Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Hard Choices, Grim Future for Iraqi Christians

Displaced families find safe haven in Kurdish region but future offers little hope.
By Ali Adil
  • Christian refugees at a church in Ankawa. (Photo: Ali Adil)
    Christian refugees at a church in Ankawa. (Photo: Ali Adil)
  • Inside a tent housing one of the Christian families forced to flee from Nineveh province. (Photo: Ali Adil)
    Inside a tent housing one of the Christian families forced to flee from Nineveh province. (Photo: Ali Adil)
  • Tented camp for displaced Christians in Ankawa. (Photo: Ali Adil)
    Tented camp for displaced Christians in Ankawa. (Photo: Ali Adil)
  • Makeshift field hospital set up to care for displaced people. (Photo: Ali Adil)
    Makeshift field hospital set up to care for displaced people. (Photo: Ali Adil)
  • Fetching water. (Photo: Ali Adil)
    Fetching water. (Photo: Ali Adil)

Dalia, 23, was forced to abandon both her home and her postgraduate studies as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) advanced on Hamdaniya, a town east of Mosul, in August.

Like many other Christians fleeing from Iraq’s Nineveh province, she sought refuge in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where her family has found temporary accommodation in a church in Ankawa, a traditionally Christian suburb.

Depressed and unsure about her future, Dalia is seriously considering leaving Iraq to make a new life in Europe.

“I can’t see myself asking for food aid or wearing second-hand clothes, and I can’t find a job,” she said, adding that she had heard there were organisations that helped Christians emigrate.

Dozens of Christian families are living in tough conditions in Ankawa, camping out in churchyards and public parks with access to only two hours of electricity a day. Most have no money, as they were forced to hand over any cash to the insurgents, and are short of food.

Medical services are available at a field hospital set up in a small tent, but it is unable to handle the rising patient numbers, accelerated by the poor conditions.

The exodus began after ISIS took control of Mosul on June 10. First Shia families began fleeing, followed by Christians and members of other minorities soon afterwards. ISIS fighters torched churches and daubed houses with the letter “N” for “nasrani”, Arabic for “Christian”. (See ISIS Graffiti Spells End of Christian Era in Mosul.)

The militants gave Christians a choice between converting to Islam, paying a special tax, or leaving and abandoning all their possessions.

Some of the displaced families accuse Sunni residents of Mosul of cooperating with ISIS, seizing Christian property and forcing the former householders to leave town on foot.

As Kurdish peshmerga forces continued to lose ground to ISIS in Nineveh province, the dangers for Christian populations increased.

“Hamdaniya was surrounded by ISIS for two weeks, and the insurgents were only 1.5 kilometres from the town centre,” said Habib, a 51-year-old man, adding that many families took the decision to leave after two children were killed by mortar shells.

As ISIS continued to storm towns and villages northeast of Mosul, some priests used their sermons on Sunday August 7 to urge congregants not to abandon their homes. But their appeals were in vain.

“The retreat of the peshmerga forces pushed most families to leave town that same day,” Habib said.

Many young Christian men say they are ready to fight with any armed force to liberate their home town from ISIS.

Saeed, who used to own a bakery, is waiting impatiently for an opportunity to take part in military operations to free Hamdaniya.

“I appreciate the cooperation of the Kurdistan region in hosting all the Christian families,” he said, “but I don’t want to stay here forever. I want to return to the house where my family has lived for hundreds of years.”

Ali Adil is an IWPR contributor in Iraq.