In order to understand the plight of
Christians in modern-day Iraq, it is
important to go back not just to 2014, when
Islamic State forced on them a brutal choice
between dying, converting or fleeing the
northern city of Mosul, but further: to the
2003 US-led invasion of the country.
For unfashionable though it was to point
out at the time amid the western drum-beat
for war, the Ba'athist regime of Saddam
Hussein, for all its horrific faults, was
relatively secular as well as stable, and as
a demonstration of this Saddam's deputy,
Tariq Aziz, was himself a Christian.
Indeed, some warned at the time that war
would only result in a greater, not a
diminished, threat from terrorists following
on from the wholly unrelated atrocities in
New York of September 11, 2001.
Nonetheless, with the threat of war
looming in the months leading up to the
invasion of March 2003, Christians were as
fearful as everyone else in the country, of
an attack from Saddam on 'his own people' as
well as the western invaders.
'William', an NGO worker with a partner
organization of the Christian charity Open
Doors whose name has been concealed for
security reasons, first visited Iraq in 2000
and settled there at the end of 2002.
Reuters The Church of the Immaculate
Conception, burned by Islamic State
militants, in Qaraqosh, south of Mosul, Iraq
December 23, 2017.
Of Iraq, which is ranked 8th on the Open
Doors World Watch List, William tells
Christian Today: 'We very much liked the
country, the people, the environment.' But,
he adds: 'We had to prepare as everyone else
for the possible gas attack at that time.
The expectation was that Saddam would attack
with gas.' William still believes that
Saddam had the elusive weapons of mass
destruction (WMD), and that, 'war from the
Kurdish perspective was 100 per cent a must.
They all agreed with it. Discussion about
WMDs not being found was irrelevant but we
were saying they were there.'
He says it is 'partly true' that the
Saddam regime was 'fine for Christians' and
points out that before Saddam, back in the
early 1970s, there were 1.5-2 million
Christians. There were some half a million
in 2003 – more than a million Christians
left under Saddam – and now, of course,
there are a mere 200,000.
We will come to the tragic events of
recent years, but first, William points out
that 'under Saddam churches were destroyed
and closed; as long as you kept your mouth
shut that was OK but Saddam was throwing
Christians out of villages as well'.
Nonetheless, 'it was not a good time for
Christians after the war', he says. 'There
was a relatively peaceful time for a few
years, then the insurgency started.' It was
in 2006-2007 that extremists 'came to the
Christians were not only attacked in
2014, but also before, William says. He
recalls 50 Christians being 'butchered' in
Baghdad in 2011.
'After 2007, that's when Christians began
being randomly killed, kidnapped, tortured,
ransomed and so on. Even in Mosul it became
a very dangerous place for Christians.'
Christians were already beginning to leave
Mosul – where, for example, estate agents
were being threatened if they sold houses to
Christians – for Kurdish towns.
But it was of course in 2014 when some
80,000 Christian refugees fled Mosul and the
Nineveh Plain under threat of forced
conversion or execution but remain inside
Iraq in the Kurdish capital of Irbil.
William recalls the major landmark in the
terrorisation of Christians in Iraq. 'ISIS
came first to Mosul, took over the city and
said initially that Christians were allowed
to stay as long as they paid Islamic tax and
kept quiet. But then at some stage that
turned around and they gave a deadline to
convert to Islam, be killed or leave – so
that's when Christians left Mosul,' he says.
By August 2014 the whole region was under
control of ISIS.
Reuters Civilians hitch a ride with Iraqi
forces as they advance in Mosul.
'Over that time and even now, we found
many more Christians than were initially
thought to be missing, who were killed and
many more women were kidnapped by ISIS.
'Even 3 or 4 weeks ago they found a mass
grave of about 40 Christian women and
children. We still think 50 or 60 missing
women now are being used as sex slaves.'
And this, despite widespread reports last
year that Islamic State had been defeated in
Iraq. This is 'definitely' not the case,
'The battle has been won, but not the
war' he says, adding that at least four
'even more gruesome' Islamist splinter
groups have emerged to fill the vacuum left
by Islamic State, with an estimated 2,500
fighters 'from an ISIS background' still
present. 'They are attacking around Kirkuk,
they attack the Iraqi army around
checkpoints at roads. Some of them are
hiding in the mountains around Kirkuk – they
are still there.'
