Is this Christianity's last chapter in Iraq?

Christianity could be on the way out in a country that has accommodated it for nearly 2000 years.

Rami and Sara praying at al-Tahira Church in Qaraqosh, Northern Iraq.

PHOTO: Author

By Chris Shearer

May 11 2017 

I wasn’t completely surprised to hear the former Vicar of Baghdad, Canon Andrew White, say that Christianity’s time in Iraq appeared to be drawing to a close.

“The time [is coming when] no Christians will be left,” he told Fox News in late March. “Some say Christians should stay to maintain the historical presence, but it has become very difficult. The future for the community is very limited.”

After speaking with a number of Iraqi Christians in the country’s north, when I visited in December, I’m inclined to agree with him. Their community, along with almost all other communities in the country, has suffered terribly throughout the conflict with Daesh, the Arabic term for Islamic State. Tens of thousands fled their homes as Daesh captured their cities and villages in 2014, and many have abandoned Iraq entirely. While there was an estimated one million Christians in Iraq in 2003, by 2015 that number had fallen to 250,000, and it’s likely to be lower now. Of course, there were some I met who said they would not abandon their homeland. But for every voice of defiance in the face of adversity, for every person determined to return and rebuild their homes, there were many more whose weariness with their circumstances was undeniable.

“Christians have no future in Iraq,” a man named Ahmed, a former resident of Mosul, told me one day as fighter jets flew overhead towards his hometown. He, like many others, would have left the country long ago had he not left his livelihood behind. He was an interior decorator, but in Erbil, 70km east of Mosul, economic crisis and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people meant there was little demand for his skills. He couldn’t even afford much-needed dental work, let along getting his family out of the country.

Like so many other Christians from cities and villages to the west, he relied on the support of Erbil’s Christian community, based in the suburb of Ankawa. When I arrived the local priest and volunteers had just completed a damage survey of a city that had been home to many of the area’s new residents. Qaraqosh (Kara-kosh) was home to around 60,000 people before Daesh attacked, the vast majority of them Christian. While the city was liberated from Daesh in October, it was, and I’m told it remains, a ghost town. Of its around 6000 homes, many were damaged by fire and fighting, or are simply no longer there.

I travelled to Qaraqosh with former residents Ramî, a university student, and Sara, a church volunteer, as they went to assess the damage for themselves. For Ramî, it was the first time he’d seen his home in over two years. Looted and gutted by fire, it was hard to imagine when it might be inhabitable again. “What can I say? There’s nothing to say,” Ramî mumbled as he flipped through a surviving mathematics notebook in his blackened bedroom. There were tears in his eyes and defiance in his voice as he said, “We will come back. We will rebuild.” We both knew, though, that his family plans to move to Europe as soon as his studies are completed this year.

Later, in the torched interior of the once-splendid al-Tahira Church, Iraq’s largest church, Sara reflected on her community’s loss.

“It was a big shock to see the church we grew up with, rose up in, in this situation, with this destruction,” she says.

“Our faith says ‘pray even for the evil people and even for those who made terrible things to you’. So we will pray for those who made this thing, so God will lead them to the right way, maybe.”

The fire-damaged interior of the al-Tahira Church, Qaraqosh.

She wants to stay and rebuild, but she knows the community needs security and help with reconstruction. Without more government assistance, she said, “the country will lose the Christians here”.

“If we are forced to go, we will go. But our love for the land means we want to stay.”

In Ramî and Sara one can see the dilemma faced by many Iraqi Christians. On the one hand this is their land, their home, one that has accommodated their faith for two thousand years. On the other, they’ve lost so much, including trust in their neighbours and government. For some, like the elderly Nuayal and his wife Mariam, also former residents of Qaraqosh, generations of connection have already been irreparably severed. They, their children and grandchildren now live a world away in the northern suburbs of Geelong. Neither speaks English, but their only complaint with this different world is not being able to understand the local church services. They have decided they cannot return to their homeland. Nuayal even rules out visiting.

“There is no respect for human life there,” he says. “We’ll stay here.”

Mariam’s advice for the remnants of her community is equally blunt.

“They should leave Iraq because there is no safety for them there as Christians.”

They hope their adult daughter, still living in Erbil, can soon get a visa to come to Australia. When she does, this family’s story in Iraq, like so many others, will draw to a close. But whether this growing exodus truly means the end of Christianity in the country remains to be seen.

Mariam and Nuayal with their son Wasim and his children in Geelong.