All hell breaks loose at that point: thousands and thousands of families flee, setting out for villages considered safer, towards Kurdistan. At the checkpoints, ISIS soldiers strip them of everything: money, documents, the keys to their homes and even their earrings. They don’t even spare the new-borns, but take away their feeding bottles, leaving them hungry and wailing.
In the sultriness of a blood-drenched summer, what remained of Mosul’s very ancient community is uprooted. The Book of Jonah’s ancient Nineveh, where the Chaldean liturgy had its origin in the seventh century, is emptied of its last 15,000 Christians. This small remnant had chosen to remain, despite repeated acts of violence. Violence that was exacerbated after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, as evidenced by the abduction and killing of the Chaldean Archbishop, Mgr Farraj Rahho, in 2008, to cite only one of the many cases.
But the violence sees an upsurge that particular night in July: the churches are desecrated, crosses are ripped off the roofs to make room for the black flags of terror and all the unbelievers are kicked out. A new page in Mosul’s history is being written and one that is surreal in its tragicality: the city fell in only seven hours to a few hundred terrorists, when the Iraqi army had 60,000 men.
From that moment, the terror that is rife in the plain of Nineveh generates a sea of refugees: 50,000 people flee from Mosul alone, constituting approximately a quarter of the population. Within a few weeks and putting Erbil, Dohuk and Zakho together, one million people are stranded in Iraqi Kurdistan, adding themselves to a population of approximately five million plus the 500,000 refugees from Syria.
This is not the first time in history that Christians, fleeing persecution and injustices, have found refuge in the region. A region that had its autonomy recognised in 1992, after decades of clashes with Baghdad (in which the Christians themselves paid a very heavy price, being crushed). Rich in oil, it is considered the country’s most secure area, thanks to the presence of the almost mythical Peshmerga (who, nowadays, are trained partly by foreign armies) and despite constant tensions with the federal government that has never tolerated the local bids for independence.
It is throughout Iraq, however, that the number of IDPs (or “internal displaced people,” as the United Nations agencies call them) is verging on the point of collapse: the sectarian violence that enflamed and split the country after the war in 2003 has left two million people homeless, half of them children. They adapt to living for months in camps kitted out with tents or caravans on patches of barren land on the outskirts of urban centres or in public parks (like the one at the heart of Erbil, around the Mar Elia parish) or in buildings still under construction. As many as four or five families crowd into little houses or the flats of apartment blocks that are still at the unrefined concrete stage, without plaster, floors or door and window frames. Because, paradoxically, the building industry is in full swing in Kurdistan: the ambitious, unfinished skyscrapers soaring in the capital’s centre and the residential neighbourhoods that can be glimpsed along the road connecting the capital to Dohuk are a surprising sight. The rich Iraqis from the South are investing here, as are wealthy foreigners, including Turks, because the area is considered, precisely, “stable.”
A Weaving of Destinies, not Nameless Masses
As long as one reads them in the reports of the humanitarian organizations that rushed to the scene, the statistics on the refugees and displaced persons are horrifying, but they end up being equated with masses of faceless men and women who urgently need to be given enormous quantities of water, food and clothes… People to be organized and managed by way of projects focussing on specialist areas such as “winterization,” “education,” “protection” etc, as the technical jargon provides for. But if each one of these actions is indispensable for guaranteeing their survival, one must not end up confusing what is the detailed weaving of individual profiles and unique stories with an impersonal mass. Each story is different and has its own particular details that go to making up that overwhelming phenomenon (with its distant root causes) that the displacement of whole communities from East to West constitutes. A “house-moving” that is changing the human geography of Iraq, of its neighbouring countries and partly, perhaps, although in ways that cannot be quantified, of even very distant countries, as far as the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
“If it goes on like this, we won’t have any Christians left in Iraq in six or seven years’ time,” maintains Mgr Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil. It appears that about seventy people are leaving the country every day to earn themselves a future elsewhere. Bit by bit, the constant departure of Christians is taking the form of an unstoppable process that has triggered a profound change of ecosystem, whether or not its protagonists are aware of it. Because the fact that, since July 2014, mass is no longer celebrated in Mosul for the first time in almost two thousand years of Christian presence, cannot be a matter exclusively concerning that particular community or the Christians out here.
The continuing haemorrhage that has been bleeding the Middle East dry for almost a century is, on the one hand, changing its composition, depriving it of a presence that guarantees its plurality, as Prince Talal Bin Abdel Aziz al-Sa‘ud (a Saudi, not a Christian) had already written in 2002: “By virtue of their cultural plurality, Christian Arabs were and still are a constant challenge to culture and thinking. Their presence is a guarantee against the development of arbitrary acts and extremism and, as a consequence, of a violence that leads to historical catastrophes.”2 And on the other hand, the diaspora plants elsewhere communities that safeguard – and no terrorists’ checkpoint can take this away from them – the accumulated treasure of a millenary tradition. What fate will they, their families and the heritage of their culture, traditions and religion have? Will they “integrate” to the point of merging totally with their new societies or will they inject some kind of difference into their new contexts? If one goes into a church in Erbil and takes part in a Mass celebrated according to a rite that has remained untouched for centuries and in the very language spoken by the apostle Thomas, who evangelized these lands, or if one listens to the stories of men and women who, keeping faith with their baptism, allow themselves to be killed, it seems impossible to accept that this culture and faith are destined to disintegrate in their grafting onto the West. And yet this danger, too, looms alongside the more immediately violent one that ISIS presents.
