AMMAN, Jordan — Tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians are preparing to spend their first Christmas as refugees after the seizure of their homelands by Islamic State (also called ISIS).
As sweltering summer heat gives way to winter, as many as 120,000 people continue to shelter in the streets and parks of Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan. In Amman, the Jordanian capital, around 5000 have been granted visas to wait indefinitely in churches while resettlement claims are processed.
“Everybody here is willing to go to any country they can find safety,” explained Silwan Ibrahim, 25. He stays with his wife, parents and brother in the St Elias Greek Catholic Church, in the Marj Al Hamam suburb of Amman. They are among 120 refugees living at the church since August.
The church hall, partitioned into separate rooms, provides family lodgings, along with 12 portable accommodation units lining the walls of the church courtyard.
All are happy to be there, but the toll of waiting indefinitely for news of resettlement weighs heavily.
“We are very tired,” Najem Handaniyeh told Crikey. “We just live to eat and sleep. There is only one toilet, and until last week I hadn’t been able to shower. All the money we had we spent to come here and we don’t even have money to buy water to wash. But we thank God we are here.”
The church priest, Father George Sharida, hosts a family in his house and spends his time co-ordinating the construction of facilities, such as extra toilets, and securing aid donations. He says the Iraqis were able to come with the permission of Jordan’s King Abdullah, who granted visas to some of the displaced Christians to travel from Erbil.
“The people need peace and somewhere safe to call home, and thankfully we have received help from King Abdullah,” he said.
Jordan has struggled to cope with waves of refugees fleeing conflict from surrounding countries. According to government officials more than 1 million Syrian refugees have sought shelter in the kingdom.
The Middle East’s Christian population has faced growing persecution in recent years. An indigenous minority in countries across the region, Christians are often vulnerable when sectarian tensions become violent.
“Daesh is very bad, but they’re not Muslims,” Father Sharida said, using the Arabic acronym for IS. “We’ve been living with Muslims for thousands of years. Daesh give a bad name to Muslims around the world, but Muslims are good people.”
Between the United States-led wars to evict Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait in 1991 and the 2003 invasion, Iraq’s Christian population fell from over one million to around 800,000. The violence and chaos engulfing Iraq in the ensuing years resulted in an exodus as Christians became subject to extortion, kidnapping, and religiously motivated violence. Current numbers are difficult to gauge, and estimates range from 200,000 to 500,000.
“The government there did nothing for us. Before it was just Saddam making life difficult, but then the politicians and now Daesh,” said Silwan Ibrahim’s father, Nual, who ran a shop selling glasses in Mosul. “There were big problems between the Shia and the Sunni Muslims that became political. Every city in Iraq is like this now. Everyone has a gun to save himself, but the Christians had nothing.”
Having secured territory in Syria, where civil war has raged for almost four years, IS forces swept across northern Iraq in the summer, seizing Mosul on June 10. The group had reportedly only hoped to launch sorties against the strategic city’s outer suburbs but as undermanned and underequipped Iraqi National Forces troops failed to offer resistance they took control. It was a victory that took everyone by surprise — not least Mosul’s residents.
“I was working late and went to sleep in the early morning,” said former resident Riad Mansour, who worked shifts at a hotel. “When I woke up Daesh were controlling the city. We had no warning.”
The extreme interpretations of Sunni Islam promoted by IS are intolerant of religious diversity. In addition to Christians, Shia Muslims and ancient sects such as the Yazidis and Mandeans, which trace their origins back to Babylonian times, also face persecution.
Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh Plain were a heartland of Christianity in Iraq and home to monasteries, churches and communities tracing their origins back to the earliest days of the Christian faith. Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches maintained their historic links to the land while Armenian churches, historically more recent, had also flourished. In the days of the Persian Empire and the Caliphate the Church of the East established Christianity in India, China and Tibet.
“When the Patriarch of the church there spoke before the Caliph in Baghdad, in 781 AD, he had no doubt that it was the East, and not the West, which was the heartbeat of the faith,” according to historian and author Tom Holland. “It was in the East that Jesus Christ walked in the flesh 33 years on the earth, in the East that the Church’s greatest saints, scholars and ascetics had lived. Back then, it was Christians, not Muslims, who formed the majority in the Caliphate; but now, of course, they are a vanishing minority.”
He says witnessing the destruction of such human history is heartbreaking. “I imagine it’s how a naturalist must feel seeing a rainforest teeming with biodiversity get cut down, ripped up and turned into pasture for cattle grazing,” he said.
For those dealing with the impact the choices are simple and desperate.
“Humanity is more important than history, and we need more humanity. There is absolutely no future for Christians there now,” Father Manhal Abboush told Crikey.
His church in Madaba, a traditionally Christian town in Jordan, is hosting 100 Iraqi refugees.
“We’ve been rejected, and we don’t have to fight to be accepted. We need someone to say to us, ‘This is your country’. We have to live together.”