For Iraq’s Christians, home is the sweetest despite its hardships

Author: Dilan Sirwan and Julian Bechocha

Publication Date: 17/4/2022

Source: Rudaw

Returning home is dangerous, job opportunities are on the low, and the once welcoming Kurdish capital is no longer a sanctuary for Christian families who fled the Nineveh Plains in fear of the Islamic State (ISIS) eight years ago, as daily expenses are on the rise and humanitarian aid is running out.

When ISIS took control of the Christian-majority Nineveh Plains in 2014 and declared Mosul as the capital of its newly announced so-called caliphate, 20 kilometres away in Bartella, then 30-year-old Ramz Mati and his family packed the essentials, and fled to the Kurdish capital of Erbil.

Hundreds of Christian families rushed into the Kurdistan Region at once, seeing it as a safe haven which would protect them from the reign of terror that ISIS brought upon, particularly towards religious minorities.

Displaced and with very limited resources, around 150 families from the Nineveh Plains sought shelter in the upper five floors of the building housing Erbil’s Nishtiman Bazaar. Rent-free and with humanitarian aid being provided by international organizations and the church, the families felt at ease and comfortable enough to call the place a temporary home, but for some, it became permanent.

Celebrating their fifth Easter since the territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq, the five families still residing in the building of the bazaar no longer feel at ease as humanitarian aid for them has almost completely run out. Returning to Bartella however, is still not an option.

“Our situation is horrible,” Mati told Rudaw English on Monday. “I have three daughters, I am unemployed, and now they want to kick me out of here.”

The Kurdistan Region has served as a host for over 190,000 refugees and IDPs who fled ISIS. Home to 35 displacement camps, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has on several occasions declared that they have no intention of forcing any displaced person out of the Region, despite pressure from the federal government to close down the camps.

However, the fourth floor of Nishtiman Bazaar, now housing only five families, is not considered a displacement camp by authorities, and with so many other families returning to their hometown, the five remaining ones no longer have the opportunity to live rent-free.

“I pay 90,000 dinars just for my two kids’ transportation to a school in Ainkawa. Water is 20,000 dinars. [Governmental] electricity is 30,000 dinars. [Private] generator is 70,000 dinars. I pay 210,000 dinars in total excluding the $250 rent. If I moved to the opposite side, I would pay $200 for rent, because the view is not nice,” Mati said, referring to the two different views of Nishtiman Bazaar, one overlooking the Erbil citadel, and the other, an old graveyard.

The money he makes from selling birds at a shop in Erbil’s Saidawa neighborhood every day does not even come close to the $400 Mati has to pay to stay in the two room apartment in the middle of Erbil, but returning to Bartella seems to be an even harder possibility for his family.

“In Bartella there are no jobs, honestly, there is no jobs at all,” Mati said, adding that jobs are not the only problem, but also the fact that he has no house to return to.

Displaced twice in his life, once from Baghdad during the sectarian civil war following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and then from Bartella when ISIS came in 2014, the exhaustion was evident in Mati’s voice when recounting his experience of forcibly moving from one city to the other. If job certainty existed upon return, choosing home would be the sweetest option of all.

“I swear if I find a job, yes, I will return, but there are no jobs,” Mati said standing in front of their apartment’s door along with a neighbor, holding gift cards worth 25,000 dinars each, given to them to shop for groceries.

-There are jobs for those willing to work-

To Christians who returned to their hometowns after the fall of the so-called caliphate in 2017, they share a different view on what Mati told Rudaw English.

Walking the streets of Bartella, you can clearly tell the difference between the Christian neighborhoods and those that are filled by supporters of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).

Upon entering the town, one has to go through a PMF checkpoint, the entrance of journalists is very limited, while non-residents would have to leave a form of ID at the checkpoint, only to take back once exiting the town.

The streets of the town are all covered by images of Shiite Islamic figures such as Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei, Iraq’s top Shiite authority Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and numerous pictures of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, both killed in Baghdad in 2020 by US drones.

In contrast to the purported support for Shiite figures in the main streets of the town, the Christian neighborhoods seem more mellow and peaceful.

“The situation was good in the beginning, but now since dollar prices have hiked, it is getting worse,” Yousif*, a restaurant owner in the Christian neighborhood of Bartella, whose real identity has been concealed at their own request for safety, told Rudaw English on Wednesday.

But despite the harsh financial situation, Yousif claims that jobs are still available.

“Whoever wants to work will work, sure the labor is difficult, it is not like before, but there is work for whoever wants to work,” he said.

Also displaced in 2014, Yousif, along with family and friends, sought refuge in Erbil’s Ainkawa district, which meant that the price of living would be higher.

“People in Ainkawa took advantage of the situation,” he said. “If a house’s rent was $200, they would make it $400.”

“At some point, an extended family of 70 people were living in a 125 square meter house,” he added.

Yousif was among many other Christians who returned to Bartella shortly after the fall of ISIS.

“We came back in 2017, right after ISIS. We came back to our houses and reconstructed everything that was damaged,” he said, adding that the church helped them reconstruct their houses, depending on the material damage inflicted.

But not all of Bartella has been reconstructed. Ruins of houses destroyed during ISIS’ control of the town can still be seen in many neighborhoods, providing a clear image of the destruction locals encountered when they first returned.

-“Shabak taking over the city”-

Thirty years ago, Bartella's population was entirely Christian. Demographic changes over the decades left the town split between Christians and an ethnic group known as Shabak, who are largely Shiites.

To people like Mati, the Shabak presence, especially their armed unit within the PMF is one of the main reasons he is afraid to take his family back to Bartella.

“Before, I used to carry my weapon and defend the territory, my territory, and you [perspective] would cause problems every day with me, every day you’d get drunk and harass me, so imagine it becomes you that carries the weapon and I get kicked outside, what would I do?” Mati said, explaining his concern of the Shabaks now being an armed group and the Christians now being lower in number.

“We used to protect our land and guard our churches in Bartella, we used to have problems with them every day, every day they would harass us,” he added.

But that does not seem to be an issue for the Christians who returned to Bartella.

“We have no problems with the Shabak. It’s been years. In the beginning they used to harass us but it changed,” Yousif said.

Despite PMF and pro-Iran banners all over the streets, and occasional guards dressed in military uniform in neighborhoods where the churches are located, there is no sign of conflict in the town.

“There is no such thing as a Shabak taking a Christian’s house. In Mosul, their [the Christian’s] houses are abandoned and nobody is taking them,” Yousif said, adding that the current demographic situation in Bartella is split in half between the Christians and Shabak.

-Inability to return: exaggeration-

Mati’s claims were rejected by people who witnessed the return of the Christian community back to the Nineveh Plains.

Rudaw English spoke to Bishop Thabet Habib of the Diocese of Alqosh over the phone on Friday. Habib is a Karamlesh native, another Christian town situated on the Nineveh Plains, and held a crucial role in the return of the town’s community back home following the expulsion of ISIS. According to him, Mati’s remarks justifying his inability to return is an “exaggeration”.

“We have to be real, whoever wants to go back to their hometowns and live in a house free of charge, we can provide that, but they have to rely on themselves to find work and cover their living expenses,” Habib said.

Habib did not denounce any reports of harassment by the PMF of the Bartella’s Christian community. He said that the PMF “controls all checkpoints and movement and naturally they harass people,” while also criticizing their controversial approach to hanging banners and posters of Shiite figures across the town, stressing that they are trying to erase the town’s Christian identity.

Habib especially commended the church in Ainkawa, saying that it played the largest role in providing support for the IDPs.

“In terms of large donations and support, the Church stood up to the task, by providing residence and food supplies,” he noted. When asked about the scale of the donations, he said that he is not aware of the exact numbers, but that they stood at “tens of millions of dollars,” and that the Church used to pay the monthly rent of more than 2,500 residences.

With the future of Iraq’s Christians remaining shrouded with uncertainty, Habib affirmed his belief that Christians will remain in the country where more than a million members of their community used to call home before 2003, according to data from Erbil’s Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda in 2021.

Iraq’s Christian community has been devastated in the past two decades. Following the US-led invasion in 2003, sectarian warfare prompted followers of Iraq’s multiple Christian denominations to flee, and attacks by ISIS in 2014 hit minority communities especially hard.

Fewer than 300,000 Christians remain in Iraq today, but not all live in a permanent place they can call home.

According to Habib, “30 to 40 percent [of Christians displaced in 2014] have emigrated, 45 to 50 percent have returned [to their towns], and the remaining have stayed [in Ainkawa].”

In October, Kurdistan Region premier Masrour Barzani announced the elevation of Ainkawa’s status to a district, placing the town under “administrative control of its Christian residents,” a move that was welcomed by Christian communities local and abroad.

As the situation of Iraq’s Christians is seemingly on a trajectory of recovery, time will tell whether the community can prosper again in their homeland.


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