Christians in ‘wrong time and place’

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BY CAMPBELL MAC DIARMID, NATIONAL POST
Christians in ‘wrong time and place’
An Armenian Christian priest leads mass during Easter Sunday celebrations at Umm al-Nour Church in Irbil, capital of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. Facing persecution by extremists, many of Iraq’s Christians are questioning their future in the country or emigrating elsewhere.
Photograph by: Safin Hamed, AFP, Getty Images , National Post
For many Iraqi Christians commemorating Easter Sunday, this year’s church services were not just a time for marking the Resurrection, but a time to reflect on their future, with many considering new beginnings overseas.

On Sunday, parishioners filled the pews and aisles of the Mar Elia Church in Ankawa, a Christian neighbourhood in Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish Region.

After hymns sung in Arabic, Father Douglas Bazi, of the city’s Chaldean Catholic archdiocese, encouraged his parish to consider their future in Iraq.

“I don’t like when they talk about what a pity it will be – Iraq without Christians,” he told the congregation. “The Middle East and Iraq will be here forever. You’ve been here for 2,000 years and persecuted for much of that time. If you are going to decide to emigrate that’s your decision.”

Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were more than a million Christians in Iraq. Today there are thought to be fewer than 300,000.

Bazi himself fled to Irbil from his hometown of Baghdad in 2013. After his church was bombed, he was shot in the leg by a Shiite militiaman and finally he was kidnapped for nine days by a criminal gang.

“It is no secret, we are going to lose half of our Christians,” he said. He described how 35,000 families arrived in Ankawa almost overnight last August. “But in the last two months, at least 10,000 families have gone.”

Mar Elia’s parish has been inflated by 110 families who took refuge at the church after fleeing their homes in Qaraqosh last summer.

Known as Iraq’s Christian capital, Qaraqosh was one of a number of towns on the Nineveh Plains to fall to ISIL last August. Since then, an estimated 125,000 Iraqi Christians have fled to the Kurdistan region, driven by reports of ISIL militants asking Christians to either convert to Islam or be killed and photos showing the extremists desecrating churches. Now many of those Christians are emigrating and those left behind are questioning their future in Iraq. In one of the prefabricated cabins housing the displaced Christians that now fill the Church grounds, 40-year-old labourer Rames Jamal says Easter in Irbil was no comparison to the usual celebrations in Qaraqosh.

“You had to come two hours before the service just to get a seat, people would be spilling out onto the street,” he said.

Now he is pondering the difficulties of immigrating to Germany, where his wife Abeer has relatives. “It’s really expensive, you have to go to a UNHCR camp in Jordan or Turkey first to apply for refugee status,” he said. “You don’t know how long you will be there for.”

His 25-year-old wife said:

“We never thought about wanting to live overseas before this. In Qaraqosh we had a feeling of attachment to our land and our town but now we don’t have that.”

But they don’t think they will ever feel safe there again. Likewise, recent history has convinced Bazi there is no place for Christians among the sectarian fighting between Sunni and Shiite tearing apart the rest of Iraq. “We as Christians are in the wrong time and place,” he said.

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