More than 100,000 Iraqi Christians, already a tiny minority, are fleeing the Islamic State. They are torn between staying in a war zone or abandoning their 2,000-year-old cultural roots.
Times are dire for the last remaining Iraqi Christians. “Twenty years ago, we were 1.5 million. Now, the most optimistic figures are speaking about 350.000,” states Archimandrit Emanuel Youkhana, head of Iraq’s largest Christian relief organization, CAPNI. Youkhana is not a man of endless lamenting. Throughout the past decade, he tended to his community and tried to weather the years of civil war. But now, with the rise of the Islamic State militant group, his words have become hard and bitter. “This disaster broke the co-existence, the links between the different religions. Wherever you go, ask a Yazidi or Christian. They feel they have been betrayed by their next-door neighbor.” The Islamic State — also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh — declared Mosul, about 20 miles from the Iraqi Christian heartland in the Nineveh plains, its capital in June.
One specific Christian community from the Nineveh plains, the Assyrians, cherish a culture much older than Christianity — and it is their historic sites in Nimrud and other places that the Islamic State has been destroying relentlessly.
Now, a group of 60 Assyrians, young and old, have formed a militia — Dwekh Nawsha (“The Sacrificers”) — to protect their remaining villages and push the Islamic State out of Nineveh. Their efforts remain limited by the numbers of weapons they can afford to buy, but they receive financial support from the Assyrian community all over the world, according to their social media manager Rama Baito. Their fighters now control the abandoned Christian village of Badnaya right at the front line north of Mosul. Here they wait for the final push of the Iraqi and Kurdish forces to liberate their homeland. On their walkie-talkies, they can hear the radio chatter of Islamic State fighters in the next village. “I could not just watch the videos of ISIS destroying our churches and our land, I felt the obligation to do something. During war times, we are Assyrians. We don’t let anyone humiliate us. After the war, we go home to be Christians again. But now we are Assyrians,” affirms Logan, one of their volunteers, referring to the ancient reputation of Assyrians being fearsome warriors. A spirit that is somehow shared by Youkhana: “We will keep fighting to the last minute for a living Christianity, a living Church — not just a museum. But it is not an easy challenge.”
In early August, the Islamic State captured Qarakosh, the largest Christian city in Iraq. When the Kurdish peshmerga army decided to give up the town, its 50,000 inhabitants had just two hours to pack their belongings. Today, many of them live in a large refugee camp in Dohuk and a makeshift shelter at a building site in Ankawa, the Christian quarter of Irbil. Two thousand people, many of them children, live in small compartments, separated only by thin metal walls. Over the months, the refugees have started to settle down, opened a small cafe and improvised barbershops near the entrance of the building. Still, because they do not speak the Kurdish language but Arabic, it is almost impossible for most Christian refugees to find work in northern Iraq. “We want to live in a healthy and clean place. There are so many diseases spreading here. There are bugs everywhere, and some of us have scabies”, said Mirna Fadi, 9, who lives with her parents and a sister in the building site.
-Text contributed by Nils Metzger