Erbil is overwhelming, amid its semi-desert surroundings and its crushing 44-degree temperatures in the Iraqi summer. At first one is struck by a deceptive air of peace in this, the capital of Kurdistan. There is nothing to suggest that in this part of the world, at this very moment, the destiny of thousands and thousands of people hangs in the balance. You cannot hear it, you cannot see it or sense it, but the Islamist forces are just 25 miles from here; and just a week ago they were at the very gates of the city. Behind the church walls, in the schools and the sports centres, in the shade of half-finished buildings, the reality is hidden: hundreds and hundreds of refugees, even up to 70,000 of them, scattered around 22 reception points. One of the main ones is the Chaldean Catholic cathedral, better known for its Church of Saint Joseph in Ankawa, the Christian quarter of the city. It is estimated that around 670 families have sought refuge here and in the buildings in the immediate vicinity. A makeshift tarpaulin, or the shade of the buildings are all the relief they have to protect themselves against the crushing, implacable heat. Most of them are sitting on the ground, in small family groups, on mattresses or sleeping mats. Others are seated on plastic chairs. Ankawa is one vast waiting room. There are hundreds of faces, but only one story, one witness, one destination that unites them all: they are refugees, condemned to death for being Christians.
On 6 August the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, who were defending the Christian area to the north of Mosul, withdrew. The first bomb fell on the house of the Alyias in Qaraqosh, killing two children, David and Mirat, both cousins, who were playing in the garden, and gravely wounded a third. The alarm rapidly spread from there throughout the city: “ISIS is at the gates, the Peshmerga are no longer defending us; take your families and flee!” Qaraqosh was a city of some 50,000, a Christian city for centuries. Everyone left with whatever they could carry. The only ones who remained behind were those who could not move from their houses, the sick and elderly. The people of Qaraqosh were joined by those from other smaller towns in the surrounding area, such as Bartella and Karemlesh. During those days an estimated total of 100,000 Christians left their homes in the region of Niniveh in an exodus of apocalyptic proportions, fleeing in the direction of Duhok, Zahko and Erbil. It is hard to imagine the panic people must feel within in order to leave without looking back, taking nothing with them but the clothes on their backs. But not so hard for those who already know and have lived for years surrounded by, suffocated by and attacked by this islamic findamentalism. Many of them still bear in their very bones the trauma of 10th June, when in the space of a few hours ISIS forces seized Mosul without anyone attempting to defend it. Nobody – neither its politicians, nor its army – moved a finger. In the city of Mosul alone, it is estimated that more than 1000 people have been murdered for their faith since the defeat of Saddam Hussein. Every family has its own tragedy, its own dramatic story; everybody has family members who were murdered, massacred: “This is my brother Salman, he was 43 years old; they shot him three times in the head. He had been in Mosul for five years.” Next to the speaker, his mother slowly takes out the photo, holding it between both hands: there is so much pain in this gesture, in those eyes. They fled from Mosul and took refuge in a village close to the ancient monastery of Mar Mattai (Saint Matthew) where they had relatives. They thought they were safe there; hope was reborn for the future; but the advance of the Islamic State forced them to flee again. A few miles from there, Yacoub, another refugee, shows us his leg, crippled and covered with scars from the bomb that exploded in 2008 in a church in Mosul. When the jihadists issued their ultimatum to the Christians in Mosul in July, Yacoub fled with his four daughters to Al Qosh, then from there he left in a second exodus two weeks ago to the north of Duhok. He has lost his land, his home, everything he possessed; he has suffered the consequences of the destruction in his own body. But it is not the scars on his leg that trouble him; the great sadness for Yacoub is the future of his four daughters.
“Not for us, but for our children”, this is the unspoken appeal of a mother of one of the six Syrian Orthodox families who have found shelter beneath the awning of a tent in the Chaldean community of Mangesh – 16 children altogether. One of the little girls is singing a song in English, surrounded by all the other children: “They all love me, they all love me”. The children, who understand nothing of wars, or hatred, or massacres, who know nothing of what is happening, are not concerned about the future. It is strange to see so many children together, yet not see a single toy, a single doll. Many of the babies are lying directly on the floor, some of them are in little carry cots.
