Iraqi Christian leader visiting Mosul sees little future for Christians

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey

By Paul Jeffrey

MOSUL, Iraq (CNS) — 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 East.

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

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 the sanctuary.

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 Sunnis.

“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 provoking them.”

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.

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