A year after the fall of Mosul, Iraq’s Christians face an uncertain future
LONDON - Public buildings in Mosul have been spruced up and banners unfurled to celebrate the anniversary of the fall of Iraq’s second largest city to the Islamic State (ISIS) group.
It is an event Archbishop Yohanna Mouche, responsible for what remains of Northern Iraq’s Syriac Catholics, remembers well. While ISIS zealots view the conquest as presaging the foundation of a glorious caliphate, Mouche sees in it the destruction of one of the oldest Christian communities.
“In the first days, ISIS did not do anything to the Christians. Quite the opposite, they would invite us to stay and live together. After a while they announced this arrangement had conditions,” Mouche recalled.
The conditions were stark and non-negotiable: Convert to Islam and live as an equal citizen or remain Christian and pay the jizya, essentially protection money that rendered Christians second-class citizens, a status Mouche describes as akin to slavery. There was a third option: Leave ISIS-controlled areas or die.
The archbishop and other Christian notables were invited to meet with ISIS leaders regarding the conditions. “We did not go to the meeting because these conditions are not a discussion,” Mouche said in Erbil.
ISIS responded harshly: “They took Christians and robbed them. They even took medicine and milk from children. They would take the milk at checkpoints and throw it on the floor, saying ‘make the bishop give you more,’ ” he said.
The Christians of Mosul then were expelled without any material possessions. At checkpoints leaving the city, those with cars had them confiscated and were made to walk.
For Mouche and his Syriac Catholic practitioners, the catastrophe was just beginning, but at least those in Mosul had managed to leave alive. “They harmed the Shia Shabab.” the archbishop said. “They killed them and forced the rest to join ISIS.”
ISIS advanced on Qaraqosh, home to approximately 50,000 Syriac Christians. Without warning, it shelled the town, using the presence of Kurdish peshmerga in the area as an excuse. Mouche met with an ISIS leader and offered to negotiate a withdrawal of peshmerga forces. “He said, ‘No. I want you [Christians] to kick the Kurds out of the area.’ I replied that these words prove you are not fighting the Kurds, you are fighting us Christians,” Mouche said.
ISIS shelled the town intensively on August 6, 2014. Mouche ordered the town evacuated, but not everyone got out in time.
“I am very concerned about a 3-year-old girl who was forcibly removed from her mother’s arms, along with another young girl, a woman and two men. To this day we do not know what has happened to them, he said.
With the fall of Qaraqosh, the Christian population of the Nineveh plains was effectively expelled from its historical home of thousands of years.
“We were scattered across more than 57 areas in Kurdistan. The rest, about a third, have fled to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and even Europe,” reports Mouche.
He unequivocally blames the United States for the situation in Iraq.
“All of our problems come from America,” he said. “A while back America got rid of Saddam Hussein in one week. They created a security vacuum, destroyed the military, and this has been exploited by unscrupulous people. Now we have ISIS.
“On top of all this we have been victims of a serious accusation, that the Americans came to protect Christians. They do not know that we have lost more than anyone else.”
Despite the catastrophe that has befallen Iraq’s Christians, no help has been forthcoming from the international community. If his Syriac Catholic parishioners cannot be returned to their homes, Mouche said he hopes that they might be allowed to migrate as a community to the West.
In a meeting with US officials to discuss the predicament, he bluntly said: “You, the West, try to protect animals from extinction. This is a people, this is humanity, and it must have its dignity. One of the officials hugged me and said he would convey my message word for word to President Obama. Nothing happened.”
With the liberation of Mosul and the Nineveh plain seemingly a distant prospect, Mouche is pessimistic about the prospects of his community.
“If you want us to stay in Iraq, then liberate our areas and allow us to live in dignity under international protection in an area with a constitution that guarantees our rights,” he said.
As much as his community has suffered, the prospect of migration is heartbreaking for the archbishop.
“It hurts me to say I want to leave Iraq because my country is my country; my heritage and history is there; the soil is irrigated with the blood of my ancestors,” he said. “However, if I cannot live there in dignity and security, I must find somewhere else. Where? I do not know.”