When ISIS was pushing its way into Qaraqosh, a Christian town in Iraq’s north-western Nineveh Plain, late in June, Hayfaa Messo was at the town’s hospital visiting her eldest daughter. A mother of four, Messo had to run away with her daughter’s medication, along with tens of thousands of her fellow Assyrians, further north to the safety of semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
“The shelling was over our houses,” Messo, a member of the Syriac Catholic Church, said in a recent interview at her one-room rented flat in the Assyrian Quarter in Sad al-Busherieh, Beirut. Messo and her family returned home the next day, along with the majority of the 50,000-strong Christian residents of Qaraqosh, after the fighting briefly stopped between the Kurdish forces, called the Peshmerga, and ISIS.
But the clashes over Qaraqosh continued throughout early July. Messo’s husband, Khalil Atallah, decided to take the family to Beirut for good. So did Mazen Samuel Ayoub, 57, a wealthy Assyrian Orthodox Christian who owned carpentry, turnery and electricity workshops in Mosul, but fled to Bashiqa, another Assyrian Nineveh Plain town.
Dana Sleiman, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Beirut, says that Iraqi Christians form about half the registered 400 Iraqi refugees who fled to Lebanon during June and July. Their numbers are increasing steadily, according to officials representing Assyrian churches in Beirut.
Mor Theophilus George Saliba, the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Mount Lebanon, said that his church receives requests for aid from tens of Iraqi Christians fleeing their troubled region on a daily basis. Sargon Zomaya, a priest of the Assyrian Church of the East in Beirut, confirmed that his church was distributing aid to steadily increasing numbers of Iraqi Christian refugees.
Ayoub breaks down in tears when recalling vividly his encounter with ISIS militants at a checkpoint installed on a highway outside Mosul. He said five of them “came towards me like monsters, wolves” when the man at the checkpoint shouted: “This one also is a Christian!”
Ayoub and his wife, who was wearing traditional Islamic garments to blend in with the other travellers on the road, were fleeing in their Chevrolet Trailblazer in mid-July.
“They yelled: ‘Get out, get out, get out!’” he recalled. “I told them: ‘What’s wrong with you?’ “They told me: ‘Get out and leave the car. Nothing belongs to you anymore. You are running away from Mosul! You are running away! Where are you going to go? Wherever you go, we will follow you’,” said Ayoub, who suffers from heart problems.
He said the militants confiscated all their belongings, including the car, mobile phones, money, ID documents, and food items, and threatened to kill anyone who proved to be hiding any valuables. The couple walked a long distance until they found a Peshmerga checkpoint.
Early in August, ISIS captured Qaraqosh, Bashiqa and other Assyrian towns of the Nineveh Plain. They had already forced Mosul’s remaining Syriac-Chaldean-Assyrian community of more than 200 families out of their homes after the sudden seizure of Iraq’s second largest city on June 10.
ISIS gave them a 24-hour ultimatum either to convert to Islam, pay jizya (an Islamic tax) or die. The group destroyed churches and non-Sunni Muslim places of worship and brutalised ancient communities such as the Yazidis.
ISIS now rules over large areas of Iraq and Syria, but is currently facing airstrikes in both countries from the United States and its allies, including the Gulf states. By some estimates, more than 200,000 Christian Assyrians were displaced from the plain and Mosul, a situation that the Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan calls as “an attempt at genocide”.
“Our situation as Christians in Iraq and Syria is critical after the attempt at genocide against our people in Mosul and, a week or so ago, in Nineveh Plain’s towns,” he says from his Beirut summer residence, Deir El Sherfet, on top of Mount Lebanon. “We, the Christian Syriac-Chaldean-Assyrian people, have been hit in the heart.”
The Assyrians, a people indigenous to Iraq, Syria and parts of Turkey, have been struck in the heart a few times in the not-so-distant past by their Muslim Turkish, Kurdish and Arab neighbours. A hundred years ago, they lost more than 500,000 lives alongside 1.5 million Armenians and 300,000 Pontic Greeks in the Armenian Genocide of 1915, committed by the Ottomans.
Thousands of them were slaughtered again in 1933 by Iraqi leader Rashid Ali al-Gaylani’s government. Then they were killed by the tens in Soriya, a predominantly Chaldean-Assyrian village 300 miles north of Baghdad, by the Baath Party regime forces in September 1969.
The recent ISIS invasion conjured memories of the past suffering, and provoked some Assyrians in Iraq and diaspora to demand an internationally protected safe haven in the Nineveh Plain, near Mosul and the ancient Assyrian capitals of Nineveh, Nemrod and Dur Sharukin.
About 40 per cent of Nineveh Plain’s half-a-million inhabitants were Syriac-speaking Assyrians of various Christian traditions: Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Chaldean, Old Church of the East and the Assyrian Church of the East. The Plain was also home to other minorities, such as, the Yazidis, Shabak and Turkmans.
Following the ISIS atrocities, Iraqi Christians in Europe, the United States and Australia staged demonstrations in western capitals in a global campaign called “A Demand for Action”. They appealed for the creation of a safe haven in the Nineveh Plain under the protection of the United Nations.
Patriarch Younan echoes those demands, calling for a referendum among Iraq’s Christians to decide their future in their country. “A referendum among the sons and daughters of these people”, he says, is “the best way [to decide] what future they want for their areas, especially we are talking about Nineveh Plain here.”
It’s the first time an Assyrian religious leader has made such a politically charged call, at a time when the Iraqi Kurds are aspiring to expand their semi-autonomous Kurdistan region southwards to Kirkuk and westwards to the Nineveh Plain.
The prelate says: “We have to understand that our [Iraqi Christian] people have the right to decide their future within the framework of the [Iraqi] state.” The patriarch was clearly referring to Article 125 of the Iraqi constitution, which guarantees “the administrative, political, cultural and educational rights” of all Iraqi minorities.
He was also pointing to a declaration by the former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government in January that three regions, including Nineveh Plain, would become new provinces. “It’s our duty to defend this component, call it Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian, call it Christian society of all sects,” Patriarch Younan says.
“This component exists on this land and has the right to … choose its way of life in the future: whether a local self-administration, a governorate or a [semi-autonomous] region” in the Nineveh Plain. “If Sunnis, Shia, Arabs or Kurds want us to stay in our lands, they have to respect our decision,” the Patriarch says.
But Messo has little hope of returning back home, despite her tough life in Beirut. “ISIS has taken over our house and all our furniture,” she says. “What would we go back for?” Since the airstrikes against ISIS began in August many residents of the Nineveh Plain have started returning to their liberated villages and towns, according to the International Assyrian News Agency.
But Patriarch Younan believes that his flock in Iraq should be allowed to decide their future without any interference. “No decision is the ugliest decisions,” he says. “We are faced with a crucial, to-be-or-not-to-be situation.”
Salim Abraham is a freelance journalist specialising in the situation of religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East. He broke the news about the Assyrian exodus from Iraq after their churches were bombed in August 2004 through the Associated Press wires