Patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Ignatius Aphrem II, visiting the displaced Christians at the Mar Mattai monastery. Photo: Judit Neurink
BARDARASH, Kurdistan Region – There is no place for them in an Islamic state, say Christians who fled Iraq’s second city of Mosul for safer areas controlled by the autonomous Kurdistan Region.
Eman and Sabah, two nurses who left the city for the Syrian Orthodox monastery of Mar Mattai, some 40 kilometers from Mosul, said they did so because they could no longer live there. “Their rules are different from ours and anyone who disobeys them will be killed,” one of them said.
Fear of the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which captured Mosul last week together with bands of other rebels, has seen about a half-million people flee the city.
Amongst them were thousands of Christians, who sought refuge in areas under control of the Kurds. Many of them have fled violence in the city multiple times before.
“This time is decisive,” stresses Zaid, whose family shares a room in the monastery with another. “Any time there were elections, we left to return a couple of weeks later. This time is different. Now we really have to forget the option of returning back to our homes.”
Many of the Christians occupying the monastery’s 35 guest rooms think this way: More than 50 families have found refuge in the safety of the monastery.
Of the estimated 5,000 Christians who were remaining in Mosul, only hundreds have stayed behind. Most left for the villages of the Nineveh Valley, which is under Kurdish control, or to the Christian neighborhoods of the Kurdistan capital, Erbil.
Last week their patriarch came from Syria to wish them strength, visiting the Mar Mattai monastery as well, signaling the safety of the area where his flock has sought refuge.
The way the radical Muslims were welcomed by some in Mosul -- while thousands of other Muslims fled because of their presence – raised Christian fears of what might happen.
The nurses, Eman and Sabah, were ordered to report back to work, because the present authorities want to normalize the situation and get the hospitals up and running. But the pair is too afraid to obey the order.
Although they left with only the clothes they were wearing, leaving their homes unguarded, the fear of the radical Muslims in their city keeps them from returning. This fear is clear when they echo the words of other women in the monastery: “How can we keep our daughters safe there?”
In the room where the two families are gathered, the noisy air conditioning adds to the clamor; mattresses for the night are piled high; a little boy begs his father for change to buy ice cream.
Stories about the changes in Mosul volley across the room, about the Sharia laws that have been imposed and the new rules that have been published, including a punishment of 20 lashes for any man not at mosques at prayer times, and an order for women to cover up.
One of the families that returned was told that Christians have to adapt: They have to get rid of all Christian symbols, and women must wear the face cover, or niqaab. The family left the city again.
Zaid recounts finding a flyer in the street before he left that was delivered to some homes of Christians, too, calling on residents to adapt, or leave.
Christians in Iraq normally proudly display their faith, wearing crosses as jewelry and adorning their homes with Christian portraits. The women generally dress in a more Western manner than other Iraqi women, not wearing a headscarf and never a niqaab. To change this would mean to change their way of life.
The Christians wonder what will happen to their city. Most expect fighting between the different groups, with Saddam Hussein’s former military and different Islamic groups struggling for power.
“Those armed groups know no mercy,” someone says. “I am afraid of my own neighbors. Will they not sell me to some kidnapper?”
And they are worried about the future: What will happen to their properties? Will they be confiscated, in a repeat of what happened in parts of Baghdad some years ago after many Christians fled their homes?
One worry is about how they will live. Iraqi Kurdistan is expensive, and their jobs from Mosul cannot be transferred elsewhere. Some have families abroad that pressure them to emigrate.
“We are so few now, we have become very vulnerable,” someone says. The number of Christians in Iraq went from 1.5 million in 2003 to around 35,000 at present, mainly because of massive emigration after Saddam’s fall.