Iraqi Christians say defeating Islamic State won’t make them safe

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Photo: Alice Martins, Associated Press
Christian women gather at a memorial service at an Assyrian church in Irbil, Iraq. Religious minorities say liberating the area from the Islamic State group won’t ensure their safety.
IRBIL, Iraq — As operations to retake the militant-held city of Mosul ramp up, Iraqi Christians displaced from the area by the Islamic State group say that even if the militants are defeated militarily, the country will not be safe for minorities.

Qaraqosh, the biggest Christian town on the Nineveh plains in Iraq’s north, fell to the Islamic State group more than two years ago and remains under militant control. Most of its displaced inhabitants are living in camps in Iraq’s Kurdish region. Hundreds of others fled to neighboring countries, Europe, the United States and further afield.

On the edge of Irbil’s historically Christian neighborhood of Ankawa, 1,200 identical white trailers arranged in neat rows shelter nearly 5,000 people. A handful of families say they will return home the day their town is liberated. But many say they would rather leave for abroad. Despite the string of military defeats suffered by Islamic State group, they say the militants’ incursion into Iraq has thrown the future of the country’s minority groups into further uncertainty.

“If organized migration were possible, then I can say that 90 percent of the inhabitants of this camp would leave,” said camp manager the Rev. Emanuel Adel Kelo.

Raad Bahnam Samaan, his wife and five children fled their home in Qaraqosh in early August 2014, joining the 150,000 Iraqi Christians who left towns and villages around Mosul for areas under Kurdish control. In the face of Islamic State advance, Kurdish forces — known as the Peshmerga — largely withdrew from the outskirts of Mosul, and the towns and villages fell rapidly into the militants’ hands.

After months of living in cramped quarters in a dusty camp for displaced civilians, Samaan and his family tried to leave the country through a U.N. resettlement program but without success.

Samaan says the more than two years of being stuck in limbo has dulled his sense of optimism.

“There is always hope,” he said of returning home, “but when? Nobody knows. It might be a year, two years, a day, a couple of days. Three or four years from now, if we go home, there won’t be anything left of our house.”

Christians once constituted a sizable minority in Iraq but their numbers have dwindled since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion as many have immigrated to the West to escape violence.

“I see no future for us” here, Samaan said.

When Samaan reflects on what life may be like in a liberated Mosul, he says he worries the upheaval caused by the Islamic State will have strained sectarian tensions in Iraq beyond repair, making enemies of people who were once his neighbors.

“We’ll still be afraid. I will go to Mosul, and I will be afraid because they will say, here comes the Christian,” he said.