Reportage by: Mohammad al-Rubai’i; Basim Francis and Muwafack Mohammad
Since 20 July 2014, the Churches of Mousil stopped tolling their bells for the first time since thousands of years.
In the same day, as Santa Mikhail, an Assyrian Christian journalist said, started the biggest campaign to confiscate the properties of Christian people. Few days before that, ISIS organization, and its accomplices, implemented an inventory to list and number the houses of all minorities, they wrote the Arabic letter (Noon –i.e., N which stands for Nassara in Arabic, meaning Christians) on the houses of Christian people, and the letter R (which stands for Rawafidh. i.e., rejectors, which is used to refer to Shiites) on the houses of Sahbak and Shiia, with a note in black indicating that these houses now belong to the Islamic State real estates.
Mikhail, who documented the testimonies of taking over the houses of Christian people, says that the people of Mousil were the main beneficiaries of those houses. The neighborswho are mostly entrusted on the houses, brought their relatives or sons to live in them after getting permits from ISIS, whereas the palaces have become offices or rest-houses for ISIS militants.
Abu Arkan (a pseudonym ), an ex-local official in Al-Noor Dirstict, negates that the houses of Christians were looted by the people of Mousil, “there are some cases, that is true, but they are very limited and never exceeds few dozen cases among more than one thousand house of Christians in Mousil city. The rest of the houses are as they were, or utilized by the Islamic State for the time being as rest houses for its soldiers.”
Whatever the case may be, Priest IzzatNajeebYousif says, the available news indicate that most of the houses are taken over, or were broken in, or were looted. Priest Yousif says that there are committees to register the ownership of the houses to their Christian owners, so that these houses will hopefully be given back to them when ISIS are driven out.
But in the conclusions, argues Mikhail, “it is no longer possible that the Christians restore their houses which are confiscated, may be because years will pass before ISIS leaves Mousil.
Ahmed al-Rubai’i, professor of history in Baghdad university, compares and likens the acts of looting of the houses of Christian people in Mousil, and taking them over, with what happened to the Jews of Iraq in the 1950s, at that time, the properties of the Jews were confiscated because they are “Zionists” and all their belongings are “halal” to loot.
The same thing is asserted by Priest Yousif, all that the Christian people have has been looted and confiscated, including their religious and cultural heritage.
Along with confiscating the houses of Christian people, ISIS launched another large scale campaign to eradicate the Christian heritage in Mousil city, and this is represented, according to Maroon priest SaasYounan, by changing the churches into mosques, or headquarters to Islamic State. In addition to exploding the historical churches which were impossible to modify due to the engravings on their walls, or their special architectural design.
Some of these churches, says Younan, belong to ancient historical stages, like the Archbishopric Church which is thought to belong to the third century AD, and some churches which included thousands of manuscripts and rare books, antiques and artistic pieces and historical engravings.
Church destruction and exploding, says Younan, has been a regular behavior practiced by al-Qaida Organization, the godfather of ISIS. Since 2003, 67 churches were targeted. Younan believes that ISIS and the extremists of Mousil city want to erase the entire history of the Christian people.
Nobody of the Christians believed that the people of Mousil will ever defend their churches, in the same time, ISIS have toppled down the shrines of Prophet Jirgees, Sheet, Idrissm and the Shrine of Prophet Younis who was sent by God to the people of Ninawa, “they day it was bombed, the people of the city kept silent, though Prophet Younis was a symbol of the entire Mousil city” says Priest Benyamin.
Practically, since July 20, Mousil churches stopped tolling their bells for the first time in history since the third century, and during two days only, more than 1200 Chirstianfamilies left Mousil city, as Father Matti al-Banna, who got used to receive displaced people in Erbil after every wave of Christian migration.
750 of these families came to Erbil and Duhok cities of Kuristan region, whereas 450 other families chose to stay in the towns of Ninawa plain lands which surround Mousil city from the east, north and east which are populated by a Christian majority.
In Hamadaniyya, the biggest of these towns of Ninawa plain, more than 300 families were distributed among the seven churches of the town, some of the families found a shelter with their relatives, others are crowded in unfinished construction structures.
The task of Hamadaniyya churches was very hard in providing the displaced people with blankets, clothes and food, since they left behind everything they have.
Some of the displaced people avoided talking to the writers of this report, and briefly said phrases which indicate that speech is “pointless” after the disaster of Mousil. Some others presented their testimony with bitterness about what inflicted them in Mousil, and all agreed that what ISIS did to them happened with the help of the people of Mousil, and that mere thinking of the return back is some sort of suicide.
On the other hand, FadiWadiee believes that life will be very hard to the displaced Christians after they lost their houses and belongings, “Al-Hamadaniyya could not shelter us all, living in Erbil is so expensive and the rent costs amount to $750, staying here is not a solution, but we have no other choice now.”
Frank Yaqu has left in Mousil a house whose price exceeds $250.000, a supermarket whose goods exceed $30.000, and ISIS stripped him of $10.000 and jewels of about $6.000 at the checkpoint. Now he is living with his wife and four kids in a narrow room in his uncle’s house, “I left for them the fruit of 20 years of labor, I do not know what shall become of us, but I never think of getting back to Mousil to toil another 20 years and give the fruit to the thieves.”
In Beghdeda town which lies about 32 kilometers to the south-east of Mousil, things were similar to those of al-Hamadaniyya town. In it, the displaced people are divided on the churches and the houses, and as in all towns of Ninawa plain, fear predominated all the neighborhoods, for ISIS are at the gates, and all expect to face a similar fate as that of Mousil Christians. Till now, the Christian towns which are scattered along the plain-lands of Ninawa are all under the protection of Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and Christian people were sure that these forces, known for their high level of professionalism and fighting skills, will never let them down, and will protect them till the last bullet.
In August 2nd, the Peshmerga forces unexpectedly collapsed, in the same day ISIS invaded and controlled the strategic town of Zummar, and although the Kurdish leadership assured the Christian population that what happened in Zummar was a tactic retreat, many Christians who witnessed the fall of Mousil within few hours hurried to pack their luggage and depart to Erbil and Duhok cities.
The terrible shock came when Sinjar fell in the hands of ISIS without any fight, and the Peshmerga retreated and left 200.000 Yazidi people under the mercy of ISIS.
Priest IrshackYerjanick said that the fall of Sinjar has shocked the Christians of Ninawa plain, especially after the massacres made by ISIS militants on the Yazidis, which included beheading in the streets, kidnapping 300 Yazidi women, and displacement of 200.000 Yazidis to the Mountain of Sinjar without food or water.
Christian people are assured, according to Priest Yerjanick, that Peshmerga forces shall not stay to protect them, and they will retreat to protect the cities of Kurdistan, and the future of Christian people will be similar to that of the people of Sinjar if they do not leave at once. That is why they sent children and women to Erbil and Duhok of Kurdistan, whereas hundreds of them organized groups of volunteers to fight beside the Peshmerga forces.
YouhannaWassem, a young political activist, says that he joined 100 Christian youth in Talkef town to fight beside the Peshmerga, and with the advance of ISIS, the Peshmerga forces asked them to retreat form the town.
The same thing happened with Rimas Khalid who joined about 50 men from Ba’sheeqa and Behzani to fight ISIS militants, but they withdrew to the suburbs of Ba’sheeqa, and realized that the battle will be a failure.
In the checkpoint of al-Khazir, (which fell on ISIS hands later), SalimJajo, a Christian man in his forties, told the writers of this report that he run away with his family when some fire-confrontations occurred nearby Ba’asheeqa, his own town, and 200 families escaped from the city towards Erbil and Duhok after the approach of ISIS.
Sami Wadee, who intends to cross to Erbil with his family, said that Telkef is about to fall and hundreds of families flee from it, after the Churches of The Holy Spirit and Mart Shmwen are targeted and one of the bishops is killed.
NihadDani, a displaced person from Burtilla town we met in al-Khazir crossing point, said that the number of volunteers form the town reached more than 200 Christian man, but those got an order from the Peshmerga forces to retreat, “we handed our weapons to a Kurdish checkpoint and came her en route to Erbil.”
Father Tuma Daniel thinks that every political entity in Iraq wants to protect its own citizens, even if they ignored and neglected others, and this is definitely immoral, if the Peshmerga will defend Erbil and Duhok, and the army of the central government defends Baghdad and the South, and the Tribal forces fight side by side with ISIS and protect their lands by the force of ISIS and her own, who can think of few thousands of Christians, Yazidis and Turkmen?
William Warda, Public Relations manager in Hamurabi Organization for Human Rights says that Christians always called for establishing military units from the sons of minorities to protect their own areas, “but nobody listened to us, we became the victims of political strife and here we are, we lost our land too.”
With the approach of ISIS, the Peshmerga forces began rapid retreat to the edges of Erbil city to protect it, and within one day, the Christian towns are deserted by their populations.
In Erbil and Duhok, more than 10.000 Chrsitians from Ninawa Plain town are crowded on the Churches, schools, religious and cultural clubs, since most of them did not have enough money to pay rent for an apartment or ahouse. Some of them are hosted by Christian households, but their number was too big to be handled by Kurdistan region, especially in the light of having already received more than one million Arab refugees most of them from Al-Anbar and Saladin and Mousil provinces which have already fell in the hands of ISIS.
Christian refugees did not have a chance to take rest from the journey of displacement but for two days, as the advance of ISIS continued towards Erbil and Duhok cities. ISIS took over the towns of Makhmoor, al-Kwyer and al-Khazir crossing point which is very adjacent to Erbil. The same thing happened to Duhok city which is no more than 30 kilometers far from ISIS. Thousands of its populations moved to their native villages in search for safety, whereas Christians and Yazidis left Shihan town and Shariyacompunds to other places north of the city.
Iraqi aircrafts and the US intervention stopped the ISIS approach for a while, but the wave of anxiety which inflicted Kurdistan region urged thousands of Christians to leave the latter towards Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, without waiting to see how things will turn up.
Journalist Mikhail believes that the Christians were shocked by the “shameful situation of the united states” which never intervenes to stop ISIS militants except when Erbil has become within the range of ISIS fires. “Obama’s humanitarian attitude did not move when thousands of Christians, Shiite Turkmans, Yazidis and Shabaks were killed, what moved him is the interests of his country n Kurdistan only.”
According to the reports presented by Louis Sako the Patriarch of Chaldeans in Iraq and the World, supported by what has been announced by some civil and Christian organizations, there are more than 135.000 Christian displaced person from Mousil, QarQush, Burtilla, Kremlis, Ba’asheeqa, Bahzani, Batinayya, Telkef, Bakufa, Talsakif, Sharafiyya and al-Qush who resorted to Kirkuk, Sulaymania, Akra, Zakho and Baghdad.
The greatest majority of displaced families are crowded inside churches, schools, public parks, open yards, says Patriarch Sako. And they have no choice but to sleep on the ground, and without covers or anything to sleep on.
Stephen Jajo, a Christian activist, shows concerns that the retreats which happened in Sinjar, and Ninawa plain towns was a well-planned scheme which is done by Kurdistan to get military, political and economic aids from the West, and he refers to the aids that arrived to Erbil within the last few days. But Priest Danial suggested that this is only a supposition created by the sense of disappointment felt by Christians, but the permanent truth is that Kurdistan has always been a safe haven for Christian people for an entire decade.
Still, Patriarch Sako agrees with tens of Christian people interviewed by the writers of this report in the sense of disappointment from President Obama’s stand, because “he did not present the military aid unless to protect Erbil,” and in the belief that hope is very scant to defeat the extremists and get back to their native places.
Many Christians, especially those who do not find a way of immigration to the outside world, are now demanding to restore their areas from ISIS, protect them by international forces so as to live in them in peace.
Christian activist and researcher SaadJerjees believes that restoring the Christian towns which fell under ISIS control, by the Peshmerga forces, will not be a decisive issue for the return of the Christians unless the danger of ISIS is entirely terminated, and the entire area is secured by some trustworthy forces. But these forces are surely not the Kurdish nor the Iraqi ones.
Unlike Jerjees, many Christian people interviewed by the writers of this report believe that even though military operations could terminate ISIS power, Christians will not get back to the city, because they will not forget the treason done to them by some of their compatriots, and because the takfiri thought in Iraq is getting deep with the pass of time among large sectors of Iraqis. This makes ISIS organization appear times and times again, in the same environment by the same way.
William Warda says that anti-Christian fundamentalist movements are not limited to al-Qaida or ISIS, but in many Iraqi cities, including those of Kurdistan region; “in the 1990s, very few numbers (of Muslims) were going to Friday prayers, now the mosques could not comprehend the numbers of people, the power of the State is the only one who could saddle the wild tendency against us, and any weakness in the Statewill allow them to rise, and this makes us concerned.”
Those people agree also that the breach created by the latest events in the Iraqi society, between the Iraqi minorities on the one hand, and the Arabs and Kurds on the other, is too large to be bridged even in years to come. The lesson learned by the Christians from what happened, and the genocide done to them by ISIS will be permanently evident everywhere the Christians, Shabaks, Yazidis and Turkmans were oppressed and harmed, they will remain like a ghost which chases all minorities in Iraq for decades to come.
After Priest Francis enters the Turkish territories, several hundreds of Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks, and Turkmans continued to Ibrahim Khalil access point, most of them are without passports or any other documents, still they preferred to strike there on the access point rather than to get back to Kurdistan.
Those people believe that immigration is their only hope to escape death at the hands of ISIS, whereas all other options are fruitless dreams.
• This report is written with the support of Iraqi Investigative Press Network (NIRIJ)