The yard of Mar Eliya Church in the city of Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan has been converted into a camp for Christians, more than 200 families who escaped the extremist Islamic State movement (ISIL).
Christians in ever-greater number have been fleeing the northern city of Mosul, the second-largest in Iraq. Some say the country’s history has no precedent for it.
The French charity Fraternity in Iraq says that, since August, 120,000 Christians — but also Muslim Yazidis, Kakaïs and Shabaks — have fled ISIL, among them 18,000 children.
They became refugees when ISIL seized control of the area around Mosul on the 10th of June — helping themselves to everything that was left behind.
ISIL threatened the Christians with death unless they paid a tithe for their religion or embraced Islam within a month.
Refugee Soham Yakoub told us: “Every moment is suffering. We can’t sleep. It rained yesterday. The sound was like stones on the tent. My child said to me this morning he wants to go home. He told me we’ll go back today. I asked him, ‘how, did you dream this?’ He stared at me, silently. I don’t know, maybe he dreamt he went back to our house.”
Mosul had the most Iraqi Christians, and some 30 churches, among them some of the oldest in the world. The Christians of Iraq have been under pressure since around 2003.
Our correspondent was told that their number has shrunk from some 1.4 million to roughly half a million now. The Mar Eliya Church in Irbil has provided shelter, clothing and food for these displaced people. Some of the tents house two families. The weather is increasingly cold and rainy.
Refugee Asrar Walid said: “Life is very bad here when it rains. We’ve suffered a lot. There is no machine for washing. We don’t have anything. We don’t have money. We ask for help to leave Iraq. Everyone just sits watching us from a distance without going to much trouble to find out how bad things are for us. Water leaks into the tents. They won’t protect us in winter.”
Refugee Fadia Salem said: “We left our homes around Qaraqush. No one is there now, everyone left. If there’d been international protection for us, we wouldn’t have left our homes, wouldn’t have to live in these tents. But is there any international protection?”
Douglas Bazi is the priest of this Chaldean Catholic church. He left Baghdad after church bombings, and his own kidnapping and torture by a militant group. He tries to keep the refugees busy, with special attention to activities for the children. He encourages people to bear up under hardship, but also to leave Iraq if they can.
Bazi said: “When our history and our name and everything are obliterated, that really is a genocide. The groups who have suffered the most from what’s happened in Mosul are our brothers the Yazidis and the Christians. I am not surprised if ISIL kills people of that religion. What a way to treat them, and those who have no religion!”
Feeling ignored by humanitarian organisations, the refugees are critical of the international community. The families we met said that they are worried about the spreading of illness and the future of their children.
Our correspondent Mohammed Shaikhibrahim summed up: “Although they are not participants in political conflicts, they lived peacefully and safely in their homes, only to end up as refugees — in several countries — in the worst campaign of ethnic cleansing and displacement the Middle East has witnessed.”
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