As some residents of the city of Mosul celebrate their new freedom from the Islamic State group, an Iraqi Christian leader who visited the war-torn city said Christian residents are unlikely to return.
“I don’t see a future for Christians in Mosul,” said Father Emanuel
Youkhana, a priest, or archimandrite, of the Assyrian Church of the
Father Youkhana, who runs Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, a
Christian program for displaced Iraqis around the city of Dohuk, entered
Mosul in a military convoy Jan. 27, the day Iraqi officials raised the
national flag over the eastern part of the city. Islamic State seized
the city in 2014, causing Christians and other minorities to flee.
Once inside Mosul, Father Youkhana moved about freely, talking to
residents and soldiers.
He visited two churches, both heavily damaged.
“The churches were used as warehouses by Daesh,” he said, referring
to the terrorist group by its common Arabic name. “They used the
churches to store what they looted from Christian and Yezidi villages,
but as the end neared they sold the buildings to local contractors, who
started tearing down the walls to reuse the steel inside. If the army
hadn’t entered for another couple of weeks, the buildings might have
been completely destroyed.”
One building, belonging to the Syriac Orthodox Church, had not been
completely swept for explosives, according to Iraqi soldiers in the
area. The front of the building was painted with an Islamist slogan by
the Islamic State, and a military commander told Father Youkhana his
troops would gladly paint over it. Father Youkhana replied that it was
not his church, so he had no authority to authorize the troops.
“And leaving it as is preserves the evidence of what Daesh did here,” he told Catholic News Service.
At another church, owned by the Assyrian Church of the East, the body
of an Islamic State fighter poked out of a pile of garbage in front of
Father Youkhana, who went to high school in Mosul, also photographed
several houses that belonged to Christians, but had been given or sold
to Muslim families by the Islamic State.
While he doubts Christians will
return, he believes they will be able to recover the value of their
properties, notwithstanding attempts by the Islamic State to destroy local government records.
“Christians aren’t going to come back to stay. The churches I saw
were not destroyed with bombs, but by the everyday business operations
of the community. How can Christians return to that environment? It’s
unfortunate, because Mosul needs their skills. Most Christians were part
of the intellectual and professional class here, they were doctors and
lawyers and engineers and university professors. But I don’t see how
they can return,” he said.
Father Youkhana would make no predictions how long peace will last
once the Islamic State is driven completely out of Mosul, a
predominantly Sunni Muslim city. The Iraqi army units that expelled the
Islamic State are largely Shiite Muslim. Several of the military’s
armored vehicles sported flags of the Popular Mobilization Units, a
Shiite militia, and Father Youkhana said he saw several examples of
graffiti written by Shiite soldiers calling for violence against the
“Why do they do that?” he asked. “They are undermining their
achievement. People are thanking them for liberating them, and in return
they try to provoke them. Just because they have the upper hand now.
“They should think about sustainability,” he added. “The residents
are welcoming you as a savior, so don’t wear out your welcome by
Father Youkhana also visited Qaraqosh, a Christian town 20 miles
southeast of Mosul that he described as “a ghost town.” While Mosul was
bustling with busy markets and people digging out from the rubble of
war, the streets of Qaraqosh were eerily silent, with most houses
blackened by fire but still standing.
He explored the remains of the Syriac Catholic cathedral, reportedly
the largest church in Iraq. Blackened by fire, its courtyard was filled
with the ashes of what had been the church’s library, as well as shell
casings and bullet-ridden mannequins that the Islamic State apparently
used for target practice.
Some Christian leaders are pushing for a quick return to Qaraqosh.
One Christian member of the Kurdistan parliament said he is looking for
$200,000 that would finance the return of 50 families, buying them the
basic furniture and household items they need to re-establish themselves
in their houses.
But Karim Sinjari, Kurdistan’s interior minister, told a visiting
ecumenical delegation that neither the necessary security nor
appropriate infrastructure are in place.
“I won’t stop them, but I would advise them not to go,” he said. “The conditions aren’t ready yet.”
Iraqi Christian leaders echoed his concern.
“Security is the most critical need we have,” said Chaldean Catholic
Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil. “Rebuilding our churches is the last
thing we should think about. We want to first build houses for our
people so they can live with dignity, and we need infrastructure in the
villages. But all this is only possible if we can have security.”
“Unless there is security, whatever we build will be for Daesh, not for us,” said Syriac Orthodox Bishop Nicodemos of Mosul.
Some residents of Qaraqosh have returned, carrying weapons and
wearing uniforms of the Ninevah Plain Protection Units, or NPU, a
militia formed by the Assyrian Democratic Movement, an Iraqi political
party allied with the Shiites. It operates in coordination with the
Iraqi military, which has assigned it primary responsibility for
protecting Qaraqosh and a nearby village.
Father Youkhana said he is troubled by the NPU’s role.
“They are trying to play politics as a big actor, when in reality
they don’t have that power,” he said. “What little role they have is
exaggerated in the Christian diaspora, where it starts to sound like a
Hollywood movie. If you’re sitting in Phoenix, Arizona, or Sydney,
Australia, you’re not aware of this.”
The NPU and other smaller groups “can offer a Christian cover to the
Shia militias,” Father Youkhana said, “allowing them to say, ‘Look, we
have the Christians on board with us. We are all the same.’ I’m sorry,
but we are not all the same.”
Fadi Raad is tired of running from the Islamic State, so the
25-year-old Qaraqosh native joined the NPU and today patrols the streets
of the town on the lookout for lingering terrorists.
“I’m here to defend my village, and because I want to save the
Christians in Iraq. It’s difficult here now, but when the government and
the NGOs repair all the houses, then the Christians will come back. The
NPU is here to stay. It’s different now. If Daesh comes back, we will
kill them all,” he said.