As long as the Muslims live with this education, with this constitution, with this legislation, Sunnis and Shia of Bagdad, of Mosul, of Cairo, of Gaza, they feel as a brother of Turkish Muslim of Ankara or a Muslim of Jakarta, Indonesia, more than a brother of his Coptic, Maronite or Chaldean Christian neighbor next door.
  12. [0:08:37 - 0:09:07] Youkhana: We need to fight for a state of citizenship. Which we lack so far. Unfortunately, we are left with two options: Either or. Either a police state like under Saddam, under Gaddafi, under al-Assad. Or sharia state under IS, or under Nusra, under Taliban, under Boko Haram. But we deserve a third option.
  13. [0:09:07 - 0:09:43] Youkhana: If we consider that the Kurdish leadership is motivated by national aspirations and they know it is a common interest - for us and for them - to keep this diversity and this mosaic. So, if we invest in our role in Kurdistan, then we have good chances, I would say. If we are 250.000 out of 40 million [in all of Iraq], then we are at least 250.000 out of 4 million [in Kurdistan]. That makes a better situation.