When did it Begin?
If one wanted to establish a starting date for the exodus of Middle Eastern Christians, one could go back a century to 1915, when the genocide of the Armenians and Syriac Christians occurred. They began to leave Turkey, Iraq and Syria. The years of the Ba‘athist regime only aggravated the trend towards exodus. According to unofficial estimates, there are approximately 350-400,000 Syriac Christians and Chaldeans living in Europe today; in Sweden and Germany, above all. The rest are scattered between Belgium, France, Holland, Austria, Scandinavia and England. About 100,000 of the Christians living in Australia have come from the East and there are also some in New Zealand. There are 800-900,000 in the United States. Retrieving reliable data on the Christians’ demographic parabola in Iraq is quite an undertaking. The Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad, Louis Sako, talks of approximately one and a half million before 2003. According to the most recent census (which goes back to 1965), the Christians were approximately 250,000,3 amounting to 3% of the population. As far as the situation today is concerned, the Christians number somewhere between 100,000 and 400,000, according to the Chaldean patriarch.
Christians are not the Only Ones to be Persecuted
Although the figures relating to the “deletion” of Christians are the most awesome, it must always be remembered that Christians are not the only victims of ISIS’s violence. Minorities such as the Yazidis, the Turkmen and the Mandaeans have all been targeted by the jihadists in their plan to purify the State of the presence of “unbelievers.” It seems that there were 500,000 Yazidis in Iraq, the majority of whom resided around Sinjar. Today, at least 400,000 of them are refugees. Whereas approximately 3,000 of their women have been abducted by ISIS and only 240 of these have managed to regain their freedom. Many became pregnant after the abuse they suffered and, in the majority of cases, decided to abort. A massacre of innocents within another massacre. Those who succeeded in escaping the deadly black grip have told of the absurd violence and brutalization of those men. Like the nineteen-year-old Amsha, with her pale face bound round by a sombre veil, her lowered eyes and her restless hands soothing her child, who clings to her skirt. Together with her relatives and her two children (the first is two years old and the second has just been born), she has taken refuge in a place in northern Kurdistan called Sharia. They live in a little house still under construction, where the smell of an overcrowded co-habitation mixes with that of food cooking and the barren countryside. She was captured and given as a slave to an Islamic State jihadist who came originally from Fallujah and had settled in Mosul with his wife and children. She remained in that house for a few weeks, shut in a room with her son. Until one night, driven by the desperate crying of her hungry child, she managed to escape and, after hours of walking through the night, to find help. Amsha does not manage to give many details but she cannot forget that three of her companions slit their wrists in their desperation and that she has had no news of her husband since the day of her abduction.
Waiting for a Visa
Foco and his sister Lary, who were given these names by parents with links to the Focolare movement, are also a part of that subtle weave that is uniting millions of refugees in an absurd destiny. During his temporary stay in Dohuk, the slender, eighteen-year-old Foco, with his pitch-black eyes, gave a hand to the Caritas workers who are taking care of thousands and thousands of displaced Iraqis, regardless of their religious faith: “We had a perfume house in Qaraqosh,” Foco tells us. “It was a fine shop. When we understood that the terrorists were about to arrive, we escaped at 11.00 am on 6 August. All the Christians in my village fled. Now we are here, waiting for permission to enter France, where an aunt lives. In order to start all over again.” “Waiting to leave again:” decided upon when the grapevine was confirming the by-then unstoppable advance of the butchers and the fact that the Kurdish forces who were supposed to be defending the town had unexpectedly abandoned it, the escape led first to Kurdistan. But the long stay in the refugee camp – that place existing outside time and space – did not stifle the life force in people who had been stripped of everything and felt hunted. Nor did it wipe out the need to set out again and allow themselves to be seized by a hope of being able to start again.
The visa finally arrived, at the end of February, and the young man from Qaraqosh left with all his family for Lyon. The photo he posted on Facebook, showing him with a few suitcases at Erbil airport shortly before take-off, is evidence of that journey that is leading him and thousands of others from ancient Iraqi villages towards Europe. Will he return home one day? Will he have a second chance in Iraq? In the meantime, he has started to go to school again in Lyon.
The Bishops’ Farewell
The story of Mgr Amel Shamon Nona, former Bishop of Mosul, has also followed the road leading from East to West. Pope Francis has appointed him Bishop of Saint Thomas the Apostle of Sydney (which has approximately 50,000 faithful), in the place of Mgr Djibrail Kassab, who left Basra in his turn in 2006. The city had been abandoned by Christians en masse as a result of their systematic massacre; a massacre perpetrated by Shiite militias on that occasion. “When they said to me ‘Convert or pay the jizya or leave!’, I chose to leave,” explains Mgr Nona, who was still in Erbil in February. “Enough was enough. The time had come to say ‘That’s enough’: it was the last straw. The Christians living in these lands have been paying the price of their faith for 1,400 years. People are surprised about ISIS as if it were a recent phenomenon but we in Mosul have known about it since at least 2003, when life for Christians worsened dramatically. When they went out to work in the morning, they didn’t know if they would be coming back in the evening. Whoever had a business had to pay the jizya and was given a receipt with ‘Islamic State’ written on it. After the death of my friend and predecessor, I used to try to take different routes every time I had to move about, so as to reduce the danger of an attack.”
