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Persecuted Iraqi Christians look forward to pope’s visit with hope

Anjana Sankar/Dubai
Filed on March 3, 2021
Father Michaeel, the Archbishop Chaldean of Mosul, overseeing the renovation work at his church.

It was 5.30am and the sun was yet to crack through the Mosul’s sky. But in the distance, Father Najeeb Michaeel could clearly see the silhouettes of dozens of men brandishing their Kalashnikovs and charging toward his direction.

The marauding militants of the Daesh group were inching close. They had conquered most part of Iraq by June 2014, and were on a killing-spree.

“On that night, I saw the Daesh militants with my naked eyes. Men clad in black and with a murderous rage”, Father Michaeel, now the Archbishop Chaldean of Mosul, told Khaleej Times over phone from Mosul.

Even in the midst of excitement and hope over the upcoming papal visit — the first ever by a Catholic pope to the conflict-ridden Iraq — the archbishop recollects the pain and the sufferings of religious minorities like Christians at the hands of extremists.

During the Daesh invasion, he was serving as the priest at Al Tahira church for Syriac Catholic in the northern Iraqi town of Qaraqosh, 20 miles from Mosul.

“They had given us an ultimatum to convert or to die. We had no choice but to flee,” said the archbishop.

On that night, he was helping a group of Christian families escape to Erbil in Kurdish Iraq, which was relatively safer.

“We had a truck and two cars. As our vehicles were lumbering closer to the border, the militants launched an attack on us. There was utter panic. Families were screaming. I thought we will all die. But luckily, the Kurdish Peshmegra forces came to our rescue. They stopped Daesh and pushed them back.”

Three years later when the allied forces defeated Daesh and liberated Mosul in July 2017, Father Michaeel was the first among the Christian community to return. But the Al Tahira church where he served was reduced to rubble by the brute Daesh army that systematically murdered religious minorities and occupied their homes.

“The church square that housed four churches were completely destroyed. Hundreds and thousands of Christians were forced to flee their home from the Nineveh Plain,” he said.

It was not just Christians that were targeted by Daesh. Yazidis, Shias, even Sunnis, who did not subscribe to their harsh ideology, got killed in hundreds.

According to Vatican reports, the Daesh occupation of the Nineveh Plain, which is the cradle of Mesopotamian Christianity, hollowed out Christians from the country. The mass exodus of Christians and Yazidis – another religious minority group — saw hundreds and thousands of people leaving their homes and fleeing to refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Many have sought asylum in European countries.

The Iraqi Christian community is today mostly composed of Chaldeans, Assyrians, Armenians, Latins, Melkites, Orthodox and Protestants.

Though the exodus of Christians intensified between 2013 and 2017, the community had always suffered persecution and religious intolerance. Convert, leave or die was the choice given to Christians in the Nineveh Plain, but Daesh militants in Iraq were not the first ones to utter that ultimatum in 2014, according to Max Joseph, Iraq Coordinator at London-based Minority Rights Group International.

After Saddam Hussain was toppled by the US-led forces in 2003, the country slipped into anarchy that saw a rise in extremism.

Targeted killings and plundering of Christian property made many leave the country.

“There were estimated to be over 1 million Christians in Iraq before the invasion in 2003, but recent figures suggest that little over 200,000 remain now. Most of these Christians are ethnic Assyrians, who have a distinct culture and language which is another reason why they are persecuted and marginalized,” Joseph told Khaleej Times.

“Children have been shot dead in the streets, young girls raped, killed and left in ditches, priests murdered, kidnappings and ransoms demanded. It was hell on earth for these communities since 2003.”

According to Vatican News, between 2003 and March 2015, approximately 1,200 Christians were killed, including Archbishop Paulos Rahho of Mosul of the Chaldeans in Iraq. On October 31, 2010, 58 people were killed when Al Qaeda stormed into Our Lady of Salvation Catholic church in Baghdad during the Sunday mass. A total of 62 churches were damaged or destroyed during the past decade.

The wounds of a horrible past are healing slowly. Many Christian families have returned to rebuild their homes after 2017.

The Archbishop says there are about 60 to 70 families living in Mosul. The Nineveh Plain has about 2,000 families.

Christians have gradually started to return to the Nineveh Plain, with the help of the Church. Today, almost 45% of Nineveh’s Christians have returned to their homes, while 80% of the churches in the Plain are undergoing reconstruction, says Vatican News.

“But Christians lack confidence. Daesh is defeated. But the ideology is still alive,” said Archbishop Michaeel.

“It is difficult to forget the past. The wreckage of the burnt-down churches still stands as a bleak reminder. We are still unearthing bodies of Daesh militants. Even three days ago, I found a decayed body under my room.”

But the Christian community that still is at the receiving end of political instability, sectarianism and economic crisis compounded by the coronavirus pandemic is pinning their hopes on the papal visit. The white-washed walls of the church and the cleaned-up courtyard of the Tahiri church is getting ready to welcome Pope Francis, who will start his Iraq visit on March 5. Posters of the papal visit have been put up everywhere and the smiling face of the pontiff is on freshly-painted walls. “It is a long-cherished dream for the Christians of Iraq. He is coming as a messenger of peace, not just for Christians but for the whole of Iraq,” said the Archbishop.

“We hope his visit will mark a new beginning for Christianity in Iraq and in the wider region. He will carry the message of peace and religious tolerance. It is a moment for everyone to remember that we are all children of Abraham.”

Reflecting on the Pope’s visit to the UAE in February 2019 and the signing of the Document of Human Fraternity, the Archbishop of Mosul said the UAE is the best example that all religions can co-exist peacefully and promote universal brotherhood.

“The signing of the Document by a Catholic Pope and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar was a powerful message to the world about religious peace. We are hoping this papal visit will set the ball rolling in Iraq too.”

However, Max gives a more pragmatic insight into what the papal visit will bring to the ordinary people whose lives are blighted by neglect and violence because of their Christian or ethnic identity.

“The Pope’s visit will vindicate the faith and status of the religious class who will receive him as well as the political rulers of the country, but what will his visit do for people who are fighting for their existence after he returns to the Vatican? It’s important that the people are heard above the sound of church bells because soon there will be nobody left to ring them,” said Max.

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