11 June 2024

Ten years after IS captured Mosul, believers still feel unable to return

It’s ten years since IS invaded Mosul in Iraq, driving out what remained of the city’s dwindling Christian population. Whilst IS have since gone, many believers feel the city’s still unsafe for them to return.

Father Zakariya feels unable to return to his home in Mosul

“My name was first on the list,” says Father Zakariya, recalling the poster put up by so-called Islamic State (IS) listing the names of people ‘to be slaughtered’. It was in July 2014, ten years ago, when the militant group seized Mosul forcing millions from their homes, including 10,000 Christians.

“IS put the poster on walls and mosques,” continues Father Zakariya. Two other priests were also on the list. He fled and, like so many other believers from Iraq’s second largest city, he’s not returned.

“I have a 16-year-old son,” he says. “I refuse to go back and live there because I fear for him. He might not be physically harmed, but he could be harassed verbally and he would not have any friends, and that would make him lonely and tired mentally.”

A terrible choice

Before 2003, when former Iraq leader, Saddam Hussein, was overthrown, some 50,000 Christians lived in Mosul. The number then began to dwindle because of persecution and conflict, and the invasion in 2014 was the final push to force the Christian remnant out of the city.

Those there at the time were given a terrible choice: deny Jesus and convert to Islam, pay jizya (taxes), leave quickly without taking their possessions, or be killed. Christian homes were marked with the letter ‘N’, (ن) for ‘Nasrani’ (in Arabic, the Quran uses this term to refer to Christians). Churches and homes once belonging to believers quickly became property of IS.

Mosul was liberated from the clutches of IS in 2017, but ten years after being driven from their beloved homes, only a few dozen Christians have returned. It’s a sobering reminder of how much has been lost in Iraq, and how much restoration remains.

“How can we return?”

“While leaving, IS stopped us and took the little amount of money we had, our house keys and our official documents and let us leave,” remembers Bushra*, a widow who also fled Mosul. They left their valuables with Muslim neighbours, but soon those were taken as well – either by IS or sometimes even stolen by their neighbours.

Like Father Zakariya, Bushra has yet to return. “They took our jewels and money; how can we return to live with them?” she asks. “They would kill us. We can’t stand living with them. It is hard. A Muslim bought our house. Christians like me, who had to sell their houses, probably all sold them to Muslims for a low price.” She and her family now live in Kurdistan, where it’s relatively safer for Christians.

“Our families feel afraid to live in Mosul”

Father Zakariya

Father Zakariya shares this feeling. “We feel there is no safety in the city. Why? Because our own neighbours stole from us. I have a house in Mosul and not only me, many families. When we were displaced in 2014, the neighbours entered my house and stole my furniture and oil. How would I return to my house and knock on the door of my neighbour and ask them to return my furniture? We don’t have a future in Mosul.” He adds, “Our families feel afraid to live in Mosul especially if they have young daughters.”

There is also concern that some IS members might still be in Mosul as hidden cells. There are people living there who supported IS and some are now in the police. “We don’t know when the situation will be chaotic again, or when we might receive a threat or we get marginalised,” the priest says.

Iraq’s Christian community has yet to recover from a decade of persecution and conflict. Before IS took large swathes of land, there were an estimated 300,000 Christians in Iraq. Now, only an estimated 154,000 remain.

Bells that will not be silenced

But there is hope. With your ongoing prayers and support, Open Doors local partners in Iraq are helping to ‘strengthen what remains and is about to die’ (Revelation 3:20) – just as Brother Andrew did more than 65 years ago, when God gave him that verse as he began smuggling Bibles behind the Iron Curtain to strengthen believers suffering under Communist rule.

There are now 150 Centres of Hope in Iraq. These are local churches that provide support to the Christian community, including discipleship, trauma care, microloans and job training, as well as reconstruction projects, enabling believers who feel ready to return to their homes.

For many of our sisters and brothers in Iraq, the past is painful and the future uncertain, but their faith remains a constant comfort. “What we witnessed was difficult,” says Bushra says, wiping away tears. “But praise God for everything. Praise the Lord. We suffered, but it is gone now [IS overthrown].”

As for Father Zakariya, he keeps in touch with believers in Mosul and watches efforts to restore the community. He believes around 50 Christians now live in the city. “When a church is opened, a believer won’t say that the situation is like the old days of 600 to 800 years ago,” he says. “But at least that building will stay as a church and we preserve it. It is a message for the people of the city that this is our church and this land is ours, and one day we might return and hold services and ring our bells.”

Mosul shows the true cost of persecution against Christians in Iraq. And it can sometimes seem hopeless. But as long as there are followers of Jesus who seek to be salt and light, the bells in Mosul – and across the country – will never be silent.

*Name changed for security reasons

Please pray
  • That more believers will be enabled to return to their homes in Mosul and across Iraq, and that the number of Christians in Iraq will increase
  • That those forced to flee, like Father Zakariya and Bushra, will have their every physical, spiritual and emotional need met
  • That Open Doors local partners will be strengthened as they seek to strengthen the Iraqi church.
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