After Being Pushed Out by ISIS and Now Controlled by Shia Militia, Christianity Faces Extinction in Once Multicultural Iraq

The toppled remains for the Al-Tahira Church in Mosul // Credit: Tim Stanley

The official story is that northern Iraq is at peace. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) has largely been defeated; the Iraqi Army and its allies are in charge. But for Christians, the persecution continues. Those who can are getting out. Those who stay are preparing themselves for more violence. “Things are bad more than any other time,” Fr Behnam Benoka tells me at his church in Bartella, a ghost town protected, if that’s the right word, by soldiers with Kalashnikovs. “It’s harder even than before Isil.”

Isil was a nightmare, the worst one can possibly imagine. But Christians say that having left their homes to escape Sunni fundamentalism, they’ve returned to find their lands are now dominated by Shia militia sponsored, allegedly, by Iran. Christianity, they fear, faces extinction in what was once a multicultural society.

My guide on this trip is Fr Benedict Kiely, an English priest who runs a charity called Nasarean.org that provides advocacy and aid for Iraqi Christians. He knows a man who knows a man who gets us through countless checkpoints, themselves a brazen display of the contest to control the region known as the Nineveh Plains. Nineveh lies north and east of Mosul, traditionally regarded as home to the tomb of the prophet Jonah; so old is the Christian community here that the men in our car speak conversational Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

Under Saddam Hussein Christians enjoyed relative tolerance and stability. Many were middle-class and some held positions in the ruling Baath Party, all of which would later make them a target for retribution. It’s estimated that the Christian population has fallen from around 1.5 million under Saddam to about 250,000 today, a decline that began under the dictator. In the late Nineties, Saddam found God in a bid for legitimacy. Islamic religious education was encouraged and young radicals went to Saudi Arabia for instruction.

In the car, Yohanna Towaya, a Christian who previously lived and worked in Mosul as a professor, divides history into “before 2003 and after 2003.” The West invaded in March of that year. In September, he recalls, the Islamic mullahs in Mosul began to preach that “the Christians are infidels and also aiding the Americans.” Islamists took effective control, sponsored, he says, by al-Qaeda.

They kidnapped Christians, ostensibly to raise cash for the anti-American resistance. Mr Towaya’s own brother and brother-in-law were taken while working in the fields: men approached them with guns and said “come with us”. Mr Towaya shrugs: “This was ordinary.” The kidnappers set their ransom at $500,000, an absurd sum, but the Towayas knew a general who was able to negotiate the men’s release. If anyone couldn’t pay, the victim was beheaded and their body dumped in the street.

Mr Towaya says that between 2003 and 2014, “The majority [of Christians] left Mosul and went to the [surrounding] Nineveh plains”. Some fled abroad, to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, even Syria. His own family returned to their ancestral home in Qaraqosh on the Plains. But something even worse was coming. On June 10, Isil – an army of Sunni Jihadists Hell-bent on building a new empire – captured Mosul.

Mr Towaya explains: “On the first day, they didn’t say anything about Christians. Christians were very comfortable in the first week. But after 15 days, they asked Christians to leave town. They must leave, or convert, or be killed.” On August 6, Isil expanded into the Nineveh Plains, including Mr Towaya’s town. Mr Towaya and an estimated 125,000 Christians took to the road and drove east, to Kurdistan. Overnight, the Kurdish city of Erbil became a giant camp. Refugees slept on building sites or in the streets.

As for what happened in occupied Mosul, one can see with one’s own eyes. At noon, a man walks through the traffic in a daze; he is missing both arms. That was one of the ways Isil dispensed its justice.

The eastern half of Mosul is recovering from the war but the western, older and more Christian part is still a wasteland. Isil went on an orgy of destruction, including blowing up the famous leaning minaret at the al-Nuri mosque, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the foundation of the Isil caliphate. Its green dome still stands, just, in a field of bricks and concrete. There are likely still to be bodies underneath. Amazingly, human beings live among the ruins. The first few shops to return were barbers and men’s clothes. Iraqi men like to look good. I see almost no women.

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SOURCE: The Telegraph, Tim Stanley