Report From Erbil: Christian Refugees’ Faith Endures, Amidst a Sea of Troubles
Register Rome correspondent Edward Pentin describes the hardships and hopes of Middle-Eastern Christians who have lived there since being uprooted from their homes by the Islamic State.
ERBIL, Iraq — The look in Haney’s eyes reflects both the horror she had experienced and the uncertain future that she faces.
Still visibly frightened and bewildered, the 86-year-old Syriac Catholic recalled how members of the Islamist terrorist organization ISIS raided her house at gunpoint near Mosul, Iraq, in the middle of the night in August 2014 and then proceeded to kidnap both Haney and her son, who looks after her.
A day or so later, they released them, letting them fend for themselves with a little money and almost no belongings. They immediately fled, taking taxis and hitching rides, reaching the Kurdish-controlled town of Duhok, 50 miles north of Mosul, and then ending up at the large Dawudiya Refugee Camp, set in a remote mountainous region another 35 miles away.
For the past two years, Haney and her son have lived there, in one of many small two-room caravans, no more than 60 square feet. They remain dependent on humanitarian aid.
Ever since ISIS ransacked and perpetrated countless atrocities, not only in Mosul but in many Christian towns in northern Iraq, thousands of other Iraqi Christians have been living in similar conditions, and their hopes of returning are faltering.
“It’s very bad in the camps right now because people are afraid about the future,” said Father Roni Salim Momika, a newly ordained Syriac-Catholic priest from the Christian city of Qaraqosh, which fell to ISIS in August 2014. “The government isn’t doing anything for the Christian people and the refugees, who have no good news. ... We don’t know if we’ll stay in Iraq or go abroad; we have no solution.”
Around 125,000 Christians were forcibly displaced when ISIS launched its northern Iraq offensive, first in predominantly Christian Mosul in June 2014 and then two months later in surrounding towns in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region. More than 100,000 Assyrian Christians (Syriac Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, and Chaldean Catholics) were forced to leave their houses and towns that night with less than an hour’s notice. The region also has a large number of Yazidis made homeless by the Islamic State, along with many Shia Muslims who arguably faced the most brutal persecution.
Since that time, around 25,000 Christians have gone on to leave Iraq for Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Others have also sought refuge in Europe, North America and Australia. Wealthier Christians have tended to emigrate, while poorer ones have remained. But many have also chosen to stay because of love for their country and the hope that the future in Kurdistan and the Nineveh Plain will eventually improve.
Strength Through Faith
During a visit to multiple refugee camps last week with a delegation from the Italian office of Aid to the Church in Need, we came across families who, despite losing all their belongings and livelihoods, still hoped to return to their towns and villages.
Every one of them had very visibly held on to their faith, the Lord being their chief source of strength through the trauma and suffering. Each caravan or house of a displaced family had a large cross, often illuminated, outside of their home, and articles of devotion — however small and modest — were given pride of place inside. And despite it all, their spirits remained high.
Napoleon, his wife, Sana, and their son, Michel, were forced to leave their village near Mosul right after Mass with nothing but their documents. Like many others, they slept on the road the first night, and they recalled that even those who tried to smuggle out some belongings were stripped at ISIS checkpoints and had their possessions removed. But they were one of the lucky families, ending up in a reasonably sized house near the village of Mangesh, close to Duhok.
Sana, whose brother is a Chaldean bishop in Canada, told us that they feel abandoned by Christians abroad. “We feel the West has forgotten us,” she said.
The Church can only do so much, but Europe and the West “can do great things,” interjected Father Ioshia Sana, Mangesh’s Chaldean parish priest, who accompanied us. Governments, he said, “can’t just offer aid; they need to find a solution for these poor people, to defend their rights.”
And yet Sana and her family, despite the real possibility of being able to immigrate to Canada, showed the resilience of many Christian families to remain in their homeland. They have faith and hope in the future, as well as charity for their fellow Muslims, some of whom surprised and angered their Christian neighbors by siding with ISIS when they invaded.
Uncertainty About the Future
Many Christian families, however, feel pessimistic about returning to their villages, even though some have already been liberated, and Mosul and other Assyrian towns are expected to be retaken by Iraq’s military backed up by U.S. and allied forces in the coming weeks.
