'I cannot remember peace': One Iraqi priest's hopes for Christians in the Middle East

'Tell me your dreams,' Father Daniel, an Iraqi priest in the northern city of Irbil asked the children he looks after.

The children's response was what they had grown used to seeing. To kill, maim and seek revenge on those who had done the same to them — ISIS.

The ISIS flag flies over a street in Saadiya in Iraq's Diyala province.Reuters

'On that day I was thinking if we didn't take care of our children maybe the next generation of ISIS would come from our children. I was really afraid of that,' he told Christian Today in an interview.

Through a series of classes and trauma clinics run through his church in northern Iraq, he is gradually teaching the more than 350 children who take refuge there the importance of forgiveness.

'Today if you ask me if I am really worried about the children I would say no. I trust them. They have shown a positivity in the dealing with so many negative cases that came from their neighbours.'

But his long-term dream is still to be realised.

At the age of 27 Father Daniel says he cannot remember any point in his life where there was peace, growing up as he did with the Gulf War, then being threatened by Al Qaida in Baghdad before the US-UK invasion in 2003 and then the ISIS rampage. 'Every day, even if we hear some good news, we are afraid that two minutes after we are going to get some bad news,' he said. 'We don't have the hope.'

Now even with ISIS all but gone from Iraq, the residual bitterness against other communities and the government, especially from Kurdish-controlled Erbil, remains strong.

'There is always tension among Christians about the future,' says Father Daniel. 'Many are uncertain about what will happen next. Are we going to stay or are we going to leave? Of course this thinking not coming from nothing. They have experienced negative and bad things that started from the crisis where ISIS raided their villages and houses.

'Since then until there is no trust. They don't trust the government. They don't trust their neighbours. When they left their houses, villages and cities, their neighbours were the first to steal their property.

'So there are still tensions.' 

For those tensions to subside, Christian leaders must be involved in the peacebuilding process, he says.

Iraqi Christian refugees in Irbil with a Catholic nun.Photo: CNS/Reuters

Father Daniel is in the UK to present a petition alongside the Christian persecution charity Open Doors to the UK government - a responsibility he says he bears heavily. It asks the foreign office to protect the rights of religious minorities as both Syria and Iraq rebuild after the trauma of ISIS' invasion. It also asks for decent living conditions including jobs and houses, especially for returning refugees and for faith leaders to have a prominent role in the reconciliation process.

How Western governments should bring about these requests is another question.

Father Daniel expresses enthusiasm about the US Vice President Mike Pence's announcement the State Department would divert aid money away from the United Nations' programmes and straight to faith based agencies.

'I think it is a good idea to be in direct contact with the Iraqi Christians,' he said. 'The Church can play a role that no government or organisation in the world can do.'

The UK government is unlikely to follow the same path of antagonising the UN as Trump's administration. But there is a frustration among campaigners in the UK at the lack of tangible effort from the foreign office to improve conditions for Christians in the Middle East.

Fearful of UNHCR refugee camps because they are dominated and run but different faith groups who are hostile, Christians are excluded from resettlement schemes in to the UK and forced to find shelter where they can in nearby churches. Hundreds of thousands remain internally displaced within their country but without a home.

Open Doors' petition hopes to raise awareness and funds to step in where ministers are reluctant. Last year the global Open Doors International network raised around $70 million for persecuted Christians providing food, medicines, trauma care, legal assistance, safe houses and schools, as well as spiritual support through Christian literature, training and resources.

But unless the trend changes dramatically there will be few Christians left to support. Open Doors UK is warning that 80 per cent of Christians have left Iraq with as little as 200,000 remaining compared to up to 2 million in the 1980s.

On top of that Christians made up between 8-10 per cent of the Syrian population before 2011 with Aleppo the most Christian city with 400,000 believers. Now that number is around 60,000 and some estimates suggest 800,000 Christians have fled across the country.