• Written by:

World Watch Monitor
As prayers were offered in Syriac in front of the altar of the trashed church of Mart Shmoni in the recently freed town of Bartella, more homes where Christians used to live in Iraq’s north-eastern Nineveh Plain were being claimed back from the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS).

Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian town, has been regained by Iraqi forces, sources close to the area, have told World Watch Monitor. Also known by its Syriac name, Baghdeda, the town was home to 50,000 to 60,000 people, 95 per cent of which were Christian, before IS invaded it in 2014.

Rescued girls

Archbishop Boutros Moshi (left) and Archbishop Nicodemus Sharaf (second from left) greet one of the students saved from IS. PICTURE: Courtesy Fr Ammar (via World Watch Monitor)
“It’s a miracle. A true miracle. We prayed a lot and God answered.”
The words of Iraqi Syriac-Catholic priest Ammar in the wake of last weekend’s remarkable story of seven Christian female students in Kirkuk, who hid under their beds for seven hours while soldiers from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) occupied their house. It vividly illustrates how volatile the situation in Iraq is currently.
Last weekend IS launched a surprise attack on the northern Iraqi city, supposedly to divert the Iraqi military from the battle for Mosul. While the battle to expel IS from Iraq has begun, Christians still fear IS attacks, even in cities and villages deemed safe.
Since Kirkuk has been under the protection of Kurdish forces for over two years, Iraqi churches deemed it safe enough to send displaced Christian students there to study at Kirkuk University. Father Ammar told World Watch Monitor contacts how 50 female students and eight nuns lived there in church-rented houses. Last weekend, completely unexpectedly, an IS militia bombed and stormed that part of the city.
“Suddenly their street was filled with IS warriors, shouting ‘Allahu akbar’ [Allah is the greatest]. Most students were able to leave their houses in time, but seven girls couldn’t,” Father Ammar said. “They texted me in the evening; they were terrified: ‘We are in danger. Please come for us’. At least four IS soldiers had entered their house. The girls had gone to their bedroom, and were hiding under their beds, covered in blankets.”
IS is known to rape and enslave non-Muslim women, to kill them brutally or to use them as human shields. All those thoughts must have gone through the heads of the seven while they waited in the dark for hours, trying to lay still and not make any sound.
After the girls notified their church leader in Erbil, he set the wheels in motion to save them. People started praying, and the church reached out to the Iraqi and Kurdish forces, asking them to save the girls. While the rescue was being planned, Fr Ammar stayed in touch with them through texts.
“All this time they were hiding under their beds, undiscovered by IS. At some moment the IS warriors even entered the bedroom, to pray and to care for one of their soldiers who’d got hurt. Luckily the electricity was cut off, so it was dark. Nevertheless it was a miracle the girls weren’t discovered,” he said.
After three or four hours, Iraqi soldiers liberated the house and the girls were taken to safety. Arriving in Erbil a few hours later, they were greeted with cheers. “In the end none of the students or nuns were injured. Praise God for that,” said Fr Ammar.
However, shortly after the IS soldiers left the house, one blew himself up.
Now that IS is being hunted and cornered by Iraqi, Kurdish and international forces, Christians and others in Iraq can be vulnerable even in apparently secure areas: they fear IS sleeper cells may pop up elsewhere in Iraq, in an effort to destabilise the country.
– World Watch Monitor

The troops now control the city centre and St Mary’s Al-Tahira Syriac Catholic Church, the biggest church in the town.

Karamles, another town of significant Christian presence halfway between Bartella and Baghdeda, east of Mosul, may soon be fully in Iraqi hands.

Meanwhile, Bashiqa, another Nineveh town whose name testifies to its Assyrian roots, remains under siege, while Kurdish Peshmerga forces have regained more of the surrounding area.

Fighting continues for other towns where Christians were once a majority, including Telkeif, as anti-IS forces continue their push for Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul, 10 kilomtres away.

Telkeif was almost entirely a Christian town before it was Arabised and the majority of its ancient Chaldeans migrated to the Detroit area, in the US – a situation replicated in varying degrees across areas and towns in Iraq and the wider Middle East.

But despite images of liberating Iraqi militias ringing bells or cleaning statues of the Virgin on behalf of Nineveh’s displaced Christians, the plain’s natives are not making a comeback just yet.

