Kurdish forces have now captured twelve villages from Islamic State (IS) in northern Iraq and are closing in on Mosul, which was Iraq’s second largest city when it fell to IS in June 2014. The nearby Nineveh Plains are the traditional heartland of Christianity in Iraq, but when IS took control up to 200,000 fled their homes, seeking to avoid enslavement, forcible conversion to Islam or death. The advance on Mosul comes only two months after the city of Fallujah was taken from IS and a fortnight after the northern Syrian city of Manbij was freed, following which residents openly shaved their beards, burned their niqabs (full-face veils for women) and danced in the streets in celebration. But Christians watching the military progress against IS in Iraq are wary of the claims of impending liberation.
A displaced Christian from the Christian town of Qaraqosh, outside of Mosul, said, “I see no future for us ... We’ll still be afraid. I will go to Mosul and I will be afraid because they will say, here comes the Christian.” Many believers have no home or possessions to go back to, having fled with only the clothes they were wearing when IS seized Christian homes and business, infamously marking them with the Arabic letter ‘N’ for Nazarene (meaning “Christian”). Often Muslim neighbours, with whom Christians had previously lived amicably, turned against them, in some cases with violence and forcing their Christian neighbours from their homes. Even if IS can be expelled from the region, Iraqi Christians face the prospect of living within a Muslim majority who have shown hostility.
Thousands of displaced Iraqi Christian refugees now live in Christian-only camps in the Ankawa neighbourhood of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. But their future is very uncertain. The newly revealed hostility of their Muslim former neighbours means that few would consider returning to their home towns and villages in Iraq. According to a church pastor who manages one of the camps, “if organised migration were possible, then I can say that 90% of the inhabitants of this camp would leave [Iraq].”
The international community has been slow to recognise the specific threat faced by Christians in Iraq as well as Syria. Despite the fact that the US State Department has said that IS is responsible for acts of genocide against Christians, between 1 January 2015 and 14 June 2016 the US processed 16,431 arriving Muslim refugees from both countries, but only 461 Christians. Where countries have shown a willingness to issue visas for Iraqi and Syrian Christians, Barnabas Fund, through our Operation Safe Havens, has brought nearly 500 to safety in Poland, the Czech Republic, Canada and Australia. But for those left behind, their future prospects remain bleak.