While progress has been made in eliminating Islamic State strongholds in northern Iraq, Christians who were forced from their homes and villages during the occupation are still living in fear.
According to Fox News, Christians who fled Nineveh in 2014 are just beginning to make their way back after it was liberated from ISIS control earlier this year. While it should be a momentous occasion, most of the refugees are returning to find their livelihoods and homes in ruins and under new threat from Iraqi forces in the wake of the Kurdish independence referendum in September.
While the Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers provided protection after ISIS was defeated, the area is now considered contested land between the Baghdad Central Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government. Iraqi troops were ordered to take control of the region about six weeks ago, and now the residents are once again living in fear. Before ISIS, about 400 Christian families lived in Bahzani, and now the number is down to about 130.
“The reality is we cannot stay without the U.S. or the U.N. helping to protect Nineveh directly,” Father Afram al-Khoury Benyamen told Fox News after mass at St. George Cathedral, the 133-year-old church located just outside Mosul City. “With international protection maybe we can remain, but if it doesn’t come soon… we go.”
For Bahzani’s Christians, the new faces at the town’s checkpoints, and the fear that something could erupt at any time, has worn many of them to the depths of despair. “ISIS is not finished in Mosul and still they can come straight here,” the priest said. “We expect more attacks. It is like staring into the darkness”…
Scores of Iraqi Christians in the region who earlier fled in fear to neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have waited years for visas to western nations, only to be rejected. Now, the priest said, these refugees are stranded. They don’t have money or the courage to resettle in Iraq. Those fortunate to have been granted visas have seen their families split apart with some members living in the U.S., others living in Europe and still others strewn across the Middle East.
With infrastructure crumbling and the community dwindling, Fr. Afram fears things may be beyond repair.
“Before ISIS, everything was green,” he said. “Now everything is finished, nobody gave the olive trees water. And when I see the village like this I feel there is no life here. We used to have 150 doves come to our church, too. But after ISIS, even they have not come back.”
But despite the uncertainty, he and his churchgoers continue to rebuild and hold out hope for a renewed sense of safety.
“ISIS destroyed all the crosses, crosses that had been made 150 years ago,” Fr. Afram said. “But I said to my people, ‘Make new crosses.’”
(H/T: Fox News)