'I try to be optimistic, but it is difficult': The real story of what life is like for Christians in Iraq

In order to understand the plight of Christians in modern-day Iraq, it is important to go back not just to 2014, when Islamic State forced on them a brutal choice between dying, converting or fleeing the northern city of Mosul, but further: to the 2003 US-led invasion of the country.

For unfashionable though it was to point out at the time amid the western drum-beat for war, the Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein, for all its horrific faults, was relatively secular as well as stable, and as a demonstration of this Saddam's deputy, Tariq Aziz, was himself a Christian.

Indeed, some warned at the time that war would only result in a greater, not a diminished, threat from terrorists following on from the wholly unrelated atrocities in New York of September 11, 2001.

Nonetheless, with the threat of war looming in the months leading up to the invasion of March 2003, Christians were as fearful as everyone else in the country, of an attack from Saddam on 'his own people' as well as the western invaders.

'William', an NGO worker with a partner organisation of the Christian charity Open Doors whose name has been concealed for security reasons, first visited Iraq in 2000 and settled there at the end of 2002.

The Church of the Immaculate Conception, burned by Islamic State militants, in Qaraqosh, south of Mosul, Iraq December 23, 2017.Reuters

Of Iraq, which is ranked 8th on the  Open Doors World Watch List, William tells Christian Today: 'We very much liked the country, the people, the environment.' But, he adds: 'We had to prepare as everyone else for the possible gas attack at that time. The expectation was that Saddam would attack with gas.' William still believes that Saddam had the elusive weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and that, 'war from the Kurdish perspective was 100 per cent a must. They all agreed with it. Discussion about WMDs not being found was irrelevant but we were saying they were there.'

He says it is 'partly true' that the Saddam regime was 'fine for Christians' and points out that before Saddam, back in the early 1970s, there were 1.5-2 million Christians. There were some half a million in 2003 – more than a million Christians left under Saddam – and now, of course, there are a mere 200,000.

We will come to the tragic events of recent years, but first, William points out that 'under Saddam churches were destroyed and closed; as long as you kept your mouth shut that was OK but Saddam was throwing Christians out of villages as well'.

Nonetheless, 'it was not a good time for Christians after the war', he says. 'There was a relatively peaceful time for a few years, then the insurgency started.' It was in 2006-2007 that extremists 'came to the forefront'.

Christians were not only attacked in 2014, but also before, William says. He recalls 50 Christians being 'butchered' in Baghdad in 2011.

'After 2007, that's when Christians began being randomly killed, kidnapped, tortured, ransomed and so on. Even in Mosul it became a very dangerous place for Christians.' Christians were already beginning to leave Mosul – where, for example, estate agents were being threatened if they sold houses to Christians – for Kurdish towns.

But it was of course in 2014 when some 80,000 Christian refugees fled Mosul and the Nineveh Plain under threat of forced conversion or execution but remain inside Iraq in the Kurdish capital of Irbil.

William recalls the major landmark in the terrorisation of Christians in Iraq. 'ISIS came first to Mosul, took over the city and said initially that Christians were allowed to stay as long as they paid Islamic tax and kept quiet. But then at some stage that turned around and they gave a deadline to convert to Islam, be killed or leave – so that's when Christians left Mosul,' he says.

By August 2014 the whole region was under control of ISIS.

Civilians hitch a ride with Iraqi forces as they advance in Mosul.Reuters

'Over that time and even now, we found many more Christians than were initially thought to be missing, who were killed and many more women were kidnapped by ISIS.

'Even 3 or 4 weeks ago they found a mass grave of about 40 Christian women and children. We still think 50 or 60 missing women now are being used as sex slaves.'

And this, despite widespread reports last year that Islamic State had been defeated in Iraq. This is 'definitely' not the case, says William.

'The battle has been won, but not the war' he says, adding that at least four 'even more gruesome' Islamist splinter groups have emerged to fill the vacuum left by Islamic State, with an estimated 2,500 fighters 'from an ISIS background' still present. 'They are attacking around Kirkuk, they attack the Iraqi army around checkpoints at roads. Some of them are hiding in the mountains around Kirkuk – they are still there.'

William says that even last year's non-binding Kurdish referendum, in which around 93 per cent voted in favour of independence, has brought trouble of its own.

'Baghdad interpreted it as the Kurds declaring independence. This was not true. [But] the response by Baghdad was to boycott the Kurdish region...[and] retake a lot of territory. And the worst thing for us is that they closed the international airports [at Sulaymaniyah and Irbil]. So now the only way out is through Turkey by road – from October until April 1 – they have only just opened the airport. We are now able to fly again but Baghdad is introducing Iraqi visa control in the north: now the concern is that Baghdad is going to introduce a stricter visa regime. Baghdad also started to control the Kurdish banks so it is very difficult to get money into the country. They have started to control international help, aid – and this is especially difficult for Christians.

'At the moment it seems reasonably quiet – likely because of elections happening in May next month – but the concern is that they will turn the screws on Kurdistan.'

And what of the reality for Christians on the ground today?

'Initially, they wanted to go back to Nineveh plains but now the Nineveh area has also become a battleground between Baghdad and the Kurdish region; Kurds have been pushed out because Baghdad moved Shia militia in – [and] Christians feel threatened by the Shia.'

Some 8,000 familes have gone back to Christian towns from the Nineveh plains. Families are also going back to Irbil because they don't feel safe, don't feel supported, are worried about the Shia, [and there is a] lack of support from Baghdad.

Their basic needs are not being met. 'It's OK to live in a town for a couple of weeks or a few months without electricity or water but eventually they say enough is enough and they go back to a town with water and electricity. If they do as they are told, and go back to the Nineveh plains, 'they may lose salaries as teachers, medical personnel, anyone in government employment'. William points out that some 70 per cent of Iraqis are in some form of government employment, after all, in what he describes as this 'old socialist state'.

He goes on: 'Christians are being pushed back to an area where there is nothing. It is very difficult to live in a street where your neighbours houses have been burned out and you are living by yourself. It is not a stable situation – there are Muslim villages all around. People are not feeling safe.

'Christian politicians are pushing for an international security force for the interim period until they have their own security forces trained. They don't feel safe with the Muslims living around the Christian towns.'

One of those is Qaraqosh, where according to reports Christians are slowly returning. And yet, says William: 'I went in [to Qarakosh] three or four times and on three or four occasions they picked up ISIS people on the street in front of my eyes – you can imagine if you are living in a town like that, you don't feel safe.'

Chaldean Christians in Iraq, internally displaced believers from the Nineveh Plain were encouraged to return.Reuters

However, in Qaraqosh around 800 families and homes have been supported by Open Doors' partner organisations, and of the more than 8,000 families that have returned to the north, 5,000 have gone back to Qaraqosh, William says, while 1,100 have gone back to the second largest Christian town after Qaraqosh, Bartella.

But 'people don't trust that ISIS has disappeared. There are sleeper cells. People don't feel that it is safe and secure.'

Finally, asked what are his hopes for the future, William is rueful.

'I like to be optimistic,' he says, 'but it is very difficult.'

This is partly, at least, because so many Christians still want to get out of Iraq. 'When half of the church leaders want to emigrate – only half of the church leaders are pushing for the Christians to go back to the church villages – it is hard. We really want to support them to go back; anything we can do to support the Christians to go back to the towns.

'One week it is positive, then something happens.'

William took a flight out of Irbil a few weeks ago, and he says he spotted '10 to 15 families, clearly emigrating. Emigration just continues. You only have to have one incident and the emigration happens again.'

Ironically, William says that 'a little bit on the positive side [is that] Christians familes are coming back from Germany to Iraq – because they say there is more ISIS in Germany than in Iraq – but this is only a couple of families.

Groups like Open Doors and their partners are 'supporting people to go back and helping them in their needs so there will be a strong group of Christians that really want to settle back,' he says.

'I really want to be positive. But...if we listen to the local church leaders, the big concern than in five years time there may be no Christians left at all.'

Iraq is number eight on the Open Doors World Watch List 2018.