When ISIS, also known as Daesh, seized Iraqi territory in 2014, the extremists gave Christians four options—leave, convert to Islam, pay a jizya tax, or be killed. Nearly all the Christians, an estimated 120,000, fled. Those left behind were tortured and subjected to sexual abuse and forced conversion. At least a dozen Christian women and girls disappeared from Qaraqosh, all believed enslaved by ISIS fighters. Esam, a refugee living in Jordan, said ISIS crucified his brother-in-law in Qaraqosh: “He was crucified and tortured in front of his wife and children, who were forced to watch,” he told World Watch Monitor. “They told him that if he loved Jesus that much, he would die like Jesus.”
“There were killings and horrible things happening in the church courtyards,” said Bassam. His own family members were forced out and are living in Iraqi Kurdistan about 30 miles away. His brother, a monk at Mar Behnam Monastery about 10 miles south, barely escaped execution when ISIS took over the site, a fourth-century monastery built by Assyrian King Sencharib. ISIS blew up and destroyed parts of the site in March 2015.
Such catastrophic losses haven’t dimmed Bassam’s family’s hopes of returning. “They will all be coming back for sure,” he said.
Not everyone is optimistic Christians will be allowed to return to their homes or will want to. “Security is the most critical need we have,” Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda told Catholic News Service. “We want to first build houses for our people so they can live with dignity, and we need infrastructure in the villages. But all this is only possible if we can have security.”
‘ISIS adores death. Anything they did not burn was only because they used it.’
Emanuel Youkhana, an Assyrian Church of the East priest who heads Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, said he’s no longer sure there is a future for Christians in Mosul. Besides destroying Christian landmarks and homes, ISIS eliminated public records, making legal claims over contested property difficult. When Youkhana visited Mosul in late January, he visited two damaged churches used as warehouses by ISIS. Already one of them had been turned over to a contractor, who was dismantling the building until the Iraqi army intervened.
“We will hear nice statements, but it will be impossible to get some of this property restored,” said Youkhana. “On the ground Daesh is defeated, but we are the losers.”
Complicating the situation are the competing armed forces currently fighting ISIS in and around Mosul. Besides the Iraqi army and the U.S.-led coalition supporting it, Kurdish peshmerga hold territory east of Mosul toward the semiautonomous Kurdistan region, separate Kurdish militias from Syria and Turkey hold territory in the west, and Iranian-backed Shiite militias fight alongside the Iraqi army in Mosul. They also control some of the territory in Nineveh, including once-Christian towns like Bartella. For Christians hoping to return, knowing who will control their hometowns and whether they can be trusted is the challenge.
“I notice discouragement most with Christians. They are finished,” said Darrell Yoder of Christian Aid Mission (CAM), a Virginia-based nonprofit. “They have seen Saddam; they have seen ISIS; they have seen enough.”
YODER, WHO HAS DIRECTED CAM AID PROJECTS in Iraq for a decade, is among a number of Christian workers not running from the challenges of the ISIS conflict. Remarkably, as fighting has intensified and Iraq again has become a war zone, some aid groups are pressing toward the front lines.
CAM has been partnering with other organizations to provide food, blankets, kerosene, and necessities to residents who’ve been surviving ISIS occupation, particularly in Mosul. At casualty collection points run by military commanders during fighting, CAM provided blankets and water under armed escort. Yoder, a Mennonite, avoids using weapons himself but isn’t averse to the danger. “It’s been our opportunity to be in the middle of the difficulty, because that’s where we see the gap.”
One of the partner groups Yoder has helped supply is Free Burma Rangers (FBR), an American-led aid group with 20 years’ experience providing help to war victims—though thousands of miles from Mosul in Burma. Director David Eubank, a former U.S. Army Special Forces officer, got a call to help in Iraq and Syria in 2015, and by November 2016 he was handing out badly needed supplies to civilians caught in combat.
“Over and over we’d hear this part of Mosul was clear of civilians, nobody was living there, and when the bullets stopped flying people would pop up from their houses by the hundreds. They were desperate for help,” said Eubank.
Besides material help, FBR also offers spiritual teaching and neighborly kindness. Eubank’s team—which includes his wife Karen and three children—hosts “Good Neighbor Clubs” in the areas where they work. These include mornings of singing and storytelling, usually featuring Bible stories, plus games and T-shirts for school-age children.
Mortar rounds and gunfire sounded from West Mosul as the FBR team led children in a round of “duck, duck, goose” in East Mosul in February. The approximately 1,000 people living in the suburb of Shahrazad, mostly Muslims and Turkmen, survived two years of ISIS control plus its fight with the Iraqi army in December. ISIS dug mortar pits in the school playground where FBR held its program, and surrounding buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes. Earthen berms surround the area.
As children played on playground equipment erected by FBR, Haiman Abdulkadem said Mosul residents were just glad to be outdoors: “We had to burn our furniture to cook and stay warm during ISIS occupation.”
He himself was held for seven days by ISIS, he said, tortured alongside Yazidi and Christian prisoners in central Mosul. “We need the love and forgiveness of Jesus. What’s wrong with my people is we love chaos. In chaos we can do as we want.”
Eubank has been caught in the crossfire. His team was pinned down alongside Iraq’s 36th Brigade during several days’ fighting at Al-Salam Hospital, one of Mosul’s largest medical facilities. Soldiers advanced quickly into the area then became surrounded by ISIS fighters, who called for reinforcements from throughout the city. ISIS deployed suicide bombers, destroying half a dozen tanks and killing about 20 soldiers, before U.S. airstrikes successfully targeted the ISIS positions.
The airstrikes left the hospital in ruin, but three weeks after the battle the surrounding area was coming back to life. Merchants opened shops displaying mannequins dressed in colorful gowns—all forbidden under ISIS. Taxis again were running, and children walked debris-strewn streets. “We’re no longer needed here,” said Eubank, who only weeks before had ferried battle casualties across the same roads. “Our main purpose is helping the people in greatest need, and that means continuing to the next front alongside the army.”