“Convert, flee or die”: that was the ultimatum given to Chaldean Catholics in northern Iraq by Islamic State militants as they overran their towns in 2014.
In August 2014, the militants came to Nagham al-Katta’s village in Karemlash, south-east of Mosul, forcing her family to flee, leaving behind their home, all their possessions and their friends.
Part of the oldest Christian religion in the world, 10 to 15 Chaldean families have been arriving in Australia every day for the past two months as part of a federal government agreement to take in 12,000 refugees from the Syrian-Iraqi humanitarian crisis. This Christmas was the first that many of those families could celebrate their faith with their families, without the worry and danger of being killed.
After two years in a Jordanian refugee camp, Mrs Katta and her family arrived in Australia in August. She was “very happy” to spend Christmas Day with her extended family. “We pray for the peace in the world especially for Iraq and we hope that finish this bad situation
In Iraq Mrs Katta had completed a bachelor’s degree in languages and she hopes to continue her studies in Australia. Her husband’s family stayed in Iraq and were forced to migrate further north where they have found safety, for now. “You can’t say it’s a safe place for them,” Mrs Katta emphasised.
“We are so happy to be in Australia,” Mr Habib said in front of the Chaldean St Mary’s Assumption Church. When Islamic State came to their village in 2014, they forced their Muslim neighbours to convert from the Shiite to Sunni branch of Islam.
Mr Habib and Mrs Toma chose to flee. It was a difficult decision as Mrs Toma was pregnant with their son, Savio, who is now two. The couple didn’t have any plans for Christmas beyond church, as their parents and the rest of their family are still in a Jordanian refugee camp waiting for a visa.
Also in the congregation were Ramz Habib and Slivana Toma, who were forced to flee Islamic State while Mrs Toma was seven months pregnant.
The Chaldean Archbishop Amel Nona, who was one of the last priests to leave Mosul, staying until the “last day” possible, said Christians must love in the face of terrorism.
“They [IS] actually want us to be like them – without love – so they can better justify the hatred that they have against us,” he said.
Father Denkha Joola, a Chaldean priest, led his first Christmas Mass in “freedom” at St Thomas the Apostle Church in western Sydney on Sunday. He said there were many similarities between Christmas in Iraq and Australia but the most profound difference was not the weather.
“People aren’t afraid when they finish the Mass [in Australia], sometimes when we did the Mass in Iraq we would be afraid someone could come to attack us,” he said.
In Iraq, Christmas was a very stressful time and he would check unknown cars parked near his church. “All the time when I was doing the Mass, I’m just looking at the gates, I wanted to be sure there is nothing happening,” he said.
Father Joola came to Australia in June this year to study at the Australian Catholic University and will return to northern Iraq where he has been heavily involved in humanitarian work in Erbil. In March this year, he spoke to the US Congress about the atrocities experienced by Chaldeans in Iraq, atrocities that he described as a “genocide”.
Since 2003, he said Chaldeans have been the target of unprovoked Islamic terrorism with priests and nuns kidnapped, tortured and killed and ancient sacred sites desecrated.
“Please, you can help my people even with one word, use one word: genocide, use it. If you can help my people to bring them here, to Australia please do it,” he said.