Kurdistan has declared a safe-haven for Christian refugees, as Islamist militants extinguish the Christian presence in Iraq’s second city, Mosul. According to news reports, every Christian has finally been driven out of the city.
Displaced Christians have expressed anger towards the international community for failing to protect them or offer asylum. One priest, who cannot be named, told religious liberty organisation, Release International, that he was furious that Britain ‘offered visas to terrorists’ but refused to grant them to Iraqi Christians. The priest was also dismayed that British jihadis were among the IS fighters.
‘There is no hope, no future. All we have is war and killing and fighting,’ says Thiar, a Christian refugee. He says he desperately wants to leave the country and join the rest of his family in Germany.
Militants from Islamic State (formerly ISIS) ordered Christians in Mosul to convert or pay protection tax and submit to Islamic rule. Those who refused would face execution by midday Saturday.
‘For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians,’ Patriarch Louis Sako told the AFP news agency. According to reports, IS militants confiscated their homes and stripped them of their remaining belongings as they tried to leave.
Many Muslims have also fled the city and surrounding areas as IS impose their brutal version of Sharia law.
‘The terror is palpable,’ says Release Chief Executive Paul Robinson, ‘and that fear is drivingChristians and Muslims from their homes. Many Christians have been displaced by religious extremism more than once, and they have reached the end of the line. They just want to leave.’
Many Christians have fled to Kurdistan, which claims to be the only region in the Middle East with a growing Christian population.
The Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar M Warda, told Release: ‘Christians have lost their trust in the land and in the future. Since 2003 [the allied invasion of Iraq], two-thirds of the Christians have left the country. The attack on Christians has been immense. In the future I imagine Iraq becoming a country where you have many Christian sites, just for tourism – due to the families that are leaving.’
The coming of Islamic State is just the latest tightening of the screw on Christians. Persecution has beenrelentless since the downfall of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Christians have been killed, car-bombed and gunned down in their churches.
Christians say low-level persecution and harassment has continued under the rule of the Iraqi Prime Minister Nour al-Malaki, and his Shia-dominated Iraqi army. Many Christians see persecution under the Sunni IS militants as a continuation of the process.
Thiar [second name withheld] fled from Baghdad when extremists killed 52 members of his church – including his nephew and his three-year old son. Over five hours, two terrorists gunned down members of the congregation of the Syriac Catholic Cathedral and detonated suicide vests filled with ball-bearings.
That was in 2010. Most of the family left Iraq, but Thiar, his wife and three children headed north to Qaraqosh, a Christian enclave close to the border with Kurdistan.
Then in June this year, artillery fire and the imminent threat of an IS invasion drove them out. A priest in the town implored the Kurds to come to their rescue and Peshmerga troops moved in, effectively annexing Qaraqosh. IS forces, they say, are now just 5km away.
A ray of hope is the affirmation by Kurdish leaders that Christian refugees are being offered a safe haven in Kurdistan and will be welcomed, protected and free to practise their religion.
Ainkawa is a mainly Christian district of Erbil, the Kurdish capital. Government Religious Affairs spokesman Mariwan Naqshbandi told Release: ‘In 2003 we had around 2,000 families living in Ainkawa, now we have 6,000 families.’ Most of these are from Christian areas of Iraq.
‘Kurdistan is the only country in the Middle East where you can see the numbers of Christians rising,’ he added. ‘We have no persecution of Christians and we don’t have the terrorist groups here.’
The region’s newly-appointed Religious Affairs Minister, Kamal Muslim, gave this assurance: ‘Kurdistan will always be a safe haven for those leaving their places of terror.’ He also affirmed that Christians would be free to practise their beliefs in Kurdistan.
Kurdish government spokesmen offered two reasons for their open-handed policy towards Christians: They know what it is like to be persecuted, having been targeted by Saddam with chemical weapons. And although most are Sunni Muslim, they say they value their nationality – for which they have fought for many years – above their religious identity.
However, Christians in Kurdistan do face restrictions, and Muslim-background believers especially remain at risk. Christians make up just two per cent of the population of Kurdistan.
Through its international network of missions Release International serves persecuted Christians in more than 30countries around the world, by: supporting pastors and Christian prisoners, and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles; and working for justice.