08/01/2023 Iraq (International Christian Concern) – Nine years have passed since ISIS swept across the Nineveh Plains in North Iraq. Summer 2014 saw the terrorist group capture several cities, including Mosul, Sinjar, Bashiqa, and towns and villages across the Nineveh Plains. Iraq’s rich fabric of religious and ethnic groups, including Yazidis, Kakais, Shabaks, and Christians, were targeted for genocide by ISIS. Entire Christian communities and villages were emptied as Christians fled to the Kurdistan region for fear of death, kidnappings, and persecution from the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Iraqi Christians will be looking back and will remember on this week’s anniversary the tragedies of the displacement in the Nineveh Plains that occurred during the first weeks of August 2014. Though many of Iraq’s Christians have endured wave after wave of persecution over the last decades, the memory of the targeted genocide against them by ISIS will long remain in their community’s core conscience.
There was first the element of surprise and shock of that day. A car mechanic, who doubted that ISIS would ever actually enter Qaraqosh, was shocked one day. He shared,“I was standing in the shop when I heard people screaming in the street that ISIS had entered. Moments later, a mortar shell hit my car, and I rushed home because I had a 17-day-old baby girl. With the fall of the mortar shell, all my dreams collapsed. I was overwhelmed with sadness and despair. I only thought about my family.”
Between August 5 and 7, there were so many people fleeing from the Nineveh plains that traffic slowed the journeys of many fleeing. A trip that would normally take 1-2 hours maximum took 7 hours or more as chaos and traffic blocked the path to safety for many. “The road was exhausting and long,” shares one Qaraqosh resident when remembering that day. “It took several hours until we reached Erbil. It was very crowded, and our spirits were low.”
Even on the road, Christians feared what unknowns laid before them as the war continued to rage behind them. One man remembers when he fled with his elderly parents to safety, “The sad thing about displacement is that we left our land, our house, our churches, and everything we owned. We left with only the clothes that we were wearing. I was deeply in pain.”
Once arriving at safety in the Kurdistan region, many Christians found themselves in squalid conditions–camps, public parks, mountain valleys, and makeshift shelters along with millions of other displaced people from all over Iraq. Many families struggled for months before securing proper places to stay.
One man who stayed in tents for the first year and a half of displacement said, “The first night in the tent was long. We couldn’t sleep at all. We kept pinching ourselves and asking if we were in a dream or if it was real. I was very worried about my parents. I would tell them not to worry, ‘We will return,’ I told them. The experience of displacement was sad and mentally devastating. Food was communal, and there were long queues for the bathroom.”
A lifeline for many arrived in the form of help from both local churches and Christians from around the world. Also, relatives and local and international organizations helped to meet the practical needs of the displaced. As displacement dragged on for several years, Iraqi Christians experienced the longing for home and the desire to return, rebuild, and raise their children once again in their communities.
“My mental state was down during my time [displaced] because I didn’t have a salary. But thankfully, the church helped me with my treatment,” one man remembers. “For three years, I was physically and mentally exhausted.I saw my children growing up in front of me, and I would say to myself, ‘My wish is to return to beloved Qaraqosh and raise them there,’”
When towns in the Nineveh Plains began being liberated between 2016 and 2018, some Christians began excitedly, yet cautiously, returning to their home areas. However, many of them were heartbroken and demoralized when they saw the destruction of their villages, their homes, and their churches.
Their church sanctuaries were violated, with crosses toppled, bell towns torn down, and sanctuaries used as prisons and ammunition factories. Their family homes had been lived in and disrespected by ISIS members and used as offices, prisons, and houses for ISIS fighters. Homes were burned, and orchards and fields were destroyed. However, their love for their homeland and faith encouraged many to push on and to rise and rebuild their community. One returnee shared, “We returned and saw Qaraqosh completely destroyed. Our house was demolished, our orchard was destroyed and robbed. I said I will rise again in the name of Jesus.”
Christians in the Nineveh Plains have slowly began rebuilding their lives with the help of international organizations and efforts of Iraqi church foundations working with supportive relatives in the Iraqi Christian communities now living across the globe.
One woman shared when returning to her town of Bartella, “The worst happened when our areas were liberated, and we went back to see that nothing was left in our house, and with that, the hope of returning was impossible. But with the help of organizations and some relatives, we were able to renovate our house.”
With the majority of the Nineveh Plains’ Christians being under the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis’ historical first papal visit to Iraq in March 2021 was a major boost to the morale of Iraq’s Catholic community. Included in his visit was holding Mass in both Mosul and Qaraqosh at church sites recently liberated from ISIS control. The visit helped to bring international awareness to Iraq’s rapidly shrinking but historically significant Christian community and their role in the future peacebuilding in Iraq as the war-torn nation seeks to rebuild after decades of war and terrorism.
Today, only a small portion of Iraq’s Christians have returned to the Nineveh Plains, with many remaining in Kurdistan or leaving Iraq to set up new lives elsewhere. Ongoing political clashes, security instability in the Nineveh Plains, and land disputes with neighboring communities continue to hamper the progress of recovery for the Christian community. Nevertheless, signs of life have also resumed, with marketplaces, churches, and homes once again filled with people in towns such as Qaraqosh in the Nineveh Plains.
When ISIS invaded Christians towns, they would also spray-paint the phrase, “We love death more than you love life,” Today, as Iraq’s Christians remember the tragedies, they also remember the hope and joy of life and the restoration of their communities that will continue from at least another generation.
International Christian has helped hundreds of Iraqi Christian families through the displacement period as well as during their efforts to return and rebuild their lives in the Nineveh Plains. ICC will continue to support and encourage the Iraqi Christian community through persecution in the year ahead. If you’d like to support our rebuilding efforts financially, click here.