Christmas mass at Ainkawa’s St. Joseph Cathedral. Photo: Rudaw video
AINKAWA, Kurdistan Region – For every resident in the Christian township of Ainkawa, there is more than one refugee taking shelter in this relatively small suburb of Erbil in the Kurdistan Region. Most were driven out of their homes over two years ago following ISIS’ terror campaign, but many of them fled Baghdad long before the militants emerged, said local Christian activist, Ano Abdok.
"There were systematic persecutions throughout Iraq which left these families with little options. Some moved here, some left the county all together," Abdok said.
Ainkawa, with a population of nearly 75,000, has hosted over 115,000 Christian refugees since 2013, one year prior to ISIS’ brutal march into the country.
Large numbers of refugees live in rented houses in the township, some have stayed with their relatives, and others have had no other options than settling in a refugee camp near the town.
"They all try their best to celebrate Christmas even if that is hard when you are displaced and far away from home," said Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Saint Joseph’s Cathedral in Ainkawa.
The Archbishop expects his Church to be crowded during Christmas holidays as many refugees will seek comfort in his sermons.
It is estimated that Christians in Iraq make up over 3 percent of the population. According to 1987 Iraqi census, 1.4 million Christians, including the Assyrian community, lived in Iraq. But many have since migrated to the West after years of persecution and economic hardship.
Government officials say more than one hundred churches and monasteries in Mosul alone have been demolished by ISIS militants since 2014. But Christian sites have also frequently been targeted by extremist groups elsewhere in the country including the 2010 October attack on the Syrian Church in Baghdad that killed over 50 people, including many worshipers.
"I want to assure our Christian sisters and brothers that... Kurdistan will remain a safe haven for the Christians and we won't abandon the high values of coexistence. Terror ideologies and discrimination on the basis of faith or ethnicity will have no place in Kurdistan," said the Kurdish President Masoud Barzani in a Christmas statement Saturday.
Kurdish authorities have tried to bring in laws to protect vulnerable Christian communities across the Kurdistan Region. In some cases "positive discrimination" has been imposed to block further fragmentation of Christian neighborhoods in the face of expanding Kurdish cities. Accordingly, it is relatively difficult for a non-Christian to own property in Ainkawa in a bid to preserve the Christian nature of the town.
"You feel Christmas in Ainkawa if you take a walk in the streets today," said Archbishop Warda. "It's really a different feeling, not comparable to any other place in Iraq."