Conflict Zones

Iraq's Dwindling Christians Wonder If It's Time To Leave Iraq

Iraqis attend Mass at the Chaldean Church of the Virgin Mary of the Harvest, in Al-Qosh on June 15. Both Christians and Muslims fleeing the ISIS takeover of Mosul in northern Iraq have taken refuge in Al-Qosh, an ancient Christian village. i i

Iraqis attend Mass at the Chaldean Church of the Virgin Mary of the Harvest, in Al-Qosh on June 15. Both Christians and Muslims fleeing the ISIS takeover of Mosul in northern Iraq have taken refuge in Al-Qosh, an ancient Christian village. AP hide caption

itoggle caption AP
Iraqis attend Mass at the Chaldean Church of the Virgin Mary of the Harvest, in Al-Qosh on June 15. Both Christians and Muslims fleeing the ISIS takeover of Mosul in northern Iraq have taken refuge in Al-Qosh, an ancient Christian village.

Iraqis attend Mass at the Chaldean Church of the Virgin Mary of the Harvest, in Al-Qosh on June 15. Both Christians and Muslims fleeing the ISIS takeover of Mosul in northern Iraq have taken refuge in Al-Qosh, an ancient Christian village.

AP

About 20 miles outside the embattled northern Iraqi city of Mosul lies the Christian village of Al-Qosh. It's taken in about 2,000 residents from Mosul who fled after the militant Islamist group ISIS captured that city.

In recent days, news coverage from Iraq has focused largely on the Sunni-Shiite divide in that country. But Iraq is also home to a Christian community, which traces its origins in the earliest days of Christianity.

During a visit to Al-Qosh, a village of low stone homes and churches at the foot of a mountain, we met with members of the committee that oversees displaced people.

The committee was formed in 2008 when Christians were fleeing Mosul after a spate of killings that targeted and terrified the community. More than 260 families fled here. In 2010, it happened again, and again Christian families came here or sought safe haven in other Christian villages in the Nineveh plains.

But this time, after ISIS took over Mosul, and vowed in a charter to destroy shrines and monuments that go against their extreme version of Islam, the bulk of the displaced that came to Al-Qosh are Muslim.

Only about 40 Christian families arrived in Al-Qosh. It is a sign of just how few Christians are left in Iraq — and in Mosul in particular.

It's a trend that's reflected across the region: In the mid-20th century, Christians were estimated to be about 20 percent of the Middle East's population. Today, it's 5 percent at most.

Friar Gabriel Tooma leads Mass at the Chaldean Church of the Virgin Mary of the Harvest, in Al-Qosh on June 15. i i

Friar Gabriel Tooma leads Mass at the Chaldean Church of the Virgin Mary of the Harvest, in Al-Qosh on June 15. AP hide caption

itoggle caption AP
Friar Gabriel Tooma leads Mass at the Chaldean Church of the Virgin Mary of the Harvest, in Al-Qosh on June 15.

Friar Gabriel Tooma leads Mass at the Chaldean Church of the Virgin Mary of the Harvest, in Al-Qosh on June 15.

AP

After meeting with the committee, which works out of the Chaldean Catholic Church in the village, we headed to the home of Abu Younes, a dental technician who was born in Mosul. He asked to be identified by a nickname for his safety.

Abu Younes left his hometown when ISIS swept in. He first rented his home in Al-Qosh in 2008 when Christians were being targeted and killed. He returned to Mosul but kept the house in Al-Qosh just in case. When ISIS took the city recently, he and several other families fled again to the village — which is secured by the Kurdish peshmerga forces.

But Abu Younes wants to go back to his city and to his life. He's already returned for brief visits since the arrival of ISIS, which is known for killing people who don't agree with their extreme beliefs.

Up to this point, he says, it's been fine in Mosul. His sister walked in the street with her hair uncovered and was greeted cordially by one of the gunmen. And although there are problems with water and electricity, so far he doesn't feel targeted because he's Christian.

Abu Younes says that one Christian family that had been in Al-Qosh returned to Mosul, and nothing has happened to them. He says he is waiting for things to become clear.

The gunmen on the streets are from different groups, he says, and he's not sure which group is in control.

Abu Younes says that he is used to a hard life. If there's a war with gunfire and killings, he says, he won't leave. But if there is a war on personal freedoms — if his daughters and wife are forced to cover their hair — he says this is something he can't bear. Then, he says, he would have to leave Iraq.

But Um Karam, a relative, sits nearby and shakes her head as Abu Younes speaks. She says she can't go back.

Her husband was killed by gunmen in 2008 and she has an 18-year-old son. She wants help to get out of Iraq so she doesn't lose her son, too.

Abu Younes jumps in. We want Iraq to return to what it was, he says, and God willing it will.

Before we left the village, we spoke to Renan Mansour, a teacher and member of the committee overseeing the displaced.

He's worried about all the strangers, particularly the Muslims, who've entered the village.

More than 2,000 people from Mosul have fled to Al-Qosh — among them, only about 40 Christian families, a sign of how few Christians are left in Mosul. i i

More than 2,000 people from Mosul have fled to Al-Qosh — among them, only about 40 Christian families, a sign of how few Christians are left in Mosul. AP hide caption

itoggle caption AP
More than 2,000 people from Mosul have fled to Al-Qosh — among them, only about 40 Christian families, a sign of how few Christians are left in Mosul.

More than 2,000 people from Mosul have fled to Al-Qosh — among them, only about 40 Christian families, a sign of how few Christians are left in Mosul.

AP

He says they don't let anyone outside their homes after 9 a.m. Mansour says he drives around the village until 2 or 3 a.m. to make sure nothing's happening.

These people came, he says, but we don't know who they are and this is a dangerous time.

Muslims who fled Mosul now fill three schools in the village. An extended family of Turkmen Shiites is living in a kindergarten. They're afraid ISIS will kill them because of their sect. They've already heard of Shiite neighbors and friends that were killed in Mosul. The other schools have Sunni Muslims. And the Christians were absorbed into homes in the village.

There was a lot of pressure to let the families in, Mansour says. But now, he says, we don't know what to do with them. And when a camp is available, he says, they will have to leave Al-Qosh.

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