As news of Christian towns in Iraq being liberated from ISIS rolls in, religious minorities in the country are now in desperate need of help to begin rebuilding their lives.
Juliana Taimoorazy, founder and president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council (ICRC), said today that the sense of community in Iraq has been desecrated by Islamic State.
When militants overran the Nineveh Plain in 2014, capturing Mosul – now the group’s last stronghold in Iraq – they also took numerous surrounding villages and towns. Among them was Qaraqosh, once home to Iraq’s largest Christian community. Hundreds of thousands of people fled.
Christians were considered a particular target. Houses in Mosul were sprayed with the Arabic letter ‘N’, a symbol meaning ‘Nazarene’ so that the homes of Christians were easily identifiable and targeted. Militants issued an ultimatum to Christians, telling them to convert to Islam, pay a tax or flee. Those who refused to comply were killed, and there are now believed to be none left in the city.
Churches have been desecrated, and even used as slaughterhouses, or to house female prisoners. The St Ephrem Syriac Orthodox Church in Mosul was draped with Islamic State’s notorious black and white logo, emblazoned with the words “There is no God but Allah”. ISIS declared it would be reopened as a “mosque of the mujahideen”.
The displaced from Mosul and surrounding areas are now living in camps in northern Iraq, neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan, or even further afield. Of the 1.6 million Assyrian Christians living in Iraq prior to 2003, there are now believed to be fewer than 200,000 left.
“The Nineveh Plain is the ancestral home for Assyrians,” Taimoorazy told Christian Today. To be displaced from the region has been devastating. An ancient branch of Christianity, the Assyrian Church of the East has roots dating back to the 1st century AD. Assyrian Christians speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus, and have origins in ancient Mesopotamia – a territory which is now spread over modern day northern Iraq, north-east Syria and south-eastern Turkey. Many are desperate to return home.
And it’s finally looking like that could be possible. After more than two years of ISIS occupation, coalition forces began on October 17 the battle to recapture Mosul. Government troops backed by the US and other forces launched an air and ground offensive in the biggest operation since the Iraq invasion in 2003. Many of the surrounding towns and villages have since been retaken by Iraqi military, including Bartella – a Christian town about nine miles from Mosul. On Saturday, the bells of the Mart Shmony Syriac Orthodox Church were rung for the first time since 2014.
But though Christians are among the millions of Iraqis longing to return home, it won’t be a simple process.
“Now the real heartache begins,” Taimoorazy said. “For the last two and a half years they’ve lived with the hope of returning home, and now they can. But fathers will no longer be there because they’ve been executed by ISIS. Mothers and sisters will have been sold into sex slavery. Friends will be missing because they’ve been kidnapped or gone to the diaspora. It is even more imperative for us to embrace these Christians… to build a sense of family and community.”
For the last two years, the ICRC has been working with action groups on the ground – including the Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organisation, the Dominican Sisters of St Catherine and the Assyrian Aid Society – to distribute vital emergency aid to people caught up in the violence. “Before, we put food on their table to sustain them,” Taimoorazy. “Now, it’s a lot more than that. Now it’s time for them to rebuild family. The community has been so broken. We want to bring healing.”
For the ICRC, that means rebuilding an Iraq where religious minorities are protected, and can live alongside one another in harmony. Taimoorazy is also a senior fellow at the Philos Project, which wants to create a homeland for all minorities within Iraq – Christians, Yazidis and Turkmen. Article 125 of the Iraqi constitution gives religious minorities the right to have their own province, and this was guaranteed by the Council of Ministers in January 2014. Having a designated ‘safe zone’ for minorities in Iraq would not isolate communities from one another, but would afford vulnerable people vital protections, Taimoorazy said.
Many Christians are afraid to return home, particularly to Mosul, because of the scale of the barbarity perpetuated by ISIS. When militants first entered the city, some Christians were identified by their Muslim neighbours. They feel betrayed, and unable to return.
And yet, there is still hope for Iraqi Christians and Muslims to live side by side again.
The bells that tolled at the Mart Shmony Syriac Orthodox Church in Bartella on Saturday to mark the town’s liberation from ISIS were rung first by Muslim soldiers from the Iraqi military, Taimoorazy said. Muslim fighters also made a wooden cross and raised it on the roof of the church. “It gives you an image of what Iraq once was,” Taimoorazy said. “A beautiful mosaic, made up of people of different cultures and religions. It is a strong message for us and Assyrian Christians of Iraq – other Iraqis want us back.”
She recalled an Iraqi Sheikh, who once told her that if Iraq is represented by a flower, then Christians are the scent.
“If you take the scent away from the flower, it is still beautiful to look at, but it is not enchanting any longer because it’s essence has been taken away,” he said. “Christians are the essence of Iraq.”