Iraqi Christians say they feel insecure, threatened by religious extremism, lawlessness and political instability.
Lingering concerns. A displaced family from Nineveh stands outside their shelter at the Virgin Mary Camp in Baghdad. (Oumayma Omar)
BAGHDAD – Under the cover of darkness three years ago, Waed Eishou and his family left their town of Hamdaniya in the Nineveh Plains near Mosul as Islamic State militants were advancing, spreading death and destruction as they passed. Today, a year after the extremist group was defeated, Eishou’s and many other Christian families refuse to return to their homes.
“It was a horrifying journey of survival,” Eishou said. “We moved from one camp to another in Irbil, then lived for a while in a church and finally ended up in Baghdad where we stayed in a Christian school first and then here in the Virgin Mary camp. Although it is no easy life, it is better than returning to the village.”
Few residents have returned to Hamdaniya, one of many Christian towns in Nineveh. Eishou said the Islamic State (ISIS) systematically destroyed the towns, going from home to home, dousing them with chemicals and setting them on fire.
“The place looks like ghost towns. People feel insecure and unstable there even after ISIS exit. That is why the majority prefer to stay in the camp until they get the opportunity to leave Iraq,” he said.
“The authorities have deprived Christians of their equal rights like other communities. It is a situation that many cannot cope with any longer,” Eishou added.
Nahla Khodr, also a refugee at the Virgin Mary camp, which is run by the Assyrian Democratic Movement party, visited her hometown of Qaraqosh secretly two months ago and discovered that her house has been razed.
“Everything is lost, my property, my belongings and all my savings. It was a great shock and such a painful sight,” Khodr said, “but what’s more distressing is that I know that I will not return to the town where I was born and lived all my life. The future of my children is my priority and it is definitely not there.”
While predominantly Muslim towns have begun to rebuild, in mostly Christian places, few residents have returned. Many are afraid of ISIS sympathisers and other extremist groups. In recent months, ISIS sleeper cells attacked in and around Mosul and Kirkuk, as well as in Baghdad.
“We fear for our security,” said Khodr. “All my efforts are focused on leaving Iraq and resettling in Europe with the help of relatives there.”
Like Khodr, Iraqi Christians say they feel insecure, threatened by religious extremism, lawlessness and political instability. Many see immigration as their sole option.
Christians and other minorities such as the Yazidis have been repeatedly targeted and their places of worship attacked by Muslim extremists since the United States toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Before the US invasion, there were some 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Since then, their numbers have dwindled to less than half that figure.
Some 150,000 Christians lived in the Nineveh Plains and 30,000 in Mosul, the country’s second largest city, before ISIS overran the area in 2015, Christian Parliamentarian and head of the Assyrian Democratic Movement party Yonadam Kanna said.
“Political instability, the conflict between Baghdad and Erbil over the so-called disputed areas (in and near Nineveh), in addition to the feeling of insecurity and the lack of services and facilities in the towns from which they were displaced are the reasons why the majority did not return despite the demise of ISIS,” Kanna said.
He said 20% of Nineveh’s Christians have left Iraq, while 40% of their houses were beyond repair and 20 churches, some dating to the 15th century, were destroyed.
“Sectarian and religious fanaticism dealt a big blow to the peaceful coexistence in Mosul and the Nineveh Plains, in particular, creating tensions and fears among Christians,” Kanna said. “Unless the area is really distanced from the scuffles and fights, the return of the Christian population will be extremely difficult despite the big assurances made by the government.”
Hanna Tobia, 55, was displaced from his hometown in Anbar in 2015. He opened a shop in the camp and, unlike the majority of the camp’s residents, he is not keen on leaving Iraq.
“It is out of the question that I quit my country. My roots are here and I will live and die in Iraq even if my whole family wants to leave and I am left alone,” Tobia said.
A recent report by the Iraqi Human Rights Society said Iraqi minorities, such as Christians, Yazidis and Shabaks, are victims of a “slow genocide,” which is shattering those ancient communities to the point of their disappearance.
The report said that 81% of Iraq’s Christians have disappeared from Iraq and 18% of Yazidis have left the country or been killed. Another human rights organisation, Hammurabi, said Baghdad had 600,000 Christians in the recent past; today there are 150,000.