By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
NEW YORK – When Congressman Jeff Fortenberry first visited Iraq in 2005 – just months after he had been elected to the House of Representatives – his focus was on defense and diplomacy after the U.S. invasion.
Thirteen years later, the Catholic lawmaker from Nebraska has returned from his second trip to the country with a new focus: aiding its religious minorities.
While this new purpose is still connected to defense and diplomacy – as he believes a diverse, pluralistic Iraq is essential to the country’s stability – there’s a new sense of urgency, as the Nebraska representative believes there’s a real possibility of return for the country’s shrinking Christian population.
An estimated 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq in 2003. Today, that number is believed to be down to 300,000 following the Islamic State’s pillaging of the Nineveh Plains, a region in northeast Iraq that has historically been inhabited predominantly by Christian communities.
While ISIS has now been driven out and defeated, the situation remains fragile with many ethnic and religious minorities unsure whether they should risk returning.
For Fortenberry, he believes a safe return is possible, but that greater security and stability is desperately needed – hence, the congressman’s recent visit on behalf of Vice President Mike Pence who has pledged that the United States would bypass the United Nations and the central government of the country in order to get U.S. aid directly in the hands of those who need it.
The Trump administration’s pledge came nearly a year ago, and since that time many Iraqi Christian leaders have wondered when and if it would actually take effect.
Fortenberry told The Tablet that he believes the answer, in light of his recent fact finding mission, would be soon “given what we saw.”
While he does not have an exact number of how much in aid will be sent, he estimated it would be around $100 million.
“The UN does good work but it’s not part of their tradition to target aid to religious communities or minorities under threat, so that’s what we’re doing,” he added.
On Fortenberry’s desk in his office in Nebraska sits a sign that reads “Nurses Station.” It’s a sign he stepped on in an ISIS-destroyed hospital in the Nineveh Plains. As he spoke by phone with The Tablet, it continuously clanked against the phone. “It’s a sad reminder to me of what happened,” Fortenberry noted.
Yet along with that sorrow, there is hope as Fortenberry believes that the country has a chance to reclaim its status as a “tapestry of real pluralism” that can be a model not just to the Middle East but also for the entire world.
“There’s been co-existence for centuries,” between the country’s Muslim and Christian populations, and one reason Fortenberry believes the U.S. is wise to invest in Iraq is to help it recover the “dynamism of diversity.”
“If you lose religious diversity, it will result in tribal atmosphere,” he maintained.
Along with the country’s Christians, Fortenberry has been particularly attuned to the plight of the Yazidis, the Kurdish minority population targeted by ISIS resulting in the death of an estimated 4,000 individuals and the kidnapping of another 5,000 for the purposes of sex slavery.
In 2016, the Obama administration formally labeled the attacks a genocide, something that Fortenberry – whose hometown of Lincoln, Neb., has the largest Yazidi population in the United States – said they deserve great credit for doing.
Yet while formal declarations are important, the congressman says ongoing investment is still needed – something he says he knows isn’t an easy ask for some Americans.
“Iraq is very hard for the American people given all that we’ve sacrificed to put more initiative into the region,” he told The Tablet, but he believes in the long run it’s a wise investment.
For Fortenberry, the country’s Christian population has a right to be in their ancient homeland and that alone makes supporting them worthwhile.
Further, he believes that if the country’s Christians and Yazidis are integrated into the local security forces, they will be less reliant on outside efforts, ultimately leading to more stability for the entire region that will benefit everyone.
Yet, in all of this, he recognizes the “fragile” state of the country – hence, that’s why he believes it’s essential that the U.S. aid these minority groups so that in the long run they will be strong enough to build their own future.
Reflecting on the damage he saw firsthand, as one of Christianity’s oldest populations barely escaped extinction, Fortenberry told The Tablet that at times he was tempted to be overcome with despair.
Yet when those feelings start coming back, he said he recalls a young priest he met in his early 30s who had just returned to the Nineveh plains, along with 20 other young people who returned with the priest and are committed to rebuilding and reclaiming their homeland.
“They’re courageous, and they make me hopeful,” he said. “And, they’re an example.”