Liberation and Uncertainty Surround Iraq’s Christian Community
By Sandra Elliot
02/03/2017 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) – “I will be thankful to God if we will be able to live with half of [the] happiness we used to have before ISIS.”
Rami has a three-year-old daughter and a heavy heart for her future. He and his family currently live in Ozal City, Iraq as internally displaced people (IDPs). Before ISIS came to their village, Rami worked with his two brothers in a family plumbing business. His personal and professional life were one in the same. They were as close as a family could be.
In August 2014, Islamic State militants rolled into Qeraqosh bringing a message of hate backed with fire. As Christians, Rami and his family were forced to flee their homes, taking almost nothing with them. Soon after, his two brothers took sail to Europe on a crowded boat.
“I lost their support when they left to Germany through sea, and that was the worst thing that happened to us even more than leaving Qeraqosh,” Rami explained of his broken family. “My father and mother are growing older too fast because [of] the leaving of my two brothers.”
Rami fled to Lebanon in an attempt to immigrate to Europe. He stayed for four months with no luck. After that, the remaining family returned to Iraq to try and live again.
“I am fine as long as I have a job and am able to support my family,” Rami told International Christian Concern (ICC). “The problem is the whole economic situation is bad, so the working curve is just not stable.”
Rami sometimes goes weeks without work and consequently no ability to support his daughter or his parents.
This is the life of an IDP.
For Bashar, another Christian IDP, ISIS not only stole his home, they stole his brother as well. When Bashar fled Qeraqosh in 2014, his brother was captured by ISIS and later sent to Mosul.
“Until the liberation of Qeraqosh, we had hope that Nawar will be among us again,” Bashar told ICC. “We lost that hope when Qeraqosh was fully liberated and still no one is able to tell us where is Newar.”
As with many IDPs, Bashar expected to return to his home after ISIS was defeated. After two and half years of occupation, though, there is no home to which Bashar can return. His brother is gone, his home was burnt to the ground, and his pain is overwhelming.
Christianity in Iraq is as old as Christianity itself. The Christian minority is one of particular pride and dedication. ISIS is not the first monster they have faced.
It’s not easy for Christians in the West to understand the deep connection that these people have to their churches and homes. In the West, we live individualistically rather than institutionally. Our sense of belonging is not so tied into our traditions, but rather in our jobs, social circles and families. In Iraq, institutional identity, like membership in a church, is the key factor in identity and belonging.
In the land that hosts some of the first churches ever constructed, Christianity in Iraq is as much physical as it is spiritual. The total destruction and desecration of churches is the total destruction and desecration of institutional identity and culture.
“My perspective for the Christian community in Iraq is [that] the community will not be open as it was in the past because Christians suffered a lot,” Rabee, an Iraqi Christian, told ICC.
There is a widespread and deeply rooted fear among Iraqi Christians that ISIS has changed the way of thinking in the country. Liberation or not, many are sure that the ideology that fueled the Islamic State will survive the group itself. It is with this fear and the pain of lost identity, that so many Christians are now leaving Iraq.
“The church is trying their best to maintain [the] existence of the Christian community through helping families to go back to their cities, but the reality is Christian emigration increased after [the] liberation of Qeraqosh and Bartella and the other Christian villages because IDPs found that their homes [had] been burnt, their belongings were stolen and they cannot make sure that the same thing will not happen in the future,” Rabee further explained.
The future of Christianity in Iraq has never been so uncertain. Going home means facing vast reconstruction without guaranteed security, but migrating West is an emotional and spiritual taboo for a church trying to maintain its ancient roots, not to mention the many hurdles faced by anyone fleeing war and conflict.
The question now posed to every internally displaced Christian in Iraq is this: Do I go home and help reconstruct a minority community devastated by extremism in a country that may or may not ensure my survival, or do I leave my home, my culture and my identity behind in hopes that my three-year-old daughter will have a secure future in an unknown land?