In Their Own Words: Christian Minorities Under ISIS
06 Oct 2014
In a conflict often dehumanised by the brutality of ISIS, Balint Szlanko speaks to the Christians of northern Iraq in the wake of the recent invasion of their towns and villages.
The advances of the rogue state ISIS have decimated the local communities in Iraq and Syria that have fallen under their control. In northern Iraq, the rebels have created a catastrophic humanitarian crisis in the last few months. Amnesty International estimates that nearly a million people have fled their homes since the beginning of June. Many of them belong to religious and ethnic minority groups, including Iraqi Christians, who have been particularly targeted by ISIS. Tens of thousands of them live in camps for displaced people in and around Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, on building sites, on empty blocks and in the courtyard of churches.
"We have been here for two weeks now," Yalda Thoma Boutros, a man in his fifties from the Christian-majority town of Qaraqosh, tells me, sitting outside his tent in Erbil. "We left our money, our clothes, everything. I could bring only our documents. The locals have helped us but we have nothing. We have no idea what will happen to us."
Tens of thousands live in camps for displaced people in and around Erbil.
Khaled, a Christian man, and his family fled Qarakosh, in northern Iraq, after it had been taken over by the extremist group ISIS, in the beginning of August. Now he lives in a tent on an empty block in Erbil, along with thousands of others from his town. But his brother, his sister-in-law and their daughter stayed behind - only to have the girl taken from them.
Khaled says no one understands why they took the child. "We know why they took the women. But she was only three," he says, sitting in his small tent, trying to shade himself from the scorching Iraqi sun.
"A few days after the town was taken, ISIS fighters told them they would be put on a bus and transported outside the city," he tells me. "They collected everybody by car and gathered them in a church, some thirty of them. They checked them for money and jewellery and they took everything valuable from them. Then they put them on a bus."
"As they were getting on, one of the fighters came and took the child from my sister-in-law's hands. She got off the bus to plead with them, she said you cannot take my child away from me. My brother got off with her, but they told them if you don't get back on the bus we'll shoot you both," he says.
In the end, the bus left. They were dumped a few kilometres out of town where they were told that they had to walk from there. "They had walked for seven hours by the time they reached Kurdish territory," Khaled says. "There they were collected by Kurdish security forces and brought here, to this camp."
He said no one knew what has become of the girl and why she was taken. He speculates that one of the ISIS fighters perhaps wanted a child and thought this the easiest way to get one. He adds that the worst part is that the militants were not masked and that they recognised some of them, he says, as Arabs from the neighbouring villages. "We knew some of them personally. There was one guy who used to work for the local electricity company. People asked him, what are you doing with these? But he didn't answer."
There have also been persistent accusations that many local Sunnis have co-operated with ISIS but the extent of this is difficult to map. Alongside these claims, there have been stories about Sunnis who had helped their neighbours escape the militants. But the conflict does have a strong ethnic-sectarian narrative, with ISIS drawing its support almost exclusively from the Sunni Arab community, many of whom feel betrayed by the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.
Some say they were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint.
Many have come with similar tales as Khaled; some say they were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint. Samir and Jacklyn Barsoum are a middle-aged couple from Qaraqosh. They are worried about Jacklyn's brother, who stayed behind. "He told us on the phone that they were threatened," Jacklyn says. "If you don't convert to Islam by ten o'clock this evening, they told him, you will be killed along with your children. We haven't heard from him since and his phone is switched off."
As she speaks, her phone rings. She answers, listens for a while and then starts to repeat, "where are they taking them?" and "I don't understand." In the end, she exclaims, "they are going to kill them," and breaks down crying. Around the tent, people are looking on, tense, grave, white. Some turn away, shaking their head. Finally Jacklyn hangs up and cries. She says it was one of the neighbours who said that ISIS men had come for her brother and taken him away.
When I go back to see them about a week later, there is still no word about him. As for Samir and Jacklyn, they have no intention of going home, and are instead trying to get to Europe. "This is the third time we have lost everything," Samir says, sitting on a carpet on the ground. "We can't go home, it's not safe. There is no way we can live with our Muslim neighbours again."
The violence of the past decade has seen a thriving Iraqi Christian community of a million and a half people, which has existed since the 1st century AD, reduced to an estimated 450,000, with many now refugees for the second or the third time. Most are Chaldean Catholics by sect and Assyrian by ethnicity, speaking Syriac, an Aramaic tongue related to the language Jesus spoke. The increasingly desperate tactics of ISIS will surely further intensify the pressure on this vulnerable community.
The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
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