Scarred and scared, Iraq’s Christians ask ‘should we stay or leave?’
MOSUL (IRAQ) – The front gate of Thanoun Yahya, an Iraqi Christian from Mosul, sports the jihadist message, “Islamic State endures”. It was etched on it by Islamist militants who occupied his home for three years when they were in control of the city.
He has not removed it ever since he returned and keeps it as a reminder that the nation’s scattered and dwindling Christian community lives a precarious existence.
“They’re gone, they can’t hurt us,” said Yahya, 59, who came back to reclaim his house in 2017 after the militants were driven away. “But there aren’t many of us left. The younger generation wants to leave.”
During the visit of Pope Francis to the Muslim-majority country, the stark choice facing the Christians will be highlighted. During the trip from March 5 to 8, the pontiff will visit Mosul among other cities.
He was forced to sell the family’s metalwork shop to pay a ransom to release his brother who was kidnapped by al Qaeda militants in 2004. It was a time when Christians were abducted and executed.
Since then, his income has shrivelled and he watched his siblings migrating to foreign nations.
Out of 20 relatives who lived in the neighbourhood, only his family comprising six members remains.
For centuries, Iraq’s Christians have endured unrest but a mass exodus began after the invasion of Iraq by US in 2003 and it gained momentum during the reign of the IS.
Hundreds of thousands have shifted to nearby areas and the West.
The Nineveh Plains are home to some of the oldest churches and monasteries in the world. The remaining Christians live in displaced villages that were overrun by the IS and in enclaves in bigger cities such as Mosul and the Kurdish region.
A destructive battle in 2017 with security forces brought an end to the Islamists’ rule over a third of the country with Mosul as their capital.
Iraqi authorities are struggling to rebuild war-ravaged areas and armed groups that the government has not been able to control are competing for territory as well as resources, including Christian heartlands.
Christians are faced with a dilemma – whether to return to damaged homes or leave the country which has failed to protect them.
“In 2014, Christians thought their displacement would last a few days,” said Cardinal Louis Sako, who heads the Chaldean Catholic Church.
“It lasted three years. Many lost hope and migrated. There’s no security or stability.”
Christians in the country number around 300,000, a fifth of the 1.5 million who lived here before the invasion.
Under the rule of Saddam Hussein, Christians were tolerated, but singled out for kidnappings and killings in the communal bloodshed of the mid-2000s onwards.
At a site in Mosul, Pope Francis will say a prayer for the victims of conflict.
Although they hail his visit, Christians do not believe it will improve their lot.
“The pope can’t help us, only God can,” Yahya said.
His family fled to northern Kurdistan region during the rule of the IS and is one of a few dozen that have returned to Mosul, which had 50,000 Christians once.
His two teenage sons help out at the local church, which is the only one that has been completely repaired and it is filled to half its capacity on Sundays.
The eldest, Firas, sees no future in Mosul.
“If I want to marry, I’ll have to leave. Christian women from here are displaced to other areas and don’t want to come back,” he said. “Ideally, I’d go to the West.”
The harrowing experience of IS demand to convert, pay a tax or be killed and the inability of the Iraqi and Kurdish troops to prevent the group marauding through their hometowns has left many Christians distrustful of any but their own.
The nearby Christian town of Hamdaniya has its own militia and local officials say it is necessary in the wake of the proliferation of Shiite Muslim paramilitary groups, vying to control land.
“If there were no Christian militia here, no one would come back. Why should we rely on outside forces to protect us?” said a local militia leader.
As many as 30,000 Christians, half of Hamdaniya’s population, have returned and they include families who came from overseas. They have begun rebuilding infrastructure with foreign aid.
Christian leader Sako of the neighbouring village said most Christians were unable or hesitant to return fearing the local Shiite militia and non-Christians had bought their property in their absence.
While some have evinced interest in resettling in Hamdaniya, local officials generally reject this, fearing it would weaken Iraqi Christians’ presence.
“If people move here from their own villages, it empties those areas of Christians,” said Isam Daaboul, the mayor of Hamdaniya.
“This threatens our existence in areas we’ve been for generations.”