ERBIL, IRAQ – This Kurdish city is overwhelming amid its semi-desert surroundings and its crushing 111-degree temperatures in the Iraqi summer. There’s a deceptive air of peace in the capital of Kurdistan. Nothing suggests that the destiny of thousands of people hangs in the balance because Islamist State forces are lurking 25 miles away.
Days ago they were at the very gates of the city.
Behind the church walls, in the schools and the sports centers, in the shade of half-finished buildings, the reality is hidden: thousands of refugees, up to 70,000 of them, scattered around 22 reception points.
More than 670 families have sought refuge in the Chaldean Catholic cathedral and the buildings of its inmediate vicinity. A makeshift tarpaulin and the buildings surrounding the church are all the relief they have against the implacable heat.
The Cathedral of Saint Joseph of Ankawa is one vast waiting room. There are hundreds of faces, with people sitting on the ground or lying on mattresses or sleeping mats. But there’s only one story that unites them all: they are refugees, condemned to death for the mere fact of being Christians.
On Aug. 6, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, who had been defending the Christian area to the north of Mosul, withdrew. The first bomb fell on the house of the Alyias in Qaraqosh, killing two children, David and Mirat, cousins who were playing in the garden, and gravely wounding a third.
The alarm rapidly spread from there throughout the city: “ISIS is at the gates, the Peshmerga are no longer defending us; flee!”
Qaraqosh was a city of some 50,000, a Christian city for centuries. Everyone left with whatever they could carry. The only ones who remained behind were those who could not move from their houses, the sick and elderly.
The people of Qaraqosh were joined by those from other smaller towns in the surrounding area, such as Bartella and Karemlesh. During those days an estimated total of 100,000 Christians left their homes in the region of Niniveh, in an exodus of apocalyptic proportions, fleeing in the direction of Duhok, Zahko, and Erbil.
Many of them still bear in their very bones the earlier trauma of June 10, when in the space of a few hours ISIS forces seized Mosul without anyