The look in Haney’s eyes reflects both the horror she had experienced and the uncertain future that she faces.
Still visibly frightened and bewildered, the 86-year-old Syriac
Catholic recalled how members of the Islamist terrorist organization
ISIS raided her house at gunpoint near Mosul, Iraq, in the middle of the
night in August 2014 and then proceeded to kidnap both Haney and her
son, who looks after her.
A day or so later, they released them, letting them fend for
themselves with a little money and almost no belongings. They
immediately fled, taking taxis and hitching rides, reaching the
Kurdish-controlled town of Duhok, 50 miles north of Mosul, and then
ending up at the large Dawudiya Refugee Camp, set in a remote
mountainous region another 35 miles away.
For the past two years, Haney and her son have lived there, in one of
many small two-room caravans, no more than 60 square feet. They remain
dependent on humanitarian aid.
Ever since ISIS ransacked and perpetrated countless atrocities, not
only in Mosul but in many Christian towns in northern Iraq, thousands of
other Iraqi Christians have been living in similar conditions, and
their hopes of returning are faltering.
“It’s very bad in the camps right now because people are afraid about
the future,” said Father Roni Salim Momika, a newly ordained
Syriac-Catholic priest from the Christian city of Qaraqosh, which fell
to ISIS in August 2014. “The government isn’t doing anything for the
Christian people and the refugees, who have no good news. ... We don’t
know if we’ll stay in Iraq or go abroad; we have no solution.”
Around 125,000 Christians were forcibly displaced when ISIS launched
its northern Iraq offensive, first in predominantly Christian Mosul in
June 2014 and then two months later in surrounding towns in Iraq’s
northern Kurdistan region. More than 100,000 Assyrian Christians (Syriac
Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, and Chaldean
Catholics) were forced to leave their houses and towns that night with
less than an hour’s notice. The region also has a large number of
Yazidis made homeless by the Islamic State, along with many Shia Muslims
who arguably faced the most brutal persecution.
Since that time, around 25,000 Christians have gone on to leave Iraq
for Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Others have also sought refuge in
Europe, North America and Australia. Wealthier Christians have tended to
emigrate, while poorer ones have remained. But many have also chosen to
stay because of love for their country and the hope that the future in
Kurdistan and the Nineveh Plain will eventually improve.
Strength Through Faith
During a visit to multiple refugee camps last week with a delegation from the Italian office of Aid to the Church in Need,
we came across families who, despite losing all their belongings and
livelihoods, still hoped to return to their towns and villages.
Every one of them had very visibly held on to their faith, the Lord
being their chief source of strength through the trauma and suffering.
Each caravan or house of a displaced family had a large cross, often
illuminated, outside of their home, and articles of devotion — however
small and modest — were given pride of place inside. And despite it all,
their spirits remained high.
Napoleon, his wife, Sana, and their son, Michel, were forced to leave
their village near Mosul right after Mass with nothing but their
documents. Like many others, they slept on the road the first night, and
they recalled that even those who tried to smuggle out some belongings
were stripped at ISIS checkpoints and had their possessions removed. But
they were one of the lucky families, ending up in a reasonably sized
house near the village of Mangesh, close to Duhok.
Sana, whose brother is a Chaldean bishop in Canada, told us that they
feel abandoned by Christians abroad. “We feel the West has forgotten
us,” she said.
The Church can only do so much, but Europe and the West “can do great
things,” interjected Father Ioshia Sana, Mangesh’s Chaldean parish
priest, who accompanied us. Governments, he said, “can’t just offer aid;
they need to find a solution for these poor people, to defend their
And yet Sana and her family, despite the real possibility of being
able to immigrate to Canada, showed the resilience of many Christian
families to remain in their homeland. They have faith and hope in the
future, as well as charity for their fellow Muslims, some of whom
surprised and angered their Christian neighbors by siding with ISIS when
Uncertainty About the Future
Many Christian families, however, feel pessimistic about returning to
their villages, even though some have already been liberated, and Mosul
and other Assyrian towns are expected to be retaken by Iraq’s military
backed up by U.S. and allied forces in the coming weeks.
Father Benedict Kiely, founder of Nazarean.org,
which helps Aid to the Church in Need to assist persecuted Christians,
visited the region in early September. He noted that, when he visited in
May last year, all of the displaced wanted to return to their homes,
but when he revisited Iraq in January of this year, “many more said they
wanted to leave” the country. During his most recent trip to the
region, he said, everyone he spoke to wanted to leave Iraq.
“What struck me since my last visit is the seeming loss of trust
among the people, a growing discomfort and uncertainty about the
future,” said Bishop Francesco Cavina of Carpi, Italy, who was part of
our delegation and visited the region in April. “Many Christians are
looking to leave Iraq, and this is a sign that these people don’t think
they can have a dignified future for their lives.”
A key concern for many, if not most, Christians is that they feel
they cannot trust their Muslim neighbors in their hometowns, or their
Muslim rulers, some of whom were Shiite Muslims and yet offered no
resistance or help when the Sunni Muslim ISIS fighters invaded (ISIS
regards Shiite Muslims, who comprise the majority in Iraq, as heretics deserving of attacks).
The Christians feel they were betrayed, and even in some of the camps
where they are now living, they feel discriminated against by Iraqi
Muslims (for example some Muslim taxi drivers in Erbil, Kurdistan’s
capital, won’t take passengers to the suburb of Ankawa, where a large
Christian camp is located).
Others don’t want to return if their churches have been destroyed or
desecrated, as in one case, where an 800-year-old church in Mosul had
been used as an ISIS torture chamber. Still others are also concerned
about the imminent liberation of Mosul from ISIS by Iraqi government
troops, fearing this will precipitate a million refugees pouring out of
the city — many of whom will, like ISIS, be Sunni Muslims and possibly
indoctrinated with their Islamist mentality. They worry such refugees
will then fill up what were once Christian towns and villages. A further
anxiety is that they are uncertain about who will govern them in the
future: the government of Kurdistan or of Iraq.
But even those who wish to leave Iraq have no guarantee of a brighter
future. “People want to travel abroad, but where?” asked Father Momika.
“In Jordan, there is no work, no medical care, no centers where they
are welcomed. In Lebanon, they don’t do anything for the people.”
A More Positive View
Yet the hierarchy, particularly Chaldean leaders, are generally
taking a more positive view of life in Iraq and are trying to persuade
the region’s Christians to stay. “The situation is OK; the government
helps them by paying rent for some of their housing,” Chaldean Bishop
Rabban Al-Qas of Amadiyah and Zaku told the Register. “In general, it’s
quiet … and the majority of them want to go back to their homes.”
The Chaldean hierarchy also believe the liberation of Mosul will
offer hope, prevent emigration and could pave the way for their return.
Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako of Baghdad has said
that the return of faithful to Nineveh is crucial if the Church in Iraq
is to survive long term. It’s important to note, however, that Syriac
Catholics form by far the largest number Christian refugees in
Neville Kyrke-Smith, national director of Aid to the Church in Need U.K., said
after a visit to Erbil in September that he “sensed much more hope
among Church leaders and faithful” compared to a visit he made last
year. In light of Mosul’s expected liberation, he said, “It is clear
that the Church is making a strong case to reclaim its place in a region
where — until 2014 — there had been an unbroken Christian presence
stretching back almost to the start of Christianity.”
A key underlying factor for the well-being of Christians is naturally
security and the need for guaranteed safety that depends on a united
Iraqi army and the Peshmerga — the Kurdish military. Zaiya, a determined
Christian Pashmerga captain in a Christian village in Duhok province,
about 60 miles from ISIS-occupied territory, said he believes that what
the U.S. government does is crucial for their future — a view that was
“The American will is decisive if ISIS is to be destroyed,” he told
us. “The war against ISIS is almost won, but our future depends on the
He said the situation is now much calmer, that the Peshmerga are
stronger than ISIS (though many Christians resent the fact that the
Peshmerga failed to adequately defend them in 2014), and he was “very
content” with how things were going. “If the region is governed well,
it’s paradise,” he said, adding that the problem now is that no one is
controlling ISIS; and once Mosul is liberated, “no one knows where they
will end up.”
Zaiya said many of ISIS’ foreign fighters have largely fled Mosul to
Syria and Libya, but 3,000 to 5,000 ISIS members remain in the city.
Asked if he was concerned another Islamist group will simply take over
from ISIS once they’ve gone (al-Qaida and other Islamist groups preceded
ISIS in northern Iraq), he said a similar group like Boko Haram,
currently operating in Nigeria, could replace them. But he added: “As
Pashmerga, we don’t fear anyone or anything. Our motto is that we fight
to the death, and if they were to try to take over, in three years, we’d
beat them, too.”
The Problem of Islam
In our discussions with local leaders in Mangesh, it became clear
that many Christians see Islam as key to the problem. One prominent
figure said that “what ISIS is doing is the real Islam” because it is
“how Islam started: through killing, violence, beheading. They have
always spread religion through violence.” The other local leaders nodded
They also warned that if European countries accept many Muslims into
their countries, “it will become a big problem for them, too.” One of
the local leaders said, “It seems to be a humanitarian cause, but it’s
not; it will lead to war, bloodshed and violence. They’ll take your
country by war. They don’t know the language of dialogue, only war.”
Many Iraqi Christians are pro-Donald Trump largely because of his
attitude toward Islam. “They think he’ll do something for them, and they
despise [President Barack] Obama,” said Father Kiely. And Christians
tend to blame the United States for the current chaos and destruction.
The U.S., they say, has a grave responsibility to set things right.
Still, in spite of the chaos, did they feel life in Iraq had in any
way improved since the removal of Saddam Hussein? The civic leaders in
Mangesh said that in some minor ways it had, but, now, “instead of one
Saddam, we now have 500 Saddams.” Many local governments are now run by
mini dictators, they say, and yet there was generally peace for
Christians under former Iraqi tyrant, who largely left them alone.
“In Muslim-majority countries, without a dictator, you can’t do
anything,” said Father Sana. “The hope was that things would get better
[without Saddam]; but, in actual fact, things have gotten worse.”
The Economic Situation
On the face of it, the economy seems to be surprisingly healthy
— especially in the Kurdistan capital, Erbil, once called Iraq’s Dubai.
Many businesses seem to be prospering, skyscrapers have gone up, the
shops are full of goods, and every other car seems to be an SUV.
Inflation in Iraq has been almost zero, and last month it dipped to
But locals say economic prosperity is largely an illusion, that
people have to work several jobs to make ends meet, and soldiers and
police often don’t get paid on time.
“Salaries have halved,” said Father Jalal, our guide. “Even the
Peshmerga have to do two jobs: A lot of them are taxi drivers, where
they work as a kind of secret service and keep their Kalashnikov [guns]
in the back of their car.”
The future for Iraq’s Christians is, therefore, precarious at best.
For Aid to the Church in Need, which has donated more than $20 million
to projects in Iraq since the ISIS offensive in 2014, the entire region
is a work in progress, and there is no quick fix.
Alessandro Monteduro, director of ACN Italy, told the Register that
it’s a “tragedy in motion,” and it is “not sufficient to donate to
finance just one project because, after that, the emergency still
Through the generosity of its benefactors, he said ACN has been
helping Iraqi Christians in a variety of ways: for instance, providing
resources so that 7,000 pupils can attend school and, just during our
visit, bringing 11,500 packages of food. It has funded the building of a
private co-educational school in Ankawa run by Dominican sisters,
attended by 620 internally displaced Christian children living in camps.
Appeal for Support
Much good work is continuing, but perhaps one of the greatest
grievances among the Christians in Iraq is the feeling that they have
been abandoned and ignored, not only by Western governments but also by
their Christian brothers and sisters in the West.
“We haven’t seen anyone visit from any government abroad, only the
French government,” said Father Momika. “Sometimes I ask: Where is the
global Christian community? Where are they? Are they sleeping? I don’t
know. And the Vatican, where are they? Okay, I support them in what they
say and their prayers. … Yes, we want prayer, but we also want people
to do something for us, to change the situation, to change the Christian
situation here. Because, you know, before this crisis, if you had come
to live in the Nineveh Plain, in Qaraqosh, you would think you were
living in paradise because people were living in peace.”
Father Momika predicted that many Christians will stay, but also “a
large number will go.” He said five to 10 families are “leaving Iraq
every day” and highlighted the fact that, since the Iraq War of 2003,
the number of Christians living in Iraq has collapsed from 1.3 million
to 250,000, just as Pope St. John Paul II prophetically warned it would,
which is partly why he so vociferously opposed the U.S.-led invasion.
“To stop [the violence], we cannot do anything because we don’t have
anything in our hands,” Father Momika said. “I tell you, if America does
something, they will stay, but even then we’ll have problems, because
already a large number of Christians have left.”
He visited the Kurdistan region Sept. 20-23.
See more photos of Edward Pentin's visit with the delegation here.