Hundreds of people attended a funeral ceremony Wednesday for an Iraqi family that drowned in the Aegean Sea last month while attempting to reach the shores of Europe. Seven members of a same Christian family died after boarding a small boat in Turkey bound for Greece but only six bodies were recovered.
They were repatriated to Ainkawa, a majority Christian area on the edge of the Kurdish regional capital of Arbil, to which the family was displaced by a jihadist offensive last year. The victims of the accident were Stephen Mazena, his wife, their two sons - one of whom is lost at sea - his sister-in-law and her two sons.
"My brother, his family, his wife's sister and her family decided to try to reach Europe from Turkey because the living conditions here are bad," his 28-year-old brother Mark said at the ceremony. "On November 17, they were in a boat that was carrying a total of 35 people, that's when the incident happened on the Aegean," he told AFP.
Mourners attended a religious service led by Mosul Archbishop Boutros Moshe in a newly built church in the camp of Ashti. The family was from Qaraqosh, which was Iraq's largest Christian town before it was overrun by the Islamic State group in August 2014.
Tens of thousands of Christians were forced to flee their homes in Qaraqosh, the surrounding Nineveh plains and other areas last year when IS made its lightning advance. Most of them now live in homes or in camps in the neighbouring autonomous region of Kurdistan.
The exodus has threatened the existence of one of Iraq's oldest minorities, many of whose members want to leave the country for good despite calls by top clerics for them to remain on their ancestral land. Elias Shesha, a relative of the family, said Iraq's Christian community did not feel safe.
"The reasons are known to everyone, it was the displacement and killing in Qaraqosh. So they went to a place that was supposed to be safe, they went to Turkey and stayed a few months in order to get to Europe," said Shesha, the 66-year-old cousin of Salim Shesha, Mazena's brother-in-law who survived the tragedy but lost his wife and two children.
"But their fate came that day, they got on the boat and what was fated happened," he said. "Everyone, Iraqis in general and us Christians in particular, wants to emigrate. Without international protection, nobody will stay here," he said.