The 17th of June marks five years since the infamous ultimatum, ‘convert, pay or die’ was issued to Christians living in Mosul when so-called Islamic State (IS) took control of major parts of the city.
Up to 500,000 citizens left Mosul, including approximately 3,000 Christian families. Only 25 Christian families stayed in the city after the ultimatum – they were all too old, ill or disabled to flee. Some converted. No one knows what happened to the rest.
Most Christians fled to the city of Erbil or to the Kurdish region in the north of Iraq.
“The devastation was huge,” said Father Sam*, a priest in Erbil who was originally from Mosul. “They were difficult days for me as a priest. To see this huge number of displaced people scattered on the streets, sleeping in churches, gardens and schools. I saw people with just their bags crying in front of me. I felt powerless at times.
“I just encouraged people to stay in their faith and urged them to pray, despite the difficulties.”
SUPPORTING CHRISTIANS IN IRAQ
Only a few days after the fall of Mosul, Open Doors started supporting internally displaced people (IDPs) with humanitarian aid through local churches and partners.
By October 2015, working through local partners Open Doors was providing food packages for 75,000 IDPs each month. Eighty six local people were employed to package and distribute the food parcels themselves.
The charity also distributed hygiene baskets, vouchers for clothing, Bibles, Christian materials and support for medical expenses as well as supporting churches with courses on how to provide vocational training and trauma care.
As the situation in Iraq improved, Open Doors turned its attention to long term support. The charity works with local partners and churches to create employment so that families will have a sustainable income.
Micro-loans funded by Open Doors and distributed by churches and local partners have started businesses as diverse as honey production, barbers shops and farms.
Thirty five year-old Rafael was able to build three greenhouses and grow pumpkins after receiving a microloan. Most of his neighbours fled the country but his new business has allowed his family to stay. “Besides my children, there are only two other children. I always wake up early to go to the greenhouse, but there is no one to say 'good morning' to.”
Having employment and receiving a regular income makes a huge difference to the self-esteem and livelihood of displaced Iraqi Christians – many of whom had been out of work since 2014.
Nashwan, a highly skilled stone-cutter, used to work in Mosul itself. “I had worked for 20 years in stone-cutting, and suddenly I was unemployed,” he said. “I had no means of caring for my wife and three children; they are depending on my income. We worried about our future in this country, especially as we saw so many other families migrate.”
Open Doors gave a grant to purchase the equipment needed to get the factory up and running. The factory employs 50 full-time staff, including Nashwan. They cut stones that are being used to build cities all across Iraq.
Yosef, who oversees the factory said, “Most organisations just distribute food and give people some money. They eat it, they spend it and it's gone. This project offers long-term hope since it guarantees people's salary for the future. All these workers are now able to support their families. We hope this will give them a reason to stay in this country.”
After the towns and cities we liberated from IS, Christians returned to find their homes and businesses burnt out, bombed and uninhabitable. In 2018, Open Doors local church partners repaired 1,051 houses in Iraq.
IRAQ IN 2019
Today Christians are still struggling with the high costs of living and scarcity of employment. Many cannot pay rent, send their children to school or pay for the costs of medicine and medical treatment.
Good schools in Iraq are scarce; buildings are lacking tables, doors, windows and a functioning heating system. Schools have big holes and cracks in the walls. There are too few teachers and some schools have as a many as 45 students crammed into one classroom.
Islamic extremism is still a problem in Iraq. Although IS have lost territory, their ideology remains. Many of the extremists have simply blended back into the general population. Christians are fearful over reports that there are an estimated 1,000 IS fighters who are trying to regroup and attack again. Violence against Christians continues – attacks, abductions, and even murders are still taking place. Hundreds are Christians are still missing. Families are waiting anxiously, unsure of the fate of their relatives.
There are many Christian families who are still living in the camps for displaced people in Erbil, either because their houses were completely destroyed by IS or because they are too fearful to return to cities like Mosul.
According to Father Emanuel Klo, only about 50 to 70 families have returned to Mosul. “They are all elderly people - no Christian families with children or teenagers have yet returned.”
He thinks more must be done to entice more Christians into returning to Mosul: “Establishing a Christian school might attract Christians to return, or having a hospital, and an area for Christians to live in,” he said.
Raeid, who lectured at Mosul University, is still living in Erbil because he believes Mosul is still too dangerous. He is thankful that Iraqi Christians never had to battle alone. “I thank all the people who stood with us in our time of need. Your support saved my family and saved Christianity from annihilation in Iraq.”
Iraq is number 13 on the Open Doors World Watch List.
*Name changed for security reasons