Despite threats, Iraqi Christians vow to remain in home country

Iraqi Christians say they have no intention of leaving the country despite the recent abduction of over 200 Assyrian Christians by the Islamic State.

By REUTERS
March 2, 2015 16:36
4 minute read.
church

Iraqi Christians attend mass at Mar George Chaldean Church in Baghdad, March 1, 2015. Iraqi Christians say they have no intention of leaving the country despite the recent abduction of over 100 Assyrian Christians by the Islamic State. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Praying for peace at a Baghdad church and the release of fellow Christians taken by Islamic State, Iraqi Christians said that despite their fear for future, they do not have the intention to leave their ancient home of Mesopotamia, Iraq.

More than 200 Assyrian Christians were abducted by the Islamic State from villages in northeastern Syria by Islamic State insurgents.

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The latest move against Christians came after the insurgents had seized large swathes of northern Iraq last June, prompting hundreds of Christian families in Mosul to flee a city which has hosted the faith since its earliest years.

"We are staying here. A number of people and relatives have immigrated recently, but others are still holding on. This is our country and these are our churches and we are clinging to them, but there are people who left out of fear for the future," said Hani, the deacon of Mar Georgis Chaldean Church in Baghdad.

Islamic State has staged mass killings of religious minorities, as well as fellow Sunni Muslims who refuse to swear allegiance to the 'caliphate' it has declared in parts of Syria, Iraq and other areas of the Arab world.

Fighters were shown beheading 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya last month and hundreds of Iraq's Yazidis were killed or enslaved last August just over the nearby frontier in Iraq.

"They call us a minority, but we are not a minority. We are the ancient people of this country. Go back to history and you will find out that we have built this country. Regrettably, they call us a minority, but we are not. People were forced to flee and forced to leave because of the conditions. It was hard for them to stay. It is normal that those who were stripped of everything including their clothes and passports will think of leaving this country, but in the end they will come back," said Vivian who has recently come back after living seven years abroad.



Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldean Louis Sako I said that the church did not encourage Christians to leave, but at the same time it cannot prevent them, saying that a number of countries have offered them asylum.

"People were dreaming that they will go back (to their homes) after a week, but five months have passed now. Therefore, they started to go abroad because they do not know when the current situation ends. Also statements (made by government) are not comforting. They say that it can take two or five years. Those people are desperate; they cannot live for long on aid. They have children to care about; they have to worry about their schools and health. Moreover, anxiety and fear have driven them to further desperation," he said.

"This is our land. We are part of this country. Iraq's land is our identity. We have a deep bond with the history of Iraq and Iraqis as a whole. We shared good times and bad times with other components and today there is a tragic situation. Although we encourage people to be patient and to hold on, we cannot prevent those who want to leave," Sako added.

Baghdad's Christians were not alone in their defiance. Christian population in the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk said that they would stay and defend their city if the Islamic State tried to attack.

"I will not leave. This is my country. We have been living in Kirkuk for thousands, hundreds of years and God willing will stay and we will defend Kirkuk," said Nabil Abdullah, a Christian man from the city.

The city has sheltered hundreds of Christian families fleeing from Mosul following its capture by IS fighters.

Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq, was once among the country's most mixed but waves of attacks on Christians since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein eroded its once sizeable Christian population, mainly from the Assyrian and Chaldean denominations.

The worst blow in recent memory came when the Islamic State fighters and their allies swept into the city last June.

"No one wants to leave his country, but the situation is forcing them to do that. There is no stability. Our children are afraid and we are afraid too. We keep moving from one place to another. If the situation remains as it is, no one will stay. We want peace and we want Iraq to be as it was before. When the situation gets back to normal in Iraq, all the people will go back to their homes," said Manhal, a displaced Christian from Mosul.

Iraq's Christians once numbered about 1.5 million. There are now believed to be less than 500,000 out of a population estimated at 32 million, according to the US State Department's 2013 International Religious Freedom Report.

"Iraq is for all and all have to stay. If we leave, we will achieve the goals of those who want to uproot us. We have to stay here; our roots are our history is here in this land. Our ancestors lived here and we have to remain. Generations have to continue our message here in Iraq." Father Qais Mumtaz, Priest of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral for Chaldean in Kirkuk.
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