Nona stayed with the Archbishop of Erbil for a few months, before moving to Australia. He, too, was a “guest” in the Christian quarter, Ankawa, which saw its population more than double between June and August 2014, swelling from 40,000 to 80-90,000 inhabitants. Immediate solidarity was not lacking: many people hosted entire families under their roofs for months, whilst the Iraqi Caritas and the diocese increased their efforts to meet the needs of strangers plucked from the roadside.
“We want to help them not only by guaranteeing them food, blankets and medical treatment but also by promoting their general dignity,” Mgr Warda explains. “We wish to ‘help them help themselves’. The most pressing challenge is the emigration towards Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which are the first stopping places of a journey that often has even remoter final destinations. If we cannot totally stem the flow, at least we can try to contain it. Erbil is not their home-town but at least it’s not abroad. Europe and America seem to promise much when you imagine them from here but then those who do leave don’t know what exactly they really will find there. Maybe only closed doors and the road again.” A project that goes against the flow in order to protect the wealth of a human fabric that is as variegated as the Iraqi people’s is: “It may be easy for the West to welcome a hundred or a thousand refugees,” Patriarch Sako observes. “The real point is how to help those who want to remain in their homeland. Everyone is talking about democracy, reforms and change. But a new form of education is needed, first of all. One that eradicates the jihadist mentality right at the source. This is the only way that a future for Christians here is conceivable. And a secure future for the West, as well. The people who do not want Christians here have radical Islamization as their goal and you in the West do not know these people. You haven’t the faintest idea of what they are talking about when they speak.”
Barefoot in the Mud
There is no room for illusion when one walks amongst the refugee tents and the provisional communal baths or talks to the children playing in the mud without shoes in the middle of winter. “Under the best-case scenario,” continues Mgr Warda, “even were the Islamic State to be defeated and its militiamen eliminated, what could those who dare to return to those villages actually find? Houses that have been destroyed, land full of mines and the fabric of mutual trust between inhabitants torn asunder, above all.”
Amongst those who were thrown out of their villages there are also some who do not want to bow their heads and are trying to set up Christian militia groups. One of these is Yoseph Yacoub Methy, a member of the Bethnarin Patriotic Party. “No one will defend us to the bitter end. The Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga have already demonstrated in the Nineveh plain that they are capable of abandoning Christians to ISIS without lifting a finger. We must learn to defend ourselves by ourselves.” An almost impossible undertaking, considering how fragmented the country’s few Christians (divided, politically, into more than seven parties) are in the face of numerous, very well armed enemies.
Wherever ISIS’s diabolical fury has installed itself, cases like that of Mahmad al-Assali (a professor at Mosul University who was killed for criticizing the killing of Christians and was a powerful witness to what kind of co-existence could be possible) have been rare. Whether out of cowardice or calculatedly, remains to be seen. The deeper one goes into the complex Iraqi reality and history, the more pressing two questions become: Why so much hatred of the Christians? And why try to help them stay? The beginning of an answer may be found in a reflection of Patriarch Sako’s: “Our problem is that we are associated with the West. And many Muslims think that all their troubles come from there: the West supports Israel, the West attacks Muslims and exploits their oil… Since they consider the West to be Christian, its guilt falls on us as well. The members of the Islamic State, in particular, maintain that Christians, with their freedom and their customs, cause trouble. Look at the young Christian girls in their jeans and without the veil! In this so-called Caliphate, a free Christian girl dressed differently forces the other women to ask themselves some questions. With their differences, Christians sow the seed of doubt.”4 They are intolerable and must be eliminated.
Intolerable, like the cross that, in the Chaldean churches, is simply bare wood, without the Crucified Christ. In order to emphasise that Jesus has defeated death, violence and the sword, and has risen. The Chaldeans’ cross is a glorious cross: a certainty to which they continue to cling.
1 The jizya (the “protection” tax provided for by sharia) appears to be around 450 dollars: an exorbitant sum that would nevertheless have been insufficient to save the lives of those refusing to convert, and all the more so in a “state” that cannot accept the presence of “unbelievers” within its territory.
2 Talal Bin Abdel Aziz al-Sa‘ud, “Arabes chrétiens, ne partez pas !, an-Nahar, 28 March -3 April 2002, p. 28.
3 Andrea Pacini (Ed.), Comunità cristiane nell’Islam arabo, (Fondazione Agnelli, Turin, 1996), p.69.
4 Louis Sako, « Ne nous oubliez pas ». Le SOS du patriarche des chrétiens d’Irak, (Bayard, Paris, 2015), p. 34.