Iraqi Christians say there's no going home after rise of Islamic State

Christians lived in Iraq for nearly two thousand years, but the violent rise of the Islamic State has convinced many Christian refugees they must forever leave their homeland. “No, we will never go back,” Taif Hanna, an engineer from Mosul, told reporters in Amman Oct. 28. 

ISIS tried to kill us,” he said. The militant group offered three choices: conversion to Islam, payment of an extortionate tax, or death. “So we all fled Iraq,” Taif said. The Islamic State, called Daesh by its Arabic-speaking opponents, surged across Iraq in 2014. In June it captured Mosul, a historic center of Iraqi Christianity on the Tigris River, near where the ancient city of Nineveh once stood. 

Taif Hanna is one of about 47 Iraqi Christians who have taken shelter at a converted building on the grounds of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Naour, a district on the west side of Amman. The shelter is lined with partitions eight feet tall to create small rooms. 

Near the entrance, a whiteboard bears an inscription, written in Arabic: “Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Next to the whiteboard are posters of two photos. One photo shows a statue of the Virgin Mary’s face. The cheeks beneath her eyes are stained, as if she has been crying blood. 

It is captioned, “Your tears in every place are a purification, a bible of love, compassion and light.” The other picture shows a large cross in silhouette. Behind the cross is a bright sunrise – or a sunset. Taif’s 52-year-old father, Maan George Hanna, also does not think he will return home. “I will leave all my history there. Because of the terrorism,” he lamented. 

“We have no trust in the government or anything. Never, forever.” Hanna said his grandfather was “the servant of the oldest church in Mosul.” The church was started in 360, he said. “More than 1,600 years ago.” “We left all of that. We left all our history. We don’t want to go back. We are wanting peace.” 

Hanna, his wife and children are all engineers from Mosul, where his father taught English. As a student, Hanna studied in Romania, Italy, and Spain. A polyglot, he speaks all three countries’ languages, in addition to English and Arabic. Hanna and his family fled Mosul early on June 10, when they learned that “terrorists” were crossing the Tigris only 10 to 15 minutes away from their home. 

“We left with these clothes,” Hanna said, pulling at his own shirt. “We left our home, we left our car, we left all the memories of the children. My own home.” They escaped to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and joined 30 other displaced persons in a small apartment. They didn’t have enough money for tickets out of the country. 

Catholic groups such as Caritas Jordan helped fund Hanna and some of his family to travel to Jordan in mid-September. However, his father, his mother, his brother and his family could not come because they didn’t have their passports. “My father and mother are old, more than 75 years. They haven’t had to think about travel or leaving their house.” 

As of late October, Hanna’s family in Iraq was seeking help from the French embassy. “We don’t know the future. We are hoping now for the future of our children, only. Not for us.” Hanna said his family had previously been forced to leave their homes several times in 2008 and 2009 due to fears of violence. Iraqi Christians had suffered problems for decades. 

The beginning of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 marked a turning point for the worse, he said. “We were as prisoners in our own country,” he said of Iraqis. “Especially the Christians.” He recounted that when one of his sons was in school, his Muslim classmates would cite his father’s middle name George – a Christian name – and laugh derisively that it was not a Muslim name. “Will we go back? No,” Hanna said. 

There were 1.6 to 1.8 million Christians in Iraq before the 2005 execution of Saddam Hussein. Now there are only an estimated 400,000 to 450,000. Another of the Iraqi Christians in Jordan is Maitham Najib, a 36-year-old mechanic from Bakhdida, a largely Christian city 20 miles from Mosul which Islamic State seized on Aug. 7. Najib was staying at a shelter at St. Ephriam Syriac Orthodox Church in the Amman area. 

“Until now, we didn’t suffer as Jesus Christ,” he said. “This is nothing compared to what he did for us, to suffer for us.” Najib, his wife, and his three children now live in cramped conditions at with dozens of other refugees at the church shelter, converted with the help of Catholic Relief Services. The shelter’s television played the U.S. show NCIS, subtitled in Arabic, as Najib’s children played the card game Uno at a table outside. 

Najib’s father, his mother, and two sisters are still in Baghdad. But returning to Iraq is not an option for him. “We don’t want to.” Even before the rise of Islamic State, he was a victim of the violence which followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Najib was living in Baghdad in 2005, when he was kidnapped and held for eight days by unknown attackers. They released him, but robbed him and stabbed him at least ten times. 

He still has the scars. Najib is pessimistic “We are thankful for the Jordanian government and for Caritas, what they are doing for us … but the situation is not good. They can’t give you everything.” “It’s done for us, at this age,” he said. “We want to guarantee our children’s future: education, everything, for them. Especially for them.” 

The pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church, a Latin Rite church in Amman, reflected on the refugees’ situation. “They are suffering because they are Christians,” said Father Rifat Bader, who is also the general director of the Catholic Center for Studies and Media. 

“Faith is the main treasure that we have. When you see that these people, these families, found a way to escape without money, without gold, without their passport even, this means that the faith is more important than money, than gold, than everything.” “Really they are teachers,” the priest said of the refugees. 

“They are normal people, very kind people, people full of pride because they kept their faith. They could become (Muslims), in one moment, but they refused.” This was not “because they hate all Muslims or Islam,” he explained, but rather “they want to keep their faith because it is part of their identity.” “They wanted to stay firm in their faith. It is very important, and it is a great lesson for all of us.” 

In Jordan, Fr. Bader said, the refugees “feel the freedom, they feel a part of the Church, when they read the gospel or the readings in the Mass.” “Their accent is full of sadness, but also full of hope.” He particularly remembered a Christian girl from Mosul who said the Mass reading after her arrival.

“Who separates us from the love of Christ?” was the reading, from Romans 8. “Not the death, nor persecution, nor Daesh is separating us,” Fr. Bader added. He suggested that what the refugees did in keeping their faith is “a heroic part of the history of the Church.” “People will be proud that these Christians left their country, but they kept their faith. This is greatness for the future.” 

The priest acknowledged that the Christian refugees do not want to return to Iraq. “To us, it is very sad to hear this,” he said. While Palestinian refugees still dream of returning home 60 years after being displaced by Israel, he said, “the Iraqi man and woman feels sadness because something died in his heart. He doesn’t want to go home. He loves his homeland, his country, but what happened really injured him in the most deep inside his heart.” 

He suggested this is because many refugees were forced out not by military occupation, but by their fellow citizens. Fr. Bader said that King Abdullah II of Jordan and some other Arab leaders are speaking out against the persecution of Christians, and both Christian and Muslim Jordanians have worked to help Christian refugees fleeing Islamic State, though the priest said more opposition to the violence is needed. 

The refugees’ sufferings have been a major contrast for Jordanian Christians, who have lived in peace. “Sometimes we feel that our faith is without real political problems. It’s good. We have all that we need. Thank God for this, thanks for the leadership,” the priest said. “But we have to learn from these people, that you have to be ready for any new ways of the Cross.” 

By Kevin J. Jones

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