Two years ago Jalal Yako, a Syriac Catholic priest, returned to his home town of Qaraqosh to persuade members of his community to stay in Iraq and not to emigrate because of the violence directed against them.
“I was in Italy for 18 years, and when I came back here my mission was to get Christians to stay here,” he says. “The Pope in Lebanon two years ago had established a mission to get Christians in the East to stay here.”
Father Yako laboured among the Syriac Catholics, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, who had seen the number of Christians in Iraq decline from over one million at the time of the American invasion in 2003 to about 250,000 today. He sought to convince people in Qaraqosh, an overwhelmingly Syriac Catholic town, that they had a future in Iraq and should not emigrate to the US, Australia or anywhere else that would accept them. His task was not easy, because Iraqi Christians have been frequent victims of murder, kidnapping and robbery.
But in the past six months Father Yako has changed his mind, and he now believes that, after 2,000 years of history, Christians must leave Iraq. Speaking at the entrance of a half-built mall in the Kurdish capital Irbil where 1,650 people from Qaraqosh have taken refuge, he said that “everything has changed since the coming of Daesh (the Arabic acronym for Islamic State). We should flee. There is nothing for us here.” When Islamic State (Isis) fighters captured Qaraqosh on 7 August, all the town’s 50,000 or so Syriac Catholics had to run for their lives and lost all their possessions.
Many now huddle in dark little prefabricated rooms provided by the UN High Commission for Refugees amid the raw concrete of the mall, crammed together without heat or electricity. They sound as if what happened to them is a nightmare from which they might awaken at any moment and speak about how, only three-and-a-half months ago, they owned houses, farms and shops, had well-paying jobs, and drove their own cars and tractors. They hope against hope to go back, but they have heard reports that everything in Qaraqosh has been destroyed or stolen by Isis.
Some have suffered worse losses. On the third floor of the shopping mall in Irbil down a dark corridor sits Aida Hanna Noeh, 43, and her blind husband Khader Azou Abada, who was too ill to be taken out of Qaraqosh by Aida, with their three children, in the final hours before it was captured by Isis fighters. The family stayed in their house for many days, and then Isis told them to assemble with others who had failed to escape to be taken by mini-buses to Irbil. As they entered the buses, the jihadis stripped them of any remaining money, jewellery or documents. Aida was holding her three-and-a-half month old baby daughter, Christina, when the little girl was seized by a burly IS fighter who took her away. When Aida ran after him he told the mother to get back on the bus or he would kill her. She has not seen her daughter since.
It is not the savage violence of Isis only that has led Father Yako to believe that Christians have no future in Iraq. He points also to the failure of both the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to defend them against the jihadis. Christians in Iraq have traditionally been heavily concentrated in Baghdad, Mosul and the Nineveh Plain surrounding Mosul. But on 10 June some 1,300 Isis fighters defeated at least 20,000 Iraqi army soldiers and federal police and captured Mosul. The army generals fled in a helicopter. In mid-July Christians in the city were given a choice by Isis of either converting to Islam, paying a special tax, leaving or being executed. Almost all Christians fled the city.
Kurdish peshmerga moved into Qaraqosh and other towns and villages in the Nineveh Plain. They swore to defend their inhabitants, many of whom stayed because they were reassured by these pledges. Father Yako recalls that “before Qaraqosh was taken by Daesh there were many slogans by the KRG saying they would fight as hard for Qaraqosh as they would for Irbil. But when the town was attacked, there was nobody to support us.” He says that Christian society in Iraq is still shocked by the way in which the Iraqi and Kurdish governments failed to defend them.
Johanna Towaya, formerly a large farmer and community leader in Qaraqosh, makes a similar point. He says that up to midnight on 6 August the peshmerga commanders were assuring the Syriac Catholic bishop in charge of the town that they would defend it, but hours later they fled. Previously, they had refused to let the Christians arm themselves on the grounds that it was unnecessary. Ibrahim Shaaba, another resident of the town, said that he saw the Isis force that entered Qaraqosh early in the morning of 7 August and it was modest in size, consisting of only 10 vehicles filled with fighters.
At first, IS behaved with some moderation towards the 150 Christian families who, for one reason or another, could not escape. But this restraint did not last; looting and destruction became pervasive. Mr Towaya says that the Isis authorities in Mosul started “giving documents to anybody getting married in Mosul to enable them to go to Qaraqosh to take furniture [from abandoned Christian homes].”
As so many had fled, there are few who can give an account of how IS behaved in their newly captured Christian town. But one woman, Fida Boutros Matti, got to know all too well what Isis was like when she and her husband had to pretend to convert to Islam in order to save their lives and those of their children, before finally escaping. Speaking to The Independent on Sunday in a house in Irbil, where they are now living, she explained how she and her husband Adel and their young daughter Nevin and two younger sons, Ninos and Iwan, twice tried to flee but were stopped by Isis fighters.
“They took our money, documents and mobile phones and sent us home,” she says. “After 13 days they knocked on our door and the men were separated from the women. Thirty women were taken with their children to one house and told they must convert to Islam, pay a tax or be killed. We told them that since they had taken all our money, we could not pay them.” Four days later, some fighters burst into the house saying they would kill the women and the children if they did not convert.
Soon afterwards, Mrs Matti was taken to Mosul in a car with three other women and a guard who, she recalls, threw a grenade into a house on the way to frighten them. In Mosul they were taken first to al-Kindi prison, formerly an army camp, but did not enter it and then their guard got a phone call to bring them to a house in the Habba district of the city.
In the house, she and the three other Christian women were put in one room, next to another in which there were 30 Yazidi girls between 10 and 18 who were being repeatedly raped by the guards. Mrs Matti says that “the Yazidi girls were so young that I worried about Nevin and told the guards that she was eight years old though she is really 10”.
They told her that her husband, Adel, had converted to Islam. She asked to speak to him on the phone, saying she would do whatever he did. They spoke, and agreed that they had no choice but to convert if they wanted to survive.
When they appeared before an Islamic court in Mosul to register their conversion, their three children were given new, Islamic names: Aisha, Abdel-Rahman and Mohammed. They went to live in a house in a Sunni Muslim district and from there – here the husband and wife are circumspect about what exactly happened – they secured a phone and contacted relatives in Irbil. They said that they needed to take one of their children for medical treatment in Irbil, and, once there, they had a pre-arranged meeting with a driver who took them by a roundabout route through Kirkuk to the protection of the KRG.
The trauma of the last six months has been overwhelming for the remaining Christians in Iraq. The Chaldean Archbishop of Irbil, Bashar Warda, heads an episcopal commission to help displaced Christians whom he says number 125,000, or half the total remaining Christian population. Unlike other displaced people in Iraq, the Christians are mostly cared for by the churches. He says that there will always be a few Christians remaining in Iraq, but overall “they have lost their trust in the land. Some 80 or 90 are leaving every day for Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.” Others would go if they had money and visas.
Mounting persecution since 2003 and now the final calamity of Isis taking Mosul and the Nineveh Plain has convinced many that they can no longer stay. The archbishop suspects that, even if IS is driven back and Christians can return to their homes, half of them will only stay long enough to sell their property. Almost exactly a hundred years after the Armenian Christians in Turkey were slaughtered or driven into exile, the end has come for the Christian community of Iraq. “Have no doubt,” concludes Archbishop Warda, “that here is massacre, here is a tragedy.”