TELESKOF, Iraq — If you’re a Christian from one of the villages on the Nineveh Plains destroyed by ISIS which are now accessible and being rebuilt, you have a hard decision to make: you can either go home or move on. There are compelling arguments on either side, often pivoting on a tension between community identity and family safety and opportunity.
If you’re from one of the villages that’s not accessible and show no signs of becoming so anytime soon, in effect the decision has been made for you.
The Nineveh Plains, which overlaps the border between Iraq and Kurdish-held territories, is a conglomerate of small villages, many of them historically Christian: Teleskof, Batnaya, Bartella, Karamles, Qaraqosh, and others.
With the help of private NGOs such as the papal organization Aid to the Church in Need, the Knights of Columbus and the Hungarian government, thousands of Christian families have been able to go home after the region was liberated last October.
(The Knights of Columbus is a principal partner of Crux.)
Yet a handful of villages hasn’t been so lucky.
Batnaya, which before ISIS was a bustling town with some 800 Christian families, is today entirely empty of Christians, and only 350 of its previous families even remain in the country. Though technically free from ISIS, it’s located in a “no man’s land” of sorts, trapped on the wrong side of a border between Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Shiite militias backed by Iran.
An estimated 80 percent of houses in the village were wiped out by ISIS, and pictures show an unimaginable level of destruction. Even if Batnaya is at some point freed, there’s virtually nothing to go back to, raising the question of why any of its former residents would ever want to return.
Sulaya Oraha Eshaz, one of those former residents who today is living in nearby Teleskof, wonders the same thing.
“If we could, we’d leave for the United States not tomorrow but today,” he said, referring to himself and his large family.
Eshaz and his wife Aghata Marogy Eshaz have been married for 46 years and have 12 children, the eldest of whom is 45 and the youngest 25. They also have some “20 or 25 grandchildren,” Eshaz said, though he’s a little vague on the precise number.
Some of his children are now in Germany, Sweden and the United States, while three are living in other Iraqi cities and three are still in the family home.
The children who’ve left for Europe and the U.S., he said, didn’t leave for economic reasons nor escaping Islamic terrorists. All got out before 2014, because they were tired of Iraq’s political instability and “indirect oppression” perpetrated by the governments through schools and universities.
An entrepreneur, teacher and farmer who was a wealthy man in Batnaya, Eshaz insists he and his family would be an asset for a host country.
“I don’t want to go and cause the American government trouble,” Eshaz told Crux on Wednesday. “We are a very productive family, my children are educated, we can add to society.”
When ISIS came, Eshaz said, he lost several properties he owned in Batnaya. He still clings to a laminated legal form issued by an ISIS court, which blatantly states that his properties were stripped and assigned to a Muslim business partner because he was a Christian.
“How do you expect us to live with people who take these verses from the Quran to justify stealing the properties of Christians?” Eshaz said, not hiding his frustration. The verse he referred to was imprinted at the top of the court document, next to the ISIS flag: “I will judge about properties based upon the word of God.”
“According to this verse they could take it all, and they did,” he said.
Even post-ISIS, Eshaz is no more confident in the Iraqi government to deliver long-sought justice for Christians and other minorities. Ask if he fears the government more than he fears a return by ISIS, he said that it’s “50-50.”
“ISIS is temporary while the government is permanent, and the conflict will continue,” he said. “ISIS was gone after three years. The government’s oppression is still here.”
Eshaz claims that unless the government changes its ways, Christianity will no longer be in the region 50 years from now, because the “racism against Christians being taught at schools” will make everything worse a few years from now.
“Yet if the law is based on humanitarian principles and not religion, people will stay,” he added.
Based on his experience, Eshaz voices a deeply-ingrained mistrust of Muslims.
He told the story that when his children arrived in Germany, they were accused by their peers of being “racist” for warning against the welcoming of Muslim immigrants. Yet his children wouldn’t budge: “They’re Muslims, they have Islamic background.” Then ISIS attacked in Germany, France and the United Kingdom, he said, and “they realized that my children weren’t racist.”
In addition, he said, when he was able to go back to Batnaya he found graffiti in German, French and English in the walls of what had been their church saying “Christians leave,” and “all the crosses might fall” – suggesting, he said, that the terrorists who left the warnings actually trained in countries that once didn’t see them as a threat.
Father Araam Rameel Hannan from neighboring Alqosh is a big supporter of the reconstruction of the Christian villages of the Nineveh Plains. However, he acknowledges that if the situation for Christians “continues as it is, many [more] will want to emigrate.”
“We’ve had problems for the past 100 years, they did not start with ISIS. They were more like ‘game-over,’” he told Crux during a five-minute drive from Alqosh to Teleskof. Batnaya is five minutes further down the same road from Teleskof, but it’s closed by the border and those with a permit to go back to the town need some two hours to get there.
Despite the fact that the area is slowly coming back to life, the situation for many Christians is still precarious at best, and the pressure from the international community will be key in guaranteeing the survival of Christianity in the region where it was born. In the meantime, Christians such as Eshaz aren’t waiting around to see how things shake out.
“No human rights defenders care about Christians in Iraq,” Hannan said. “We need the international community to care for us. The help of Aid to the Church in Need or the Church in Rome is fundamental for our survival and that of the Yazidis. But we not only need financial support: If the Iraqi government knew that the world is paying attention to our future, they too would protect us.”