Father Benedict Kiely, founder of Nazarean.org, which helps Aid to the Church in Need to assist persecuted Christians, visited the region in early September. He noted that, when he visited in May last year, all of the displaced wanted to return to their homes, but when he revisited Iraq in January of this year, “many more said they wanted to leave” the country. During his most recent trip to the region, he said, everyone he spoke to wanted to leave Iraq.
“What struck me since my last visit is the seeming loss of trust among the people, a growing discomfort and uncertainty about the future,” said Bishop Francesco Cavina of Carpi, Italy, who was part of our delegation and visited the region in April. “Many Christians are looking to leave Iraq, and this is a sign that these people don’t think they can have a dignified future for their lives.”
A key concern for many, if not most, Christians is that they feel they cannot trust their Muslim neighbors in their hometowns, or their Muslim rulers, some of whom were Shiite Muslims and yet offered no resistance or help when the Sunni Muslim ISIS fighters invaded (ISIS regards Shiite Muslims, who comprise the majority in Iraq, as heretics deserving of attacks). The Christians feel they were betrayed, and even in some of the camps where they are now living, they feel discriminated against by Iraqi Muslims (for example some Muslim taxi drivers in Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital, won’t take passengers to the suburb of Ankawa, where a large Christian camp is located).
Others don’t want to return if their churches have been destroyed or desecrated, as in one case, where an 800-year-old church in Mosul had been used as an ISIS torture chamber. Still others are also concerned about the imminent liberation of Mosul from ISIS by Iraqi government troops, fearing this will precipitate a million refugees pouring out of the city — many of whom will, like ISIS, be Sunni Muslims and possibly indoctrinated with their Islamist mentality. They worry such refugees will then fill up what were once Christian towns and villages. A further anxiety is that they are uncertain about who will govern them in the future: the government of Kurdistan or of Iraq.
But even those who wish to leave Iraq have no guarantee of a brighter future. “People want to travel abroad, but where?” asked Father Momika. “In Jordan, there is no work, no medical care, no centers where they are welcomed. In Lebanon, they don’t do anything for the people.”
A More Positive View
Yet the hierarchy, particularly Chaldean leaders, are generally taking a more positive view of life in Iraq and are trying to persuade the region’s Christians to stay. “The situation is OK; the government helps them by paying rent for some of their housing,” Chaldean Bishop Rabban Al-Qas of Amadiyah and Zaku told the Register. “In general, it’s quiet … and the majority of them want to go back to their homes.”
The Chaldean hierarchy also believe the liberation of Mosul will offer hope, prevent emigration and could pave the way for their return. Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako of Baghdad has said that the return of faithful to Nineveh is crucial if the Church in Iraq is to survive long term. It’s important to note, however, that Syriac Catholics form by far the largest number Christian refugees in Kurdistan.
Neville Kyrke-Smith, national director of Aid to the Church in Need U.K., said after a visit to Erbil in September that he “sensed much more hope among Church leaders and faithful” compared to a visit he made last year. In light of Mosul’s expected liberation, he said, “It is clear that the Church is making a strong case to reclaim its place in a region where — until 2014 — there had been an unbroken Christian presence stretching back almost to the start of Christianity.”
A key underlying factor for the well-being of Christians is naturally security and the need for guaranteed safety that depends on a united Iraqi army and the Peshmerga — the Kurdish military. Zaiya, a determined Christian Pashmerga captain in a Christian village in Duhok province, about 60 miles from ISIS-occupied territory, said he believes that what the U.S. government does is crucial for their future — a view that was fairly widespread.
“The American will is decisive if ISIS is to be destroyed,” he told us. “The war against ISIS is almost won, but our future depends on the United States.”
He said the situation is now much calmer, that the Peshmerga are stronger than ISIS (though many Christians resent the fact that the Peshmerga failed to adequately defend them in 2014), and he was “very content” with how things were going. “If the region is governed well, it’s paradise,” he said, adding that the problem now is that no one is controlling ISIS; and once Mosul is liberated, “no one knows where they will end up.”
Zaiya said many of ISIS’ foreign fighters have largely fled Mosul to Syria and Libya, but 3,000 to 5,000 ISIS members remain in the city. Asked if he was concerned another Islamist group will simply take over from ISIS once they’ve gone (al-Qaida and other Islamist groups preceded ISIS in northern Iraq), he said a similar group like Boko Haram, currently operating in Nigeria, could replace them. But he added: “As Pashmerga, we don’t fear anyone or anything. Our motto is that we fight to the death, and if they were to try to take over, in three years, we’d beat them, too.”
The Problem of Islam
In our discussions with local leaders in Mangesh, it became clear that many Christians see Islam as key to the problem. One prominent figure said that “what ISIS is doing is the real Islam” because it is “how Islam started: through killing, violence, beheading. They have always spread religion through violence.” The other local leaders nodded in agreement.
They also warned that if European countries accept many Muslims into their countries, “it will become a big problem for them, too.” One of the local leaders said, “It seems to be a humanitarian cause, but it’s not; it will lead to war, bloodshed and violence. They’ll take your country by war. They don’t know the language of dialogue, only war.”
Many Iraqi Christians are pro-Donald Trump largely because of his attitude toward Islam. “They think he’ll do something for them, and they despise [President Barack] Obama,” said Father Kiely. And Christians tend to blame the United States for the current chaos and destruction. The U.S., they say, has a grave responsibility to set things right.
Still, in spite of the chaos, did they feel life in Iraq had in any way improved since the removal of Saddam Hussein? The civic leaders in Mangesh said that in some minor ways it had, but, now, “instead of one Saddam, we now have 500 Saddams.” Many local governments are now run by mini dictators, they say, and yet there was generally peace for Christians under former Iraqi tyrant, who largely left them alone.
“In Muslim-majority countries, without a dictator, you can’t do anything,” said Father Sana. “The hope was that things would get better [without Saddam]; but, in actual fact, things have gotten worse.”
The Economic Situation
On the face of it, the economy seems to be surprisingly healthy — especially in the Kurdistan capital, Erbil, once called Iraq’s Dubai. Many businesses seem to be prospering, skyscrapers have gone up, the shops are full of goods, and every other car seems to be an SUV. Inflation in Iraq has been almost zero, and last month it dipped to -0.4%.
But locals say economic prosperity is largely an illusion, that people have to work several jobs to make ends meet, and soldiers and police often don’t get paid on time.
“Salaries have halved,” said Father Jalal, our guide. “Even the Peshmerga have to do two jobs: A lot of them are taxi drivers, where they work as a kind of secret service and keep their Kalashnikov [guns] in the back of their car.”
The future for Iraq’s Christians is, therefore, precarious at best. For Aid to the Church in Need, which has donated more than $20 million to projects in Iraq since the ISIS offensive in 2014, the entire region is a work in progress, and there is no quick fix.
Alessandro Monteduro, director of ACN Italy, told the Register that it’s a “tragedy in motion,” and it is “not sufficient to donate to finance just one project because, after that, the emergency still remains.”
Through the generosity of its benefactors, he said ACN has been helping Iraqi Christians in a variety of ways: for instance, providing resources so that 7,000 pupils can attend school and, just during our visit, bringing 11,500 packages of food. It has funded the building of a private co-educational school in Ankawa run by Dominican sisters, attended by 620 internally displaced Christian children living in camps.
Appeal for Support
Much good work is continuing, but perhaps one of the greatest grievances among the Christians in Iraq is the feeling that they have been abandoned and ignored, not only by Western governments but also by their Christian brothers and sisters in the West.
“We haven’t seen anyone visit from any government abroad, only the French government,” said Father Momika. “Sometimes I ask: Where is the global Christian community? Where are they? Are they sleeping? I don’t know. And the Vatican, where are they? Okay, I support them in what they say and their prayers. … Yes, we want prayer, but we also want people to do something for us, to change the situation, to change the Christian situation here. Because, you know, before this crisis, if you had come to live in the Nineveh Plain, in Qaraqosh, you would think you were living in paradise because people were living in peace.”
Father Momika predicted that many Christians will stay, but also “a large number will go.” He said five to 10 families are “leaving Iraq every day” and highlighted the fact that, since the Iraq War of 2003, the number of Christians living in Iraq has collapsed from 1.3 million to 250,000, just as Pope St. John Paul II prophetically warned it would, which is partly why he so vociferously opposed the U.S.-led invasion.
“To stop [the violence], we cannot do anything because we don’t have anything in our hands,” Father Momika said. “I tell you, if America does something, they will stay, but even then we’ll have problems, because already a large number of Christians have left.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
He visited the Kurdistan region Sept. 20-23.
See more photos of Edward Pentin's visit with the delegation here.