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ICC Note: Although Christians are slowly return to Qaraqosh and other villages in Northern Iraq, the trust they once had with their Muslim neighbors no longer exists. Many Christians watched as their neighbors welcomed ISIS, and stood by as ISIS targeted religious minorities with violence. This difficult past has made returning home challenging, and has discouraged many from even trying.

03/27/2018 Iraq (PRI) –  Hazm Aboush welcomes visitors with a string of apologies.

He’s sorry for the bareness of his home. He’s sorry that he’s not in better spirits, and that he cannot offer more food. He asks for forgiveness and talks about how things used to be.

“You cannot understand, they took everything,” he says, sitting in the sparse front room of his home in Qaraqosh, northern Iraq. “They took the tiles, the air conditioners. Someone even took the front door.”

Many of the houses on his street were left with less than that. Scorch marks reach out of every smashed window. Ornate outer walls of the castle-like homes are riddled with bullet holes. Even trees have been felled as a petty parting shot.

It’s the same everywhere you look throughout the town. The churches, their altars, hymn books, pews, artifacts — the things that the 50,000 former inhabitants of this Christian town held dearest — have been desecrated.

This is what ISIS extremists did to Qaraqosh during their two-year occupation, until they were chased out in December last year. The graffiti they left on the walls is a claim of ownership to the carnage.

But it’s not the actions of the fanatics that consume Aboush. It’s the alleged collaboration of the people he used to call friends and business partners — his Sunni Muslim neighbors.

“When I bump into them now, they turn their faces and walk away,” says Aboush, 60, who says his family was the first to return to the town, in March. “They know what they did. They know they’re guilty. I don’t even say hello to them.”

Qaraqosh lies in one of the most ancient parts of the world, in the former heart of the Assyrian Empire, close to the ruins of the ancient Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Nineveh.

The town’s Christian identity dates back to the fourth century, when Assyrians adopted the new religion and began building monasteries and churches.

Before ISIS came along, Qaraqosh was an affluent town. It drew wealth from its farmlands and from trade with the metropolis of Mosul, just 20 miles down the road.

Things became difficult for Iraqi Christians following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, which set off a wave of Islamist militancy in Mosul. Christians were targeted by extremists. Around half of the estimated population of 1.4 million Iraqi Christians fled between 2003 and the arrival of ISIS. Many left the country for the US and Europe. Others stayed, fiercely protective of their homes and their heritage. Human rights groups estimate only around 300,000 Christians remain in Iraq.

But on a community level, Christians in Qaraqosh had good relations with their neighbors in the Sunni towns and villages that surrounded it, and with whom they traded and interacted every day.

According to Aboush, the arrival of ISIS changed all that.

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