Long before the hot summer of 2014, when IS strove to wipe out every remaining Christian vestige from those ancient lands, Iraqi Christians have seen the country they called home turning increasingly more hostile towards them.

Iraq’s Christian presence has been rapidly declining in recent decades. In the early 1990s, one and a half million Christians reportedly lived in the country. Today, at most 250,000 are thought to still be living there, half of them internally displaced.

A report presented in October by Christian charity Open Doors UK says radical groups have been working for the religious cleansing of Iraq, with the aim of making the country “purely Islamic”.

Iraq’s Parliament, while apparently thrilled that the Nineveh Plain is being “liberated” from the “extremist” IS, has recently voted for a blanket ban on the sale, import and production of alcohol. In a country that at least officially recognises among its citizens indigenous groups like Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks and others, the availability of alcohol was found to be unconstitutional, as it is “un-Islamic”.

Now that the displaced may be considering their first moves back to their lost properties, Henriette Kats, analyst at the World Watch Research unit of Open Doors International, cautions against false optimism.

“Of course it is to be hoped that the citizens of Mosul and of the neighbouring towns will be able to return to their homes when the IS militants are defeated,” she said. “[But], although many Christians are looking forward to returning, many others are distrustful and say that they do not believe they can ever live in Iraq in safety again.”

NGOs fear that this military offensive will lead to new streams of refugees, which in itself could cause demographic changes – further alienating the Christians from their ancestral lands.

Earlier, World Watch Monitor reported that some Iraqi Christians who have moved far from home have expressed no desire to return – because some of their Muslim neighbours had sympathised with IS. Rev Aphram Ozan, a Syriac Orthodox priest in London who fled Mosul in 2011 after his family home was attacked by extremists, said: “I don’t think Christians will return to Mosul. In the beginning, the people of Mosul welcomed IS. We were let down by the people; they left us.”

Rev Khalil Jaar, a Catholic priest in the Jordanian capital, Amman, and a partner of World Vision, said “not one” of the 500 or so Moslawi refugee families for whom he is co-ordinating aid was considering returning to the area. He said if adequate protection were offered, some had said they might return briefly to sell their houses, but would then go to their new homes. “ISIS is finished but the mentality and spirit of ISIS lives on in the heart of so many people in Mosul,” he said.

One Christian former resident of Mosul in his early thirties recalled that increasing levels of extremism had strained his friendships with Muslims, even before 2003. “Growing up, I had friends who were Muslim. We played together and ate together and their parents treated us as though we were their children. But when some of them got to about 16 or 17, something changed. Maybe they had learnt something from the Quran or from the mosque – they changed and became more extreme, which made a gap between us. They became more extreme than their parents.”

Suha Rassam, a Chaldean Catholic from Mosul and author of Christianity in Iraq, said that among her Iraqi Christian friends and relatives, “everybody is excited that Mosul is being liberated.” But she added: “Although there are no more Christians in Mosul, I am still concerned about the Muslim population there, that they may not suffer too much and there is no slaughtering of the Sunni.” However, she expressed concern that the presence of Kurdish and Turkish forces in the Nineveh Plains around Mosul could lead to both powers making territorial claims there. Extremism took hold in Mosul partly as a reaction against Kurdish expansionism, she said. “Even once Mosul is liberated, we can still expect a lot of trouble. It’s not good for the unity of Iraq,” she said.

Christians and others suspect that the aim of the Kurdistan Regional Government is to earn political capital. Some voiced fears that because some Iraqi qualifications are not recognised there and government jobs require Kurdish-speakers, Arab Christians impoverished by their displacement could find themselves subjected to a “Kurdification” process.

One Christian former resident of Mosul whose family fled to Kurdistan said: “For all of history, the Kurds have been killing us, until now. They’re trying to put on a good face; they want to liberate themselves from Iraq and show they are better than Iraq. But there’s no future for Christianity in Kurdistan: my parents don’t speak Kurdish, and because my nephews aren’t Kurdish they aren’t allowed to go to state school there.”

As the so-called Islamic State is driven from towns and villages on the Nineveh Plain in north-eastern Iraq, the future for the many Christians who formerly lived there remains uncertain. World Watch Monitor reports…