Displaced Christians place trust in church over politicians

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By Judit Neurink
Christian refugees at a camp for internally displaced in the Kurdistan Region. Photo: Judit Neurink
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Christians from the Nineveh Valley are frustrated with life as internally displaced. Many have left to go abroad. Those that remain are eager for their towns and villages to be liberated from Islamic State (ISIS) so they can return to their homes, which some want to come under Kurdish control and some want to remain under Baghdad. But they do not trust politicians to administrate the region and look to the church for leadership.

“I even get phoned by my people abroad, to ask if the liberation of Qaraqosh is starting,” said Father Bashar Klthea, 42, a Syrian Catholic priest who fled with his flock from the Nineveh Valley when the Islamic group ISIS overtook the Christian towns and villages over two years ago.

Around 100,000 people came to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, most of them to Ainkawa, the Christian part of the capital Erbil. Of these almost 13,000 families, about half have since left for abroad, as they felt that Iraq would no longer be safe enough for them.

Two years on, the Kurdish Peshmerga are almost on the doorstep of the largely Christian city of Qaraqosh. But many are frustrated their towns are still not liberated and are tired of waiting, said Father Bashar. “They lost hope and patience.”

“Most people can think of nothing else than going back,” said Sister Huda, who leads the Syrian Catholic Al-Bishara School in Ainkawa.

A school was built for the internally displaced in Ainkawa, yet they cannot wait to go back to their homes. “This school will remain open for those who stay, and now we know how easy it is to build a new one over there,” Sister Huda said.

She has also seen many of her pupils go overseas, even though, as she says, life in Ainkawa is better than abroad for most. “Many found work and got used to the situation here.”

People have kept an eye on their houses over the past two years, using apps like Google Earth, as ISIS is known to destroy and loot the places it occupies. “Look, this was my house,” said a man in the street in Ainkawa, opening his phone. He points out houses in Qaraqosh as seen from the air, with an empty spot in the left hand corner. “All that’s left is rubble.”

But Father Bashar explained that this damage was not caused by ISIS. “When the Americans detect any movement at a house from the air, they will bomb it.” He stated that this happened to some fifty of the 9,800 houses in Qaraqosh.

After two years, about 6,600 families remain in Ainkawa, and the church is still looking after them. Some live in caravan camps, some share houses the church rented for them. Some 2,100 families still get food aid.

Even though he says he is sad about all those who left the country, Father Bashar admits that it is only thanks to the fact that they did, that the church still is able to cope. “If all had stayed, the church would not have been able to look after them. For already after six months, the foreign aid decreased.”

With the operation for the liberation of the ISIS capital Mosul already in process, talk about the situation post-ISIS is increasing. People feel insecure, said Sister Huda. “Who will look after our safety? And will the Muslims go back to their villages next to ours too?”

Some Arab villagers aligned with the Islamic group, leaving many Christians to feel they will never be able to trust their neighbours again.

A large problem still to solve is the status of Nineveh Valley. Kurdish politicians want to add it to the Kurdistan Region as a separate province. But Baghdad expects to regain power there.

Christians who are from Nineveh disagree about which is best for them.

“We are already part of Kurdistan, and that’s better for us than the Iraqi government,” said Emad al-Dalakta, from the town of Bartella who teaches at the Technical Institute of Mosul. He has temporarily moved to Erbil. He is actively involved in supporting 500 families of the Syrian Orthodox Church. The Iraqi government hardly helped the Christians, he complained, giving them only a one-time payment of around $800.

He pointed out that the five Christian members of the Iraq parliament have failed to help their fellow believers. “The trust in politicians is gone. They just talk, while the church is helping. The church will have a bigger role after we return. Now it actually already does what the government should be doing.”

Dalakta admits that the Kurds lost a lot of goodwill when their military failed to protect the Christians against ISIS in August 2014. “But we only have our church guards and a militia of around 500 men. What can we do? How can we trust the Iraqi government after two years of nothing?”

Yet Father Bashar holds distrust towards the Kurds. “Kurds want these disputed areas under their control. It’s about their interests, not ours.”

Syrian Catholic lawyer Marwan Butrus Jiji believes the United Nations should become involved in finding a solution. “The Kurdish troops must work with the UN for our safety, based on a UN resolution.”

He wants autonomy for the Nineveh Valley, in coordination with the Iraqi government and in close cooperation with the Shabak and Kakei minorities. And in the new local government, he no longer sees a role for politicians. “They lost all credit,” he said.

Jiji wants representatives of the churches to take over. “I believe the process will fail if it is not led by the church. Our only hope is the church.”