Christians of Mosul Find Haven in Jordan

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Slide Show | Iraqi Christian Refugees in Jordan About 4,000 Christians left the Iraqi city of Mosul for Jordan in the last three months, forced out by Islamic State fighters.
AMMAN, Jordan — They were among the final holdouts. Even as many of their neighbors fled the violence that engulfed Iraq after the American invasion, the three men stayed put, refusing to give up on their country or their centuries-old Christian community.

Maythim Najib, 37, stayed despite being kidnapped and stabbed 12 times in what he believed was a random attack. Radwan Shamra, 35, continued to hope he could survive the sectarian war between his Sunni and Shiite countrymen even after losing two friends shot by an unknown gunman who left their bodies sprawled in a Mosul street. And a 74-year-old too frightened to give his name said he remained despite the trauma of spending three anguished days in 2007 waiting to learn if his kidnapped 17-year-old son was dead or alive.

Now all three men from Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and its environs have fled with their families to Jordan, forced out by Islamic State fighters who left them little choice. After capturing the city in June, the Sunni militant group gave Christians a day to make up their minds: convert, pay a tax, or be killed.

It was “the last breath,” said Mr. Shamra, one of 4,000 Iraqi Christians from Mosul who have come to Jordan in the past three months and one of more than 50 people sheltering in St. Ephraim Syrian Orthodox Church in Amman. “We waited as long as possible until we knew we would die if we remained.”

Their flight is part of a larger exodus of Christians leaving those Arab lands where religious intolerance is on the rise, a trend that has caused concern among Christians outside the region — including the pope. It has also captured the attention of King Abdullah II of Jordan, a close American ally who has made the need for the continued presence of multiple religions in the Middle East a major talking point in recent years.

So when fighters from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, stormed into Mosul, the Jordanian government threw open the country to Iraq’s Christians despite rising tensions in Jordan over waves of Syrian refugees whose presence has increasingly burdened ill-prepared communities.

Hasan Abu Hanieh, a Jordanian political analyst, said the government’s decision was both humanitarian and strategic, at a time when Jordan is edgy over Islamist militants on its borders and anxious to keep its bonds with the West strong.

“The government can show the world that Jordan has a policy that seeks to protect minorities, unlike its neighbors,” he said.

The Iraqi Christians also benefited from the fact that Jordan’s small Christian community maintains good relations with its majority Sunni neighbors and mobilized quickly to help the refugees, many of whom were crammed into camps in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Also crucial was the intervention of Caritas, an international Christian charity that has spent years in Jordan serving displaced Palestinians, poor Jordanians and others. The group worked to let Iraq’s Christians know that Jordan was opening up to them. Payment for visas was waived, and Caritas and Jordan’s churches said they would provide for refugees’ basic needs.

Refugees did, however, have to pay for their own flights on Royal Jordanian Airlines from Erbil, in Iraq, to Amman.

About 500 of the new and often traumatized Christian refugees now live in community halls in seven churches in Amman and nearby Zarqa, trying hard to make do in places with little privacy or even enough basic necessities like toilets. Many of the other refugees are living several families to an apartment or house, paying the rent with their own money or with aid from Caritas.

Still, they are relatively lucky, aid workers say. One of the lures to come here was the promise of being able to more quickly obtain refugee status that might allow them to leave the region.

At the Mary, Mother of the Church in Amman, where dozens of the Christian refugees reside, suitcases lay on top of each other to save space. Thin mattresses with floral designs are spread across the floor and wet garments hang from windows to dry. The children, still afraid of their new surroundings, rarely wander off without their parents, even to play.

“I ask them to tell me what they saw, how they feel now,” said Khalil Jaar, a priest in the parish. “I try to give them hope by telling them about the resilience of refugees in the past.”

Besides providing shelter, the church feeds the refugees, doling out hearty portions of rice and vegetables paid for by charities or from donations from Jordanians.

Like the approximately 620,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan and more than 30,000 other Iraqi refugees, the latest arrivals are not allowed to work — an attempt to ensure they do not stay forever in a country that previously granted citizenship to a large population of displaced Palestinians. To while away the time, the men play backgammon, drink tea together or help with chores at the church’s school. The women spend their time mainly caring for their children and helping prepare meals.

Mostly, they are haunted by the abrupt end to their lives in Iraq, and to a Christian tradition that had survived in Mosul for more than 1,700 years.

Saif Jebrita, a photographer, said he knew it was time to leave when he went to open his shop days after ISIS declared victory and found a notice from the militants demanding that he abandon his profession. The group claims that images are against Islam.

“It’s the only thing I know how to do, and they wanted to destroy it,” he said recently as his two young sons stood next to him, fidgeting with broken toy dinosaurs.

At St. Ephraim, the 74-year-old who was too anxious to give his name said his greatest worry was the safety of his older son, who remains in Erbil, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. A younger son, the one who had been kidnapped, is with him, having survived that earlier ordeal.

To show what the family had been through, the elderly man carefully laid out photos of his old home on one of the only flat surfaces he has, next to the toothpaste and a small broken mirror. A neighbor sent the photos after the family fled.

A letter N for Nazrene, a term used for Christians in the Quran, is spray painted twice on the stone wall surrounding the home, which also is now marked Property of the Islamic State.

Mr. Najib, the man who survived the stabbing, said his 8-year-old daughter did not understand that there was nothing to go back to, and had been crying a lot recently, asking to go home. He bemoaned the loss of Mosul’s Christian community.

Under the Islamic State, “diversity is dead or at least dying,” he said.

Mr. Jebrita, the photographer, shared his despair. “We are very much part of the Arab culture, we are citizens of Iraq,” he said. “What do we go back to? There is no home, and if this continues, there will be no country.”