Driven from their homes by ISIS, Iraqi Christians face choice of flight or fight

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For Christians in Iraq, driven from their ancestral lands by the Islamic State, Easter celebrations were overshadowed by the feeling that they might never see home again. Now a small band of the displaced are taking up arms in order to defend their fellow Christians. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: Iraq’s Christians have fled the country in startling numbers since the U.S. invasion in 2003. That exodus has been accelerated by the ISIS onslaught over the last two years. Now some are standing their ground to fight back.

Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports from Irbil and the Nineveh Plain in Northern Iraq.

JANE FERGUSON: Iraqi Christians celebrate Easter’s Holy Week, a time of rebirth, hope, salvation. But many here see little hope in their ancestral lands. They have fled ISIS’ grip for the nearby safety of Irbil city, and they have no idea if they can ever go home.

Father Douglas Bazi has worked to raise awareness around the world of the plight of Iraq’s Christians. Yet even he understands why most choose to leave a nation they struggle to feel a part of.

FATHER DOUGLAS BAZI, Mar Elias Church, Erbil: The bigger problem here is when the Christians feeling that we are not belong to this land again — anymore. Without — with this feeling, I am not feeling that I belong to Iraq. So, why I am here? Why should I be target every time?

And don’t — please, don’t blame my people when they, because always they say, oh, it’s a shame, the Middle East without — without Christians. It’s really a shame. The Christians, they are leaving.

So, why you put shame on my people? Why not put shame to those actually force people to leave?

JANE FERGUSON: The number of Christians in the Middle East has fallen from 14 percent of the population in 1910 to 4 percent in 2010. Before 2003, there were around 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Now it is believed less than 200,000 remain.

And many of those have been displaced from their villages by the Islamic State. These Christians fled their town as ISIS fighters approached, losing everything they have ever known in just a few terrifying hours.

Now they live in Father Douglas’ church yard. They cannot go home, but they have nowhere else to go. Compared to many refugees in this war, they are lucky. The global Christian community is supporting them, and some have been offered new lives in Europe.

But Hekmat Peter doesn’t just want to go home. He wants to go back in time, to when neighbors lived in harmony.

HEKMAT PETER, Christian Refugee (through interpreter): We don’t want a place for Christian people only, but like we used to live. Our town was surrounded by 30 villages of Muslims. So we want to live together in peace, like we did for many years.

JANE FERGUSON: Fighting back will not solve the problem either, says Father Douglas. He believes resolutely that Christians should never take up arms against their attackers.

FATHER DOUGLAS BAZI: We don’t believe in war at all. We don’t believe that the rights should be taken by weapon. And, actually, as a Christian, we don’t have militia belong to the Christian. So, as a Christian, we don’t have a militia.

Those people, if they want to go to the military and to serve there and be paid, this is their choice. We are never giving a blessing to war.

JANE FERGUSON: These men disagree. They are Christians who have come together into a small band of soldiers, coached by Americans and local Kurdish fighters called the Peshmerga.

They named themselves the Nineveh Plains Forces, after this area north of Mosul where many Christian villages were attacked. With less than 300 men fighting, their presence here is almost entirely symbolic. But their commander believes they can help their people.

SAFAA KHAMRO, Commander, Nineveh Plains Forces (through interpreter): Now we have only one unit. We need the help of the Kurds. We have to increase our numbers. If we have enough forces, we can protect the Christians in this Nineveh area.

JANE FERGUSON: Commanders here say these soldiers don’t have enough heavy weaponry to be stationed at the front line permanently. Instead, they wait here about a mile from the front line. And when there is an attack by ISIS, they move there quickly to back up Peshmerga forces.

For these soldiers, the fight is very personal. This 23-year-old volunteer calls himself George. His whole family fled their village, and he says ISIS fighters are now living in his home.

And how does it feel to have ISIS living in your house?

GEORGE, Nineveh Plains Forces: It’s a bad feeling, so aggravated, so angry, so mad. So, since they started here and created this force, I hear about it, and I came and volunteered to defend, to do everything. I really want to kill some of them. So, it’s like an angry inside of me, angry what they did to us.

JANE FERGUSON: He thinks there is too much bad blood here for things to be the same again.

If Da’esh, or ISIS, are defeated and they are pushed out of Mosul, is it going to be difficult for Christian communities here to live side by side with their neighbors?

GEORGE: Yes, I think it’s going to be hard and difficult.

JANE FERGUSON: George blames his Muslim neighbors for not standing up to ISIS.

GEORGE: They saw a lot of, like, bad things, and killing, kidnapping. So, I don’t think so. I don’t think they can communicate with them again.

JANE FERGUSON: The men practice house searches amongst the remnants of the very communities they hope to protect.

This Christian town emptied out in August 2014 when ISIS rushed in here and took over. Soon after, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces pushed them out. But the 1,000 or so Christian families who lived here never came back. The town now lies abandoned.

Some houses are being used to house Peshmerga and Christian forces. And the front line is about one mile in that direction. That’s where ISIS positions are. It’s now eerily silent here, except for some warplanes that fly overhead.

A couple of miles away, where the Nineveh Plains meet mountains, the Saint Hormuzd Monastery retains the defensive position it has kept for over 1,500 years. From its peaceful courtyard, the front line of fighting can be seen in the distance.

But it’s a crumbling relic of Christianity, empty of the vibrant people it once was built to serve, looking out over a land many in its community feel is slipping away from them.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jane Ferguson in Northern Iraq.