The ancient Christian community of Iraq, decimated by violence, fear

Baghdad (AFP)

Some fled after the US-led invasion, others in sectarian bloodshed and more following jihadist attacks. Iraq’s last two decades of violence have emptied its Christian community which dates back two millennia.

After first settling in the fertile plains of the province of Nineveh before heading to the bustling boulevards of Baghdad, more than a million Christians have, in more modern times, been uprooted by the ensuing conflicts. in Iraq.

“By the age of 24, I had already lived and survived three wars,” said Sally Fawzi, an Iraqi Chaldean Catholic, who left her country more than ten years ago and now lives in the state. American from Texas.

Some members of Iraq’s historic Christian community fled to the neighboring Kurdish Autonomous Region, others waited in neighboring Jordan to emigrate and then resettled in countries as far away as Australia.

Many lost hope in their homeland long ago, but see Pope Francis’ planned visit next month – the very first papal trip to Iraq – as an important opportunity for him to use his voice to gain international support for the Iraqis. of their faith.

Iraq’s Christian community is one of the oldest and most diverse in the world, with Chaldeans, Armenian Orthodox, Protestants, and other branches of Christianity.

In 2003, when then-dictator Saddam Hussein was overthrown, there were 1.5 million Christians in a country of 25 million people, or about 6% of the population.

But as the Iraqi population has multiplied, the percentage of minorities has decreased.

Today, only 400,000 Christians remain in a predominantly Muslim country of 40 million people, said William Warda, co-founder of the human rights organization Hammurabi.

Of those who left, nearly half a million resettled in the United States. Others ended up scattered across Canada, Australia, Norway and other parts of Europe.

– The first wave –

Rana Said, 40, had done her best to stay.

Her aunt and uncle were killed in 2007, when American soldiers opened fire indiscriminately in the streets of Mosul after an attack in the regional capital of the northern province of Nineveh.

Still, she stayed in town with her husband Ammar al-Kass, 41, a veterinarian.

The following year, as Iraq was in the throes of sectarian bloodshed, a series of assassinations, including of Christians, prompted the Kass family to settle in the relative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan.

But in 2013, the region was becoming increasingly unstable.

The couple eventually left their ancestral Iraq and relocated to Australia’s Gold Coast where they found jobs in their respective professions and raised three daughters: Sara, 10, Liza, six, and Rose, three.

The young girls have never visited Iraq, although they speak Arabic and a modern Assyrian dialect – the ancient language of Christ – at home.

A year after their resettlement, jihadists from the Islamic State group stormed their city. The family looked halfway around the world in horror.

“The fall of Mosul was not easy for us,” Ammar said, especially the destruction by ISIS of the city’s Church of the Virgin Mary, a precious 1,200-year-old heritage.

“This is where my father got married. He was razed and completely destroyed,” he said.

He tried to keep his wife – pregnant with Liza at the time – away from computers and phones for fear the added stress would harm the baby.

“I used to have nightmares about the entry of ISIS, the murder and rape of my family. It was a repetitive and horrible dream,” Rana said with emotion, of the jihadists who forced women of the Yazidi religious minority and those of other minorities into sexual slavery.

– Linger in limbo –

Saad Hormuz experienced the ISIS nightmare in person.

On August 6, 2014, IS fighters invaded Bartalla, the diverse town on the outskirts of Mosul where Hormuz had worked as a taxi driver.

“First, we fled to Al-Qosh,” he told AFP, another Christian town further north.

But as the jihadists continued their looting of Nineveh, they fled to Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish region.

With his wife Afnan, 48, and their four children – Natalie, 7, Nores, 15, Franz, 16, and Fadi, 19 – they lived in a church for a month before renting an apartment in $ 150 per month for almost three years.

It put a strain on their finances.

Three years later, the Iraqi army said it had freed Bartalla from the grip of ISIS. The Hormuz family were overjoyed and rushed to resume life in their hometown.

But they discovered that their home had been set on fire and ransacked, and that members of the Hashed al-Shaabi, a powerful state-sponsored paramilitary network made up of predominantly Shiite armed groups and volunteers to fight ISIS, were now in control of Bartalla. .

“We lived in fear. There were checkpoints and militias everywhere. Once they even asked my wife to wear a veil, ”Hormuz said.

“So I decided to sell everything, even my car, and move to Jordan,” he told AFP.

They have been living in a two-bedroom apartment in Amman since February 2018, hoping to be permanently resettled in Canada, where he and his wife have family ties.

With Covid-19 slowing all international travel, the immigration process has been frozen indefinitely as their savings dwindle further.

Registered as a refugee in Jordan, Hormuz has no legal right to work and relies on soup kitchens in some churches in Amman to feed his family.

“I hope that through his visit to Iraq, the Pope will ask countries hosting Christian refugees to help us,” he said.

“Returning to Iraq is out of the question.

– Exile and rebirth –

Many in the parishes of Chaldean Bishop Saad Sirop Hanna in Sweden feel the same.

Born in Baghdad, 40-year-old Hanna was sent in 2017 to lead Europe’s largest Chaldean congregation of about 25,000 people, who have arrived in Sweden in waves over the past four decades.

He experienced much of the violence they had fled, describing it as “great chaos”.

In 2006, he was kidnapped after having presided over a mass in the Iraqi capital.

“I have been detained and have had many experiences, including torture and isolation,” Hanna told AFP.

“This experience also gave me strength, to be honest. I was born again. I look at life again with great blessing and great love,” he said.

There are over 140,000 Iraqi residents in Sweden, including Raghid Benna, from Mosul who relocated to the eastern city of Sodertalje in 2007.

“There are so many Chaldeans here that I don’t even feel like I’m in exile,” said Benna, a father of two.

For Sally Fawzi, 38, who was resettled as a refugee in the United States in 2008, memories of the home can be painful.

“My family was devastated in 2007 when we learned that my two great-aunts in Kirkuk had been stabbed to death at night in their house simply because they were Christians,” she told AFP.

“Today I have a home, a beautiful family of my own, a job and my immediate family live in the same city, but I miss my Baghdad home and my friends the most,” Fawzi said.

“It will never be the same.”

– From bloodshed to bankruptcy –

When young families flee Iraq, they often leave their older parents behind, said Warda of Human Rights Organization Hammurabi.

“A Christian family usually had five members. Now it’s down to three, ”he said.

In Baghdad, the once thriving community of 750,000 Christians has shrunk by 90%.

Among them is Younan al-Farid, a priest who remained in the capital even after his brother emigrated to Canada and his sister to the United States.

With fewer worshipers, “up to 30% of Iraqi churches have closed,” Farid told AFP.

After nearly two decades of bloodshed and bombing, Iraq entered a period of relative calm following the territorial defeat of ISIS in late 2017.

But that did not prevent the flight of minorities.

“People always leave. Christians are just trying to save enough money, and as soon as they can, they migrate,” Farid said.

The country’s precarious economy is currently the main driver of emigration, Christians across the country told AFP.

The pandemic sparked a global recession and Iraq faced the additional challenge of collapsing oil prices, which squeezed state revenues from crude sales.

This has resulted in delays or cuts in wages in the public sector in federal Iraq as well as in the autonomous Kurdish region, where many Christians still live.

“I only get one salary every two months, and sometimes not even the full salary,” lamented Haval Emmanuel, a Chaldean official from northern Iraq.

“As soon as I get paid, I have to pay off the debts from the previous weeks and then I have nothing left.”

– An ‘angel’, meeting ‘demons’ –

Emmanuel grew up in Basra, Iraq’s southernmost city, then married and lived in Baghdad until 2004, when a bomb exploded outside the school his children attended.

Now an adult, one of her daughters immigrated to Norway with her husband, and her brother and sister have each moved their families to Lebanon.

Emmanuel, his wife and their three other children earn their living in Arbil while waiting for a response to their own resettlement requests.

“We are suffocating: there is no social assistance, no health services, no public schools, no work,” he told AFP in his modest house near the Chaldean Archdiocese of Arbil.

It annoyed him to see the lack of public services in the rich oil town of Basra, garbage piles disfiguring Baghdad’s historic Rasheed Street, or posters of the late Iranian Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini in the squares and streets. from southern Iraq.

“It’s supposed to be a public place, but I feel like I don’t belong here,” Emmanuel said.

“If they open everything, I guarantee you that tomorrow there will be no more Christians. At least abroad, we will finally feel respected as humans.”

The economic downturn, the poor quality of life, the shrinking space for minorities – Emmanuel blamed everything on a entrenched political class seen as deeply corrupt.

And there’s not much the Pope can do to change that.

“The Pope is like an angel descending on Iraq, but how many demons will he find here? A man of peace visiting a group of warlords – how could he change them? he said.

“We are waiting for the Pope. But we do not expect much from his visit.”

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