World Middle East Cover Story

Iraqi Christians: Will they go home?

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They are deciding whether to return to villages once held by Islamic State – a decision that could affect the stability and religious diversity of the Middle East. 

A member of the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, a Christian militia, lights a candle on the burned altar at Tahera Church in Qaraqosh, Iraq. Homes, businesses, and churches were destroyed as Islamic State retreated from the town. Some of the area has been retaken by Iraqi and NPU forces.
Holly Pickett | Caption

It is Raghad Abada’s first glimpse of her hometown since August 2014, when she and her husband gathered their children, grabbed a few documents, and fled for their lives ahead of the Islamic State (IS) invasion. More than two years later, she stares out the window of a white Hyundai Tucson as her husband’s brother, Nawar Boulis Karomi, steers it gingerly around the debris of a city in ruins. 

They drive past the main shopping thoroughfare, where storefront after storefront has been torched, the shutters crumpled on the ground next to twisted metal. In residential neighborhoods, some houses have been reduced to piles of rubble. Others were burned.

Finally, they turn onto her street. The road is blocked by a charred sedan and trailer, remnants of the defenses IS militants had used against the Iraqi Army, so Mr. Karomi stops the car. Ms. Abada gets out and walks tremulously toward her home. It is apparent that the pink two-story structure had once been stately and elegant. Now, the facade is blackened by flames. As she approaches the gate, Abada puts her hands to her face and weeps. 

Raghad Abada, her son Evan Mazen Boulis, and her sister-in-law Huda Yishua try to salvage some belongings from the family’s home in Qaraqosh, Iraq, a Christian community burned and looted by members of the Islamic State group.
Holly Pickett | Caption

Inside, the house has been stripped of its furnishings. The expensive Turkish-made chairs are gone. So are the dining table, sofas, and oven. The walls are charred, the smell still acrid, and ash crunches underfoot. Half-melted tiles hang from the ceiling. 

“There’s nothing. No pictures, nothing,” says Abada, as she and her sister-in-law sort through the debris. They find a piece of traditional Qaraqosh embroidery, and, miraculously, a VHS tape of Abada’s wedding. “I lost even the pictures of my kids,” Abada says. “My life is gone. All our possessions are gone. Everything. Thank God we are safe, but we didn’t expect something like this.” 

The offensive to retake northern Iraq from the clutches of IS, begun in October, has pushed the militants from most of the historical Christian heartland in the Nineveh Plains, including Qaraqosh, the largest majority-Christian town in Iraq. Now residents face a choice that has confronted many of their persecuted ancestors throughout history: whether to return to their homeland, despite incessant dangers, or to flee permanently. 

Many of those displaced from Qaraqosh and surrounding cities say they will never feel safe there again, and they prefer to leave Iraq than return to what’s left of their homes. Abada is among them. Like most of the Christians in Iraq, she has relatives who have already escaped to other countries, seeking relief from the recurring violence they endure at home.

“No, we don’t want to come back here,” she says. “Our goal is to emigrate abroad. To any country.” 

“They destroyed our dreams and our memories,” adds Karomi. “They destroyed everything.” 

Ammar Habib, a farmer and member of the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, a Christian militia, walks through the bombed-out commercial district of Qaraqosh, Iraq.
Holly Pickett | Caption

The choice facing people like Abada may determine the future of Iraq’s Christian community – and shape the diversity and stability of the Middle East. Over the past decade and a half, the Christian population in the region has been in steep decline. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 unleashed a sectarian bloodletting that saw Christians targeted with violence. Hundreds of thousands left their homeland for safety abroad. The IS capture of northern Iraq in 2014 accelerated the departures. Fewer than 500,000 Christians are now left in the country, down from 1.5 million in 2003. 

Their exodus threatens to bring an end to a history that goes back millenniums. Most Christians in Iraq identify as Assyrians or Chaldeans and trace their ancestry back to the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian civilizations. They speak a modern version of Aramaic, the language of Jesus. And many worry about the effects on society as Iraq’s population – long ethnically and religiously diverse – becomes less diverse and more divided. 

To persuade many of those who have fled to return would require much outside help and internal fortitude. Most of the towns are in ruins – buildings destroyed, shops looted, homes burned. Improvised explosive devices must be cleared, and electricity and running water restored. Many of the displaced lost everything and can’t afford to rebuild. Large-scale assistance will be necessary to revive any semblance of civilization.

But a more fundamental question is safety. Iraqi and Kurdish forces pulled out in the face of the IS advance two years ago, and many Christians have no confidence in those forces to protect them. They also have lost the desire to live among their Muslim former neighbors, some of whom welcomed IS and pillaged their homes. 

In an effort some see as the last chance to keep Christians from disappearing from their homeland, Christian leaders are pushing for the creation of a new province for minorities in the Nineveh Plains. With a degree of self-rule, and a security force of their own, they say it could give people the degree of confidence necessary to remain. Whether it can actually come to fruition, and make Christians more secure in an Iraq increasingly fractured on sectarian and ethnic lines, is unclear. The future of the beleaguered minority – and a modicum of religious and cultural pluralism in a crossroads of the world’s three great monotheistic religions – may pivot on the outcome. 

Nawar Boulis Karomi holds a wedding photo of him and his wife, Huda Yishua, which he was able to pick out of the rubble from his home in Qaraqosh.
Holly Pickett | Caption

When Abada returns to Qaraqosh on this warm November day, the streets are patrolled by soldiers of the Nineveh Plain Protection Units wearing woodland camouflage-patterned uniforms. The NPU is one of several militias set up by Assyrian Christians in 2014 after the IS conquest of their land. Earlier this year the force gained official recognition – along with funding and weapons – from the government in Baghdad. More than 500 men strong, it is now in charge of securing Qaraqosh. Their headquarters in the town is in a one-story building that used to house a government veterinary clinic. Now soldiers serve tea to commanders in a reception room. “We didn’t start this force to fight anyone. We formed this force to help our people, to protect them,” says the NPU’s commander, Gen. Behnam Aboush Abdel Meseeh, a former general in the Iraqi Air Force. “To not allow ISIS or others in the future to come and kidnap our wives and sisters and do what they did to the Yazidis. To return trust to the people,” he says, using an alternative acronym for Islamic State. 

Most NPU members are from the Nineveh Plains and joined because they want Christian land to be protected by Christians, not the Iraqi Army or Kurdish peshmerga. It’s clear the force has inspired pride in its members. But its capabilities are still limited. It was the Iraqi Army that fought for Qaraqosh, with a handful of NPU members participating. The force has no heavy weapons and depends on help from the Iraqi Army and US forces to defuse the improvised explosive devices left by IS militants. While its soldiers engaged in several light skirmishes with IS fighters in the weeks after retaking the town, it would not have the firepower necessary to withstand a large-scale attack. 

But it’s important to the fighters that they patrol their ancestral land, instead of leaving it to others. They staff checkpoints, clear neighborhoods of explosives, and sometimes accompany civilians who return to check on their homes. Ammar Habib, a squat middle-aged Qaraqosh native who joined the NPU in 2014, walks down a street where shoppers used to come from surrounding towns to buy women’s clothes. Now, all the storefronts are smashed. Dusty shoes litter the pavement in front of one shop. In another, a wedding dress hangs, coated in grime. 

Mr. Habib’s farm on the outskirts of town, where he raised chickens and grew wheat, was destroyed by IS – his poultry houses ruined, farm equipment stolen. He plans to return to the city when it’s habitable. But he won’t rebuild his farm unless he has a guarantee that he won’t lose everything again. “If I could be sure that the situation would go back like it was, safety and security for our life, and protection from the international community, then I would go back to farming,” he says. “I don’t trust the central government. You can’t depend on their promises.” 

This plea for international protection is commonly voiced by Iraqi Christians. “The people of the Nineveh Plain, all the minorities, they don’t trust in any of the authorities, neither KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] nor Baghdad, to restore the area. That’s why we need the participation of the international community,” says Abdel Meseeh. “I say to the US government: If they want to help us, they should do so while we’re still alive, not after we’re dead.” He doesn’t want an outside force. “Give us weapons,” he says. “We will protect ourselves.”

But in the absence of international protection – an unlikely notion given the current political realities – some consider the creation of a province for Christians and other minorities to be a more attainable goal. (In addition to Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, the Nineveh Plains, an area east of Mosul, is home to a number of ethnic and religious minorities, including Yazidis, Turkmen, and Shabaks.) Their push comes as Iraq is increasingly fractured along ethnic and sectarian divides, with struggles between Sunnis and Shiites and the KRG in the north vowing to seek a referendum on independence. Turkmen and Yazidis have also called for their own provinces west of Mosul in Tal Afar and Sinjar, respectively. All three hypothetical provinces would be carved from Iraq’s current Nineveh Governorate, whose capital is Mosul. 

Advocates of a new province for minorities, such as Kaldo Oghanna of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, a political party with a presence in the Iraqi parliament, says Western countries should pressure Iraq to make it happen. He worries that the Nineveh Plains territory will become just another spoil in the struggle between Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis. “The three political sharks are struggling over an area that’s not theirs,” he says. “It belongs to the minorities.”

Residents visit the burned altar at Tahera Church in Qaraqosh, Iraq. Islamic State fighters used the Christian church for target practice before burning and looting it.
Holly Pickett | Caption

Yet the Nineveh Plains is already caught in the middle of a looming territorial clash between the KRG and Baghdad. After IS captured a large swath of northern Iraq, Kurdish forces moved into or cemented their hold on disputed territory. 

In the town of Baqofa, 18 miles north of Mosul, an Assyrian Christian militia called Dwekh Nawsha has waited eagerly since 2014 to participate in the battle against IS. The area is part of Iraq’s Nineveh province, but is controlled by the Kurdish peshmerga. The Dwekh Nawsha fighters need approval from the peshmerga for most of their movements. For two years, they waited at their base, taking shifts on the earthen berm that marked the front line, where they peered at IS fighters less than four miles away in the town of Batnaya.

But in October, when the moment finally arrived to launch the battle for the majority-Christian town, the peshmerga commanders told Dwekh Nawsha fighters to stand down. “We were ready to attack. They even told us the hour, and we were all preparing to leave the base at 4 a.m. when the order came that we couldn’t go,” says Samir Oraha, a team leader in the militia. “We all became depressed at that moment. We were angry and sad.” 

Mr. Oraha is from Mosul, but he left in 2007 as Christians were increasingly targeted by extremists in the city. He doesn’t plan to return to Mosul – it’s unlikely that many Christians will, even if it’s fully recaptured from IS. But he also wonders what will become of the territory he’s now trying to protect. “All of these villages, Alqosh to Bashiqa to Karamless and Qaraqosh – it doesn’t belong to the Kurdish Regional Government,” he says. “They want this land, and we don’t know if they will leave.” 

The Nineveh Plains should not be incorporated into the Kurdish region, he says, but neither should it remain a part of Nineveh province. A new province for minorities and ruled by minorities, he adds, “is the last hope for us.”

A prayerbook is found near the altar in Tahera Church.
Holly Pickett | Caption

The militia is a motley crew, with mismatched uniforms and no consistent training. Now, its members spend most of their time at their base, the former home of Baqofa’s mayor. They take turns standing guard, cooking, and cleaning. Under the watchful eye of the peshmerga, they make trips to Batnaya, where they document damage to houses and later post the photos online for village residents. 

On a sun-splashed November day, the fighters pile into their pickup truck, planning to head into Batnaya. A Russian-made heavy machine gun is mounted to the bed of the truck, though the weapon doesn’t work. As they leave the fortified walls of their base, they receive a call: A peshmerga commander is radioing to tell them American special forces are in the village to defuse improvised explosive devices. The Dwekh Nawsha fighters will have to wait, again. 

•     •     •

In Erbil, the capital of the semiautonomous Kurdistan region where many of the Christians fled in 2014, Ammar Siman is sorting through a roomful of donated winter clothes for the displaced. The priest of St. George Syriac Catholic Church in the town of Bartalla, he has directed a charity for displaced people since he became one himself two years ago. His church, like those in most of the towns occupied by IS, was burned. It’s difficult to encourage parishioners to return in the current climate, he says. “I think people will go back only if they see hope for the future.”

Assyrian and Chaldean Christians remember painfully their long history of tragedy. It includes their mass slaughter a century ago by the Ottoman regime, alongside the Armenians and Greeks. Every time there’s a fresh attack, says Father Siman, “we lose more people to emigration.” Before 2014 the Syriac Catholic Church counted 12,000 families among its flock in Qaraqosh, Mosul, Bartalla, and the surrounding areas. Now they number only 7,000, and he fears the exodus will get worse. “If someone returns to his house and doesn’t see his neighbors and friends there...,” he pauses and raises his hands. “Community to us is very important for living. Maybe if we don’t have that, people will decide to leave.”  

Two of his parishioners have already resolved not to go back. Jandark Nasi and her son, Ibrahim Matti, weren’t able to escape Bartalla before IS militants took control of the city in 2014. They spent two years enduring terror and intimidation before finally escaping as the Iraqi Army pushed into Mosul.

Ibrahim, a quiet and slight teenager who spends his time caring for his mother, recounts their ordeal from the church-run center for displaced people in Erbil where the pair now live. Soon after their capture in August 2014, the militants detained them in a prison full of other Christians and Shiites, all of whom were being beaten, he says. There, militants told Ibrahim and his mother they must convert to Islam.

“I said [to them], there is no God but Jesus,” he recalls. The militants then went to the next cell, where they were holding Shiite Muslims, whom they consider heretics. Ibrahim could hear as an IS member demanded a man profess fealty to Islam. “He didn’t accept, so they shot him in the head. Then they took me to his cell, showed me his body, and told me, ‘if you don’t convert to Islam, you will have the same fate,’ ” he says. “I was frightened. I was scared.”

When the militants again demanded that the two recite the Islamic profession of faith, they complied. “We said it. But it wasn’t coming from our hearts,” he says. “I have strong faith, but with everything that happened, we were under threats and pressure.”

Yet even that did not end their torment. Over the next two years, as they were living in and around Mosul, IS militants regularly visited the two to test their commitment to Islam. “I didn’t memorize their prayers, so they were beating me,” says Ibrahim. “They beat my mother with sticks because she didn’t know how to pray.”

Militants would torture them with needles if they answered questions incorrectly, he says, and told him that if he missed three consecutive Fridays at the mosque they would kill him. Whenever he didn’t go to the mosque, they beat him, he says. He was forced to wear the short trousers preferred by the militants, and to grow his beard.

At the mosque, Ibrahim listened to the imam proclaim the rest of the world infidels and urge residents to pledge obedience to the leader of IS and participate in jihad. Over the two years, he says he often saw members of IS who were not Iraqi. He also saw public executions, including the stoning of a woman accused of adultery. But some Mosul residents secretly gave them food and supplies, at great risk to themselves. 

“I was praying in the bottom of my heart, and crying,” says Ms. Nasi. “For the sake of my son, my gift from God.”

Eventually Ibrahim and Nasi were able to escape when the Iraqi Army offensive reached the area where they were living on the outskirts of Mosul. “I still don’t believe it,” he says of their flight, smiling for the first time in an hour and a half of talking.

In the small room he now shares with his mother, rosaries hang on the wall above the two simple beds. The floor is covered by carpet scraps. A bare lightbulb hangs from the wall. After more than two years without television, they enjoy a Bollywood film on a donated TV.

Now out from under the caliphate, Ibrahim says he wants to obtain medical care for his mother and to continue his studies, which stopped at eighth grade. But both see a future outside Iraq. “We spent two years [under IS], two horrible years. We don’t want to go back,” says Nasi. “We want to leave Iraq, to leave this pain.”

Gen. Behnam Aboush Abdel Meseeh, commander of a Christian militia.
Holly Pickett | Caption

Still, not everyone is fleeing. Back in Qaraqosh, Wilson Yousef Jallo sweeps up debris at his restaurant and bar, called “Our Nights” in Arabic. Once a cheerful and popular hangout, it had been ransacked by IS militants – broken chairs lie in a pile, kitchen equipment is smashed, and bottles are shattered across the floor. He opened the restaurant in 2003 and is heartbroken to see his dream in tatters. “We spent many years building this, and now we lost it,” says the short Qaraqosh native with a scar next to his eye.

This is his first visit back to Qaraqosh since it was retaken from IS, and he’s searching the rubble for the restaurant license, which he didn’t have time to grab when he fled in 2014. Despite the destruction, he’s already thinking about how he can reopen. He’ll need a lot of support to be able to rebuild, he acknowledges. But he’s determined.

“God willing, we’ll come back and open it again, against ISIS and against the religious extremists,” he says.