An elderly Christian woman from Nineveh in a makeshift shelter in Erbil's Ainkawa district, Aug. 2014.
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region--The Christians of Nineveh in northwestern Iraq were among the first victims of the Islamic State (ISIS) when it blitzed across the province in June 2014 and imposed its draconian rules on its inhabitants. They were ordered to pay a special tax (Jizya) or face death. Their places of worship were either desecrated or demolished.
Consequently those who could fled ISIS’s takeover. Many of them to the nearby Kurdistan Region which remains home to a thriving Christian community whose lot in life is in stark contrast to the hardship and dangers faced by their kinsmen across Iraq.
“The Christians of Nineveh plains have had to leave their homes which were overrun by Islamic State (ISIS). More than 125,000 had to move to Kurdistan Region for sanctuary,” says Stivan Shany, a journalist and member of the Chaldean Diocese of Erbil. “Baghdad militias terrorize them and intimidate them into leaving. Which they have done in droves. If these current trends continue we will have no Christians in Iraq in just a short few years,”
Shany has closely followed the plight of Christians in Iraq and talked with many displaced Christians. While he sees some hope for the future of Christians in the Kurdistan region he is quite cynical about the rest of Iraq.
As is the case with other minorities who fled ISIS’s onslaughts many Christians are now “living in very cramped camps and caravans for over 18 months. Living in such conditions for nearly two years has a negative psychological effect, especially for larger families with little to do and little privacy in their day-to-day lives,” Shany said.
His diocese have tried to alleviate some of the harsh and unenviable positions many displaced minorities living in Kurdistan face. “We’d love to be able to rent them better accommodation, not necessarily an apartment for each family but one shared for 2-3 families. Until something better comes along and they have the opportunity to better their own situations.”
The Christian community of Ainkawa tried to build some basic homes for at least 1,000 families of their refugee brethren but the cost proved beyond their capacity. 8,000 families need help.
“Most of the aid we get to try and cope with this humanitarian issue comes from charities and many organizations tied to churches from Europe, the United States, Australia and elsewhere. From governments very little. We’ve gotten nothing from Baghdad, not even an inquiry into what needs to be done to help overcome this crisis,” Shany complained.
The Kurdish authorities likewise may not have much to offer, but they facilitate the delivery of foreign aid to the Christian community.
“While they have no money to support us they have facilitated delivery of aid and other such things and inquire about the situation. Unfortunately there is little else they can do for now given the very challenging nature of this crisis.”
The exodus of this community began in the post-2003 chaos and the ISIS attacks only accelerated an already rapid decline in the country’s Christian population. “Just look at the numbers,” explained Shany. “There are roughly 250,000 Christians in Iraq. Perhaps that number will dwindle further in the coming years, down from about 1.5 million in 2003. Maybe in Kurdistan our community will survive, maybe 100-150,000 Christians will remain here, but for the rest of Iraq the future of the Christian minority is likely to be spent in exile.”
Abduction for ransom, intimidation and terrorist attacks like the deadly bombing of Saydat al-Najat Church in Baghdad in 2010 that killed 40 members of the congregation have long forced the community’s business owners and educated class out of the country.
Those left behind, said Shany, must brace themselves for religious discrimination by the state.
“We feel discriminated against in some institutional ways. For example in the Iraqi parliament we have seen the passing of Article 26. It says that is a Christian parent converts to Islam then their children become de-facto Muslims. We find this extremely discriminatory since it is aimed at further reducing our already declining population.”
In addition to death threats that evicted thousands of Christians from their homes across Iraq, now corrupt government officials sell Christian homes and properties without their owners’ knowledge or consent.
“For example, there have been cases whereby sick or elderly men have had their land sold from under them without their family being told.”
The Doura neighbourhood of Baghdad is a good microcosm of what has happened to Iraq’s Christians where 12,000 families of six years ago have been reduced to a mere 500.
“And in many cases these are old men and women who remain with no up-and-coming generation coming to take their place.”
Hoping to one day return home and rebuild their lives some Christians from Nineveh have been trained by the Kurdish Peshmerga dispatched to the frontlines to fight ISIS and liberate the land.
“Some joined the Peshmerga, the few Christians who are on the front-lines are Christians from Kurdistan,” Shany explained, “Those displaced from Nineveh and elsewhere, however, are not actively fighting on the front-lines but have been undergoing training in Duhok. When the Peshmerga clear ISIS out of the Nineveh plains they then hope to return and, if necessary, then fight to hold on to them.”