Plight of Iraqi Christians begins in Mosul but does not end there
Basra - When parts of Nineveh province, including its capital, Mosul, were captured by the Islamic State (ISIS) in June 2014, many Christians fled to escape the brutal rule of the militants.
Some stayed north in the nearby Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq while others went to Baghdad or further south to take refuge in the Shia-majority region.
Many of those who ended up in Basra, in far southern Iraq, are eagerly waiting for the day when it is safe for them to return to their homes. They anxiously follow news of the Iraqi military offensive to recapture Mosul and nearby areas from ISIS.
Some recall how they were terrified by the militant group but that the time spent with their Kurdish or Arab Shia hosts has not always been easy. To them, no place is like home.
George Hannah, a Christian university student who left Mosul in August 2014 and is now staying in Erbil with his family, said he would return home when it was possible. “I will return to Mosul if ISIS is expelled and the situation is stable,” he said. “I love my city. I can’t leave it for a long period of time.”
For others, however, the thought of return is not on the agenda. Arshad Louis, a Christian from Qaraqosh, a city south-east of Mosul, said he and his family fled in 2014. “I feel traumatised by the threat of ISIS. There is no way I’m going back,” he said.
His wife, Sabeeha Gabriel, said they “went to Basra because it is considered a safe place and people are helpful to us here.” Gabriel’s sister, Muna, visited their hometown after it was liberated by Iraqi forces from ISIS in November. She found that her sister’s house had been burglarised and set on fire.
Sally Kamal Behnam, another Christian resident of Qaraqosh who is in Basra, said she and her late husband and their three children fled to Erbil in 2014, taking nothing other than their clothes.
“Erbil was very expensive and life became very difficult there as my husband did not work,” said Behnam. Many older Christians remained in their homes in Nineveh because it was too costly or difficult to relocate, she said, adding: “Others just refused to leave their homes.”
Behnam said she and her family later found refuge in a church in Basra. “My husband couldn’t stand living inside the church and he felt depressed. He died there before getting a chance to see his home again,” she said.
She said she faced harsh conditions in Qaraqosh, Erbil and Basra. “If there is any opportunity for migration out of Iraq, I will not hesitate or wait a moment,” Behnam said.
A few Christian families said they were preparing to leave Basra after a Christian youth was killed in the city for selling alcohol. The Iraqi parliament passed a law in November banning the sale of alcohol.
According to Mahdi al-Tamimi, the head of the Ministry of Human Rights office in Basra, there are no more than 500 Christian families in Basra.
Tamimi said his office lobbied to secure free medical treatment for internally displaced people who visit public hospitals in the province. He said his office has worked with the United Nations to set up mobile homes for 71 Christian families.
Many Christians called on authorities to help the community’s internally displaced population as well as quickly rebuild their homes once liberated from ISIS.
“The Iraqi government must facilitate the return of displaced families and protect their liberated areas,” said Louis Caro, a Christian member of parliament, urging the swift rebuilding of liberated areas.
There are Iraqis, however, who are not waiting for the government to act and are helping internally displaced Christians with their own charity initiatives.
Muntadher al-Karadi, an activist from Baghdad, founded a team of young volunteers who distributed aid to Christian internally displaced persons in the Iraqi capital.
“We visited the Assyrian camp for displaced people in Baghdad and helped 155 families from Mosul,” said Karadi. “We gave them food, winter clothes and other logistical support. The families were very happy with our visit and they welcomed us warmly,” he added. “We did what politicians did not do — their patriotic duty.”