Sleiman is carrying his three-year-old daughter in his arms. “What has she done for them to throw her of her land and make her have to live like this?” “Like this” in this case means living eight families to a single room, with mattresses, food and water given them by the Church, in infernal heat and in subhuman conditions. In Erbil there are field tents set up for those who cannot find space in the rooms of a sports centre, with around eight persons in each. It is like an inferno during the day, given the extreme temperatures reaching as high as 48° inside the tent. At night time there is the danger of being bitten by rats and scorpions.
“We are saving our lives, the honour of our wives and daughters, and our faith.” These are the three principal reasons for their precipitate flight. And this swift action is what has saved them from suffering the fate of the Yazidi community, who were massacred, raped and enslaved. Nevertheless, for the Christians of Niniveh, Qaraqosh, Al Qosh, Telfek and so many other places, they have been robbed of something more than purely material things, namely, hope. “I cannot go on living here”, laments the father of David, one of the boys killed by the Isis bomb in Qaraqosh. “This country is drenched with blood”. The mother, a young woman clothed completely in mourning, buries her head in her hands, weeping. They have no papers, no passports. They don’t know how to go about requesting a visa, but they keep repeating over and over again that they want to go, they don’t care where, but simply out of this land of suffering. Here there are no specialist staff to help them deal with their trauma and tragedy; they are crowded together with all the other refugees in a school in Ankawa. His brother Adeeb used to work for the press in Mosul. In broken but clear English he asks, “Why is it that the Muslims who come from outside have their rights recognised in the European countries, while here they treat us like dogs – yet in our case we haven’t even come from outside – this is our country isn’t it?” Adeeb speaks of the biblical roots of Niniveh, of the land of the Tigris and Euphrates, of the presence of the Christians in Mosul since the second century, of the monastery of Saint Matthew, of the Aramaic language, the maternal language of Christ, of the Syrian and Chaldean Catholics, of the Orthodox Christian communities and of an entire, centuries-old religious and cultural heritage, now wounded by death.
Yet this past is also present, real and active. The priests, religious and bishops are all trying to help in whatever way they can. They are everywhere, calling, organising, asking, listening, counselling, praying. What would become of them if the Church were not here? Who would care for them? In Erbil, as in Duhok, where there are another 60,000 or so Christian refugees scattered among the villages and hamlets to the north of the city – some even as far as the frontier with Turkey. The work being done by the Church is extraordinary.
Father Samir is a Chaldean Catholic priest in one of these villages to the north of Duhok. He tells of the shock of that first day when, throughout the night until the morning, this innumerable exodus of people continued to arrive, filling the streets, sleeping in their cars, on the pavements. In the parish catechetical centre alone there are now 77 families, Syrian Orthodox, 321 people altogether, of whom 35 are children. Father Samir does not return home before one or two in the morning. Days of work have continued since then, without a minute’s pause. At 10 o’clock at night there is a call on his mobile phone explaining that two Yazidi families are on the roadway with nothing. Father Samir goes out to find them, to bring them matresses and to find them a place to stay in his sister’s house.
Bishop Emil Nona, the Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, is one of five bishops who have likewise been expelled and displaced and who have lost their homes. He comes round, accompanied by a priest, bringing packets of foodstuffs, visiting the communities, noting their needs: mattresses, tents, a fridge, medicines. He counsels and encourages them. This is a time when the suffering Church comes face to face with the heroic Church which truly lives the Gospel. It is a Church which needs the support, the prayers and the solidarity of its Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world.
In Erbil, Duhok and Zakho, all over Iraq, the face of suffering is seen on so many faces and in so many tears, and there is little hope left: “Only that of a Christian when the merely human has disappeared”. And everywhere one hears the unanimous cry: “Help us, we cannot continue like this. We, the Christians of Iraq are victims of disaster, holding out our hands in the hope that someone will save us from death.” They are hoping that the international community will respond and that it will not be the Church alone who comes to their aid. It is a matter of more than mere Christian charity; it is a matter of salvaging the present, the past and the future of an ancestral culture and religion. And so they are calling for immediate aid to help them get out of these makeshift camps, from those tents, suffocating beneath the sun. But also for lasting help – protection and security, the right to live their faith, which for the Iraqi Christians is their very culture and identity and which they wish to live in their own land – the land that belonged to their fathers and grandfathers.