Parallels
9:08 am
Wed August 27, 2014

Iraqi Christian Village: From Sanctuary To Ghost Town In 2 Months

Originally published on Thu August 28, 2014 7:09 am

The northern Iraqi village of Al-Qosh was humming with activity — and some jitters — when NPR visited back in June. The Assyrian Christian villagers had opened their schools and homes to Iraqis fleeing the takeover of nearby Mosul by Islamist fighters calling themselves the Islamic State.

But these days, most of Al-Qosh is as silent as the 6th-century monastery overlooking the village from a hill. A few Kurdish security men guard the entrance to the village, primarily concerned with keeping potential looters away from the tidy stone and cement homes.

The villagers fled en masse in early August, when Islamist fighters made a move in Al-Qosh's direction. Now, as Kurdish forces begin to retake territory around Mosul, including the strategic Mosul dam, some families have begun to trickle back to Al-Qosh. Most stay only during daylight hours, however, afraid to stay overnight with Islamic State forces a mere 20 miles away.

Leaving Everything Behind, Yet Again

Raed Salman, 45, is one of the few who's here full time, at least for now. The truck driver's recent history is sadly familiar to many Iraqis.

"This is the second time I'm displaced. We're originally from Baghdad," he says. "We fled Baghdad; my father and brother were kidnapped. We paid a huge ransom, but they shot and badly wounded my brother. Now we're displaced for a second time."

Salman gestures to his large, well-appointed home. He says it took years of high-risk travel on Iraq's deadly highways to save enough money to finish it. But he's resigned to leaving it all behind, once again, because his family's safety comes first.

"Believe me, there is nowhere in Iraq that is safe for us," he says. "We have Shiite friends in the city of Kut. They say, 'Come live with us. We'll keep you safe.' They're good friends, but what about the future? They could be the next ones displaced."

Salman doesn't know where they'll go. Their passports are expired, and he doesn't think there's much chance of renewing them now.

New Pressure On A Dwindling Population

A deep current of fear is once again running through Iraq's Christian minority, which has roots in the earliest days of the faith. Precise counts are impossible to come by, but Christians are believed to have numbered about 1.5 million when the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began in 2003. Current estimates range from 200,000 to 400,000.

While the Christian exodus from Iraq is extreme and driven by the country's bloodshed, it's a trend that's been underway for decades throughout the Middle East. 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.

In June, NPR spoke with Rinam Mansour, 30, a teacher who was volunteering to help displaced people from Mosul. Now he sits on his couch, pondering his own future.

"I was on the church's commission to help displaced people," he says. "They were Shiites, Christians and others. We opened our doors and gave them what we could. And now, we ourselves are the displaced."

In numerous interviews with displaced Yazidis, another religious minority in Iraq, many said they envied the Christians because at least they had a church establishment to stand up for them. Mansour laughs bitterly when he hears this.

"The church protect us? The church people were the first ones to leave," he says. "Maybe Al-Qosh used to be a strong Christian village, but now most people want to leave Iraq. I think only those families with no money, no passports, no friends to help them relocate, will stay."

Mansour's sister Lillian has already tried relocating. The United Nations moved her family to Southern California after the last round of anti-Christian violence in 2008. She says because the U.S. was in recession at the time, there were no jobs to be had, so after exhausting all of their options, they decided to return to northern Iraq.

"When we got back, it took my husband over a year to find work, and then at least things were better than in America," she says. "But just a few months later, all this started."

As luck would have it, Lillian's husband found work as a teacher in one of the minority villages around Mount Sinjar just before it was terrorized by Islamic State fighters.

For Rinam Mansour, the future looks bleak. He says the best-case scenario is to give up his home and the relative prestige of teaching, and hope he can land a menial job in a strange country. He believes that if Iraqi Christians are to survive, it won't be in Iraq.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

I'm Melissa Block, and we begin this hour with a story that shows how quickly the landscape is shifting in Iraq. Two months ago NPR visited the Christian village of al-Qosh in northern Iraq. It's about 30 miles from Mosul. Then, the village was swarming with displaced Iraqis - Muslims, Christians and others who fled Mosul when the city was captured by the extremists calling themselves the Islamic State. Well, now, as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, the good Samaritans of al-Qosh need saving themselves.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: In June al-Qosh was humming with activity. The schools were full of displaced Shiite Muslims, and spare rooms in many homes were filled with fleeing Christian families. But this week on a recent sun-baked afternoon, the village was desolate.

Al-Qosh sits at the base of a mountain, home to a monastery dating from the sixth century. These days, much of the village is as quiet as that monastery. A few Kurdish security forces stand guard at the entrance, mainly concerned with keeping potential leaders away from the tiny stone and cement houses.

As Kurdish forces retake villages around Mosul, families have begun to trickle back to al-Qosh. But most to stay only during the day, with Islamic State forces only some 20 miles away. Raed Salman is one of the few who's here full-time for now. The 45-year-old truck driver has a recent history that's sadly familiar to many Iraqis.

RAED SALMAN: (Through translator) We're originally from Baghdad. We fled Baghdad. My father and brother were kidnapped. We paid a huge ransom, but they shot and badly wounded my brother. Now we're displaced for a second time.

KENYON: Salman gestures to his large, well-appointed home, saying it took years of high-risk travel on Iraq's dangerous highway to earn the money for it. But now he's resigned to leaving it behind, as well as centuries of Christian history here, because his family's safety comes first.

SALMAN: (Through translator) Believe me, there is nowhere in Iraq that is safe for as. We have Shiite friends in the city of Kut. They say come live with us. We'll keep you safe. They're good friends, but what about the future? They could be the next ones displaced.

KENYON: Salman doesn't know where they'll go. Their passports are expired, and he says he doesn't have much hope of renewing them. A deep current of fear is once again running through Iraq's Christian minority, which is believed to have numbered around one and a half million when America invaded Iraq in 2003. Now estimates range from two to 400,000. In June NPR spoke with Rinam Mansour, a 30-year-old teacher who was volunteering to help displaced people from Mosul. Now he sits on his couch pondering his own future.

RINAM MANSOUR: (Through translator) I was on the church's commission to help displaced people. They were Shiites, Christians and others, and we opened our doors and gave them what we could. And now we ourselves are the displaced.

KENYON: In numerous interviews with displaced Yazidis, another religious minority in Iraq, many said they envy the Christians because they have a church to stand up for them. But Mansour just laughs when he hears this.

MANSOUR: (Through translator) The church protect us? The church people were the first ones to leave. Maybe I'll al-Qosh used to be a strong Christian village, but now most people want to leave Iraq. I think only those families with no money, no passports or no friends to help them relocate will stay.

KENYON: Mansour's sister, Lillian, has already tried relocating, having been moved by the UN to Southern California after the last anti-Christian violence in 2008. It was during the U.S. recession though, and when neither she nor her husband could find any kind of work, they returned to northern Iraq.

LILLIAN: (Through translator) When we got back it took my husband over a year to find work, and then at least things were better than in America. But just a few months later, all this started.

KENYON: As luck would have it, Lillian's husband found work as a teacher in one of the minority villages around Mt. Sinjar that was soon to be terrorized by Islamic State fighters. Now, Mansour says, the best case scenario for him is to give up his home and the relative prestige of teaching and hope to find a menial job in a strange country. He believes that if Iraqi Christians are to survive, it won't be in Iraq. Peter Kenyon, NPR News in northern Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.