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Survival and sadness in Iraq’s Christian towns

November 20, 2016 at 3:44 PM EST
The majority of Iraq's Christians have fled the predominantly Muslim country as the Islamic State occupied their towns in and around Mosul. Christians have lived in the region since the start of Christianity itself, but today they number less than 250,000. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay reports on how they are coping in the war-torn country.
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CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Iraq’s Nineveh Plains lie between the Kurdish north and the Arab south. The area is home to a variety of ethnic minorities, including a group of people known as Assyrians.

They are descendants of the world’s first Christians, whose presence here dates back to the first century A.D. They speak a dialect of Aramaic similar to the language spoken by Jesus. Anwar Esho is a book printer. Could you read something for us?

ANWAR ESHO: Yeah, of course. It’s speaking about the mother of Jesus.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: About Mary?

Today, there are fewer than 250-thousand Christians living in Iraq, down from more than a million at the start of the US-led war in 2003.

The latest threat to them has come from ISIS. The militants invaded the Nineveh Plains two years ago, occupied Mosul, and many of the surrounding towns.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: They destroyed ancient, pre-Islamic art, razed Assyrian archaeological sites to the ground, and issued Christians a chilling ultimatum: Convert to Islam, pay taxes to us or die. Thousands of Iraqi Christians fled Mosul, including Mayada Abd Ghany, her husband, and their four children. ISIS gave them only three days notice to leave their home, enough time to pack some clothes and family pictures.

They live now in an old school building converted into refugee housing in the nearby Christian town of Alqosh, which ISIS had in its sights before Iraqi and Kurdish forces pushed them back. Now she listens to the radio for news about home, where ISIS kidnapped her brother two years ago. She hasn’t heard from him since.

This is a radio station that takes phone calls from anti-ISIS people inside of Mosul. They phone in and let people on the outside know exactly what’s going on in the city, and it’s really dangerous. If ISIS catches them they could hang them. Apparently they just hanged four people for doing things like that.

Before they set out to retake Mosul last month, the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish fighters known as the peshmerga, both with support from the U.S. military, began liberating small towns on the way, including several majority Christian towns like Batnaya that had been occupied by ISIS.

And when did they leave?

EMANUEL YOUKHANA: Three days ago.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Three days ago? This is fresh.

We walked through Batnaya with Father Emanuel Youkhana. We’ve got to watch our step, because there could be IEDs around here.

Youkhana is a leader in the Assyrian church. He runs a local Christian charity. He was anxious to inspect the town’s historic church to see what damage ISIS had done. This was his first time back in two years. Is there one word to describe how you felt when you stepped through that door?

EMANUEL YOUKHANA: Joy that the church had survived. But sadness for what has been done in the church.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Holy books were burned. The book of psalms?

EMANUEL YOUKHANA: Yes.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: ISIS, or Daesh, as it’s known here, left its mark. This symbol over here. I’ve seen this before.

EMANUEL YOUKHANA: This is by Daesh. Allah, Islamic slogans.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: During our visit, an improvised explosive device ISIS left behind as a booby trap detonated outside the church.

EMANUEL YOUKHANA: We are in danger.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Okay, okay. We were just told we have to get out of here, because there are a lot of explosions happening, so it’s time to go.

EMANUEL YOUKHANA: We have to go.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Even if these towns become safer, that doesn’t mean the Christians who were forced out will be willing or able to come back, according to Father Emanuel.

EMANUEL YOUKHANA: One of our immediate concerns is what will happen in these Christian towns when they are liberated? Because we have concerns that they’ll be occupied.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Occupied by non-Christians. Father Emanuel says there are signs that Iraqi Muslim troops, in particular Shiites, are showing their colors in some Christian towns in an attempt to intimidate Christians. He’s counting on Christian militias to protect Christian property.

Doglas Aziz is a soldier in a Christian militia called Dwekh Nawsha, meaning “those who sacrifice.” An air-conditioning repairman and father of three little girls, Aziz helped liberate Batnaya.

DOGLAS AZIZ: It was a fierce battle.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Aziz says ISIS had snipers and grenades and suicide bombers on motorcycles. He shot this video while on patrol…showing how ISIS dug tunnels under the church to protect themselves from American-led air strikes. In the end, the militiamen helped drive ISIS out.

It was a proud moment when Aziz himself climbed to the top of the church in Batnaya to replace the cross.

DOGLAS AZIZ: We’re very happy we are winning. We want Assyrians to control this area.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Still, some in the Assyrian Christian community, like printer Anwar Esho are pessimistic about the future. He doesn’t trust the Kurds or the Iraqi government to protect them.

What’s the future look like for Christians in this area?

ANWAR ESHO: It seems very dark, yeah, really. If they don’t have any power, and they don’t have anyone to support them, they can do nothing. The only thing they can do, they will leave. So they are going to Europe or to America or to Australia or to other places, so they are vanishing.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Mayada Abd Ghany, whose family has found refuge in the Christian town of Alqosh, doesn’t know what she will do when the fighting stops in Mosul. Although she was comfortable living among Muslims before, she says some collaborated with ISIS, and now she’s fearful of having Muslim neighbors again.

MAYADA ABD GHANY: That’s in the past. I don’t trust them anymore.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: She and the rest of Iraq’s Christians will have to pick up the pieces as ISIS retreats.

Just last week, ISIS surrendered the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud but not before laying waste to its vast cultural heritage dating over 1,000 years before Jesus.

Father Emanuel says ultimately the future of Christianity in Iraq will be determined by those who decide to come home to the Christian ghost towns of the Nineveh Plains.

Hundreds of thousands of Christians have left Iraq. If this trend continues, aren’t you worried there may be no Christians here?

EMMANUEL YOUKHANA: It’s a challenging question to keep the Christian church alive here. And we can. We can. We will never, never give up. We might be helpless, but we are never hopeless.

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