William says that even last year's
non-binding Kurdish referendum, in which
around 93 per cent voted in favour of
independence, has brought trouble of its
'Baghdad interpreted it as the Kurds
declaring independence. This was not true.
[But] the response by Baghdad was to boycott
the Kurdish region...[and] retake a lot of
territory. And the worst thing for us is
that they closed the international airports
[at Sulaymaniyah and Irbil]. So now the only
way out is through Turkey by road – from
October until April 1 – they have only just
opened the airport. We are now able to fly
again but Baghdad is introducing Iraqi visa
control in the north: now the concern is
that Baghdad is going to introduce a
stricter visa regime. Baghdad also started
to control the Kurdish banks so it is very
difficult to get money into the country.
They have started to control international
help, aid – and this is especially difficult
'At the moment it seems reasonably quiet
– likely because of elections happening in
May next month – but the concern is that
they will turn the screws on Kurdistan.'
And what of the reality for Christians on
the ground today?
'Initially, they wanted to go back to
Nineveh plains but now the Nineveh area has
also become a battleground between Baghdad
and the Kurdish region; Kurds have been
pushed out because Baghdad moved Shia
militia in – [and] Christians feel
threatened by the Shia.'
Some 8,000 familes have gone back to
Christian towns from the Nineveh plains.
Families are also going back to Irbil
because they don't feel safe, don't feel
supported, are worried about the Shia, [and
there is a] lack of support from Baghdad.
Their basic needs are not being met.
'It's OK to live in a town for a couple of
weeks or a few months without electricity or
water but eventually they say enough is
enough and they go back to a town with water
and electricity. If they do as they are
told, and go back to the Nineveh plains,
'they may lose salaries as teachers, medical
personnel, anyone in government employment'.
William points out that some 70 per cent of
Iraqis are in some form of government
employment, after all, in what he describes
as this 'old socialist state'.
He goes on: 'Christians are being pushed
back to an area where there is nothing. It
is very difficult to live in a street where
your neighbours houses have been burned out
and you are living by yourself. It is not a
stable situation – there are Muslim villages
all around. People are not feeling safe.
'Christian politicians are pushing for an
international security force for the interim
period until they have their own security
forces trained. They don't feel safe with
the Muslims living around the Christian
One of those is Qaraqosh, where according
to reports Christians are slowly returning.
And yet, says William: 'I went in [to
Qarakosh] three or four times and on three
or four occasions they picked up ISIS people
on the street in front of my eyes – you can
imagine if you are living in a town like
that, you don't feel safe.'
Reuters Chaldean Christians in Iraq,
internally displaced believers from the
Nineveh Plain were encouraged to return.
However, in Qaraqosh around 800 families
and homes have been supported by Open Doors'
partner organizations, and of the more than
8,000 families that have returned to the
north, 5,000 have gone back to Qaraqosh,
William says, while 1,100 have gone back to
the second largest Christian town after
But 'people don't trust that ISIS has
disappeared. There are sleeper cells. People
don't feel that it is safe and secure.'
Finally, asked what are his hopes for the
future, William is rueful.
'I like to be optimistic,' he says, 'but
it is very difficult.'
This is partly, at least, because so many
Christians still want to get out of Iraq.
'When half of the church leaders want to
emigrate – only half of the church leaders
are pushing for the Christians to go back to
the church villages – it is hard. We really
want to support them to go back; anything we
can do to support the Christians to go back
to the towns.
'One week it is positive, then something
William took a flight out of Irbil a few
weeks ago, and he says he spotted '10 to 15
families, clearly emigrating. Emigration
just continues. You only have to have one
incident and the emigration happens again.'
Ironically, William says that 'a little
bit on the positive side [is that]
Christians familes are coming back from
Germany to Iraq – because they say there is
more ISIS in Germany than in Iraq – but this
is only a couple of families.
Groups like Open Doors and their partners
are 'supporting people to go back and
helping them in their needs so there will be
a strong group of Christians that really
want to settle back,' he says.
'I really want to be positive. But...if
we listen to the local church leaders, the
big concern than in five years time there
may be no Christians left at all.'