International News

Christians of Mosul, Iraq, Still Displaced

A man carries his daughter during a battle in Mosul in March 2017. (Photo: CNS/Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

By Engy Magdy, Special to The Tablet

CAIRO — The self-declared caliphate of the Islamic State (ISIS), whose territory once spanned parts of Iraq and Syria, has been extinguished, but the group’s influence is very much alive.

In Mosul, Iraq, a city that’s about 250 miles north of Baghdad, two years after the defeat of ISIS, it is still impossible for Christians to return to their homes because it remains unsafe for them.

Archbishop Najib Mikhael Moussa, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul, told The Tablet that the return of Christians to their homes in Mosul is a “dream” that may take years.

He said that while Islamic State has been defeated, its ideology lives on, making it too dangerous for Christians who fled the city to come back.

Archbishop Moussa said that many Muslims in Mosul were “wonderful,” noting that they protected Christians and hid them for more than a month when ISIS  took control of the city in 2014.

Yet others served as a guide for ISIS and reported Christians in hiding. ISIS gave Christians in Mosul four options: leave, convert to Islam, pay a tax or be killed.

Some Christians hid, thinking ISIS’ control of Mosul would be short-lived. But the group controlled the city for three years. Most Christians left.

Previously, Christians and Muslims coexisted in Mosul.

“We lived together for 1,400 years,” Archbishop Moussa said. “That’s because we gave concessions and lived as Dhimmi second-class citizens. This is no longer valid today, especially since the view of the Muslim neighbors is inferior towards the Christians in the land that we have been living in for 2,000 years. We still use Aramaic, the language of our ancestors. It is difficult to feel that you are not welcome in your land.”

Dhimmi is the Islamic term used to refer to Christians and Jews. It means “protected person”— someone tolerated as a second-class citizen.

Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the number of Christians in the country was 1.5 million.

It’s now about 500,000, according to records of Iraqi churches. After ISIS’ seizure of Mosul, most of the Christians from the city fled to the Kurdistan region in the northern part of Iraq.

Another casualty of ISIS in Mosul: church buildings, including a Syriac Catholic church built in the seventh century. Many churches were destroyed during fighting. The rest are now being knocked down by bulldozers.

“These bulldozers come with permission from the authorities; they belong to officials in the province or the state or army who have executive authority,” Archbishop Moussa said. “If 70 percent of the buildings were destroyed by ISIS and the liberation operations, it is now 100 percent due to bulldozers. We do not know who is behind these operations.”