ISIS has been purged from Mosul – but many Iraqi Christians fear returning home
ISIS militants have been purged from their occupation of Mosul, Iraq – but while some Christians are eager to return home, many have no home left - or fear that an Islamist ideology may yet remain.
Partners of the religious persecution watchdog Open Doors have spoken to Christians in and around the region.
'Mosul is freed from ISIS now. We soon hope to also be free from the mentality that produced ISIS, said Thabet, a church leader from the Christian village of Karamles, near Mosul.
Another local Christian said: 'They [Iraqi Christians] are afraid that IS' ideas remain alive, just under a different name. They still doubt if they can live together in peace again with the people who share in these ideas.'
The Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over ISIS at the weekend after Iraqi forces, backed by a US-led coalition, drove ISIS forces out of Mosul, ending three years of jihadist occupation.
However, while ISIS has been driven out from the city, the return of citizens in in part impede by the vast destruction that has taken place. The UN has estimated that the cost of rebuilding Mosul's basic infrastructure will be as much as $1 billion.
One local said: 'We don't know how long it will take before this region will be stable again. Apart from that, the destruction is huge. Even if there would be no other tensions, it would take years to rebuild all the houses.'
One man who fled Mosul to escape ISIS explained how he returned to the city to see his 'treasure' of a home destroyed.
'When we saw the house for the first time, I was taking pictures and was crying at the same time,' said William.
His daughter, Ghada, said, 'Some windows and doors are broken. They used the curtains as carpet. We had an image of Jesus on the wall, they put it on the floor and stepped on it.' William said, 'They also damaged our electrical system in the house and cut the water pipes. It seems they also put something in the sewage system because the water doesn't go away.'
Some families have returned to find destruction even more intense, with their homes burned out or reduced to rubble. William and Ghada have been staying in Erbil with the support of local churches, partners and Open Doors. They both want to return to Mosul, but Ghada says: 'There is no real safety in Mosul at the moment. In my heart I still feel that something might happen to us when we go there.'
Jounan, a father of three and former factory-worker, longs to return to the city in which generations of his family have lived. However, he has minimal resources to return with, and can expect little help in rebuilding from the government. His children fear returning: 'One of my daughters is in university, the other two are going to school, all in Erbil. The children are afraid to go back, my wife and I want to return.
'Our children are still scared. They saw the men of IS on the day we fled Mosul. They saw how they took all our money and jewellery and how one of the men threatened to shoot me in the head. For them it was a nightmare and still is.'
The terror of ISIS and the oppression of Christians has been a potential threat to Muslim-Christian relations. Jounan said: 'Not all Muslims in Mosul supported IS. There are Muslims who were against them. We live in a mainly Arab neighbourhood in Mosul. People living around us are good neighbours or even friends.
'I recently went back to see my house, these people are even shy to speak to us now. They feel that it was in the name of Islam that this happened to the Christians, that we had to flee from Mosul.'
Ghada points to signs of hope for Christian-Muslim relations. 'We heard that even Muslims are helping to clean one of the damaged monasteries in our city.' William added, 'A group of Muslims has replaced the cross.'
Seeking to raise awareness of the plight of Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria, Open Doors has launched the Hope for the Middle East campaign. They are now inviting signatures for the One Million Voices of Hope petition, which calls for proper citizenship, living conditions and community reconciliation for the religious minorities in the Middle East.
The petition will be presented to the UN in December 2017.