Iraqi Christians in Lebanon in search of a safe haven
BEIRUT - Despite calls by their religious leaders not to leave, Iraqi Christians living in Lebanon have become convinced there is no safe future for them in their home country. They hope now that the United Nations will permanently resettle them in Europe, Australia, the United States or Canada.
“Our religious leaders are asking us to stay in our land but the land is gone,” says Alaa Farid, a 40-year-old man who fled his home in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in the wake of the onslaught by the Islamic State (ISIS) in June 2014.
“We packed our bags, collected our passports and our valuables and left for the Kurdish city of Erbil, which is 1-hour drive from Mosul,” he told The Arab Weekly.
Now Farid, along with with his mother, sister and brother, share a 40 sq. metre flat rented for $900 a month in a seaside resort complex north of Beirut. Their savings are dwindling as they await a December 2015 interview with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) hoping they will be able to get asylum in the United States, where one of Farid’s sisters already lives.
Christians in Iraq are mostly Assyrians, one of the oldest ethnic groups in the Middle East whose roots are in northern Mesopotamia. They speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus, and are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. According to tradition, Christianity was brought to them in the first century by two of the 12 apostles. A majority of them belong to the Chaldean Catholic church, though there are other denominations, such as Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox and the Assyrian Church.
In 2003, before the fall of Saddam Hussein’ s secular Ba’athist regime, there were approximately 1.5 million Christians in Iraq, but their numbers have dropped to less than 400,000 in the past decade due to emigration.
When ISIS established its so-called Islamic caliphate in an area straddling the border between Syria and Iraq, they offered remaining Iraqi Christians tough choices: convert to Islam, pay a special tax known as jizya, or leave. The alternative was death.
But even those Christians who converted to Islam were then asked by ISIS to give daughters, some as young as 10, for marriage. And this occurred in an environment of kidnappings, executions, rapes, church bombings and the burning of centuries-old religious Aramaic manuscripts.
Fleeing the ISIS advance, Manshur Isho and his wife Munira left the Nineveh plain in northern Iraq where they had taken refuge in 2006 after leaving Baghdad, which at the time was plagued with sectarian violence.
“With our son Linard (9) and daughter Ninorta (7), we left Tel Kef in Nineveh plain on foot,” Munira recalled during an interview with The Arab Weekly.
“At a checkpoint, they took our money, my gold wedding band and the gold little cross around my neck. We rode in a passing car and took shelter in a church in Erbil,” the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region.
But the church, like most churches and hotels in Erbil, was overcrowded with some 120,000 Christians who were displaced from villages and towns of the Nineveh plain, next to Mosul, the ancient homeland of Christian Assyrians.
Jobs in the Kurdish areas were also hard to find because of the language barrier. The Isho family finally managed to get new passports and, with money sent to them by relatives in Toronto, they flew to Beirut. Now they are waiting for their UN interview. The wait is long, life in Beirut expensive, and the children have no school. But they hope that they will be able to join Munira’s sisters in Canada or Manshur’s cousins in Australia. The only certainty, however, is the uncertainty of their fate.
With sadness in her eyes, Munira holds photographs from 2004 that show her dancing with her then-fiancé or in her white wedding dress on her wedding day. She proudly displays a framed “Certificate of Achievement” delivered by the 501st Forward Support Battalion — 1st Armoured Division of the US Army, thanking her for “Outstanding Laundry Services” at their base in Baghdad in 2003-04. “Those were the days,” she said nostalgically.
Most of the few thousands of Iraqi Christians in Lebanon say they can’t understand why the international community is not doing more for them, or why Western countries will not open their borders.
“We are not Islamist extremists trying to infiltrate their countries. We are facing persecution and death in Iraq. What are they waiting for to help us?” wondered Adel, another Christian asylum-seeker whose teenage son Stephan and daughter Mariam work in a nearby supermarket and boutique in Beirut, making a combined $600 a month.
Though they also fled to Erbil, Iraqi Christian leaders are not thrilled by the prospect of their flock leaving the country altogether.
This would lead to the disappearance of the Christians of the East, warned Chaldean Church Patriarch Louis Sakko, who urged Christian Iraqis to “resist, remain on your ancestors’ land and protect your properties”.
But most asylum-seekers are resigned to their fate. In Beirut, Alaa Farid said that many Iraqis, whether Christians or Muslims, wanted to leave the country. He added that unless Christian Iraqis were able to establish a self-ruled Christian province in the Nineveh plain under international protection, there was no going back to Iraq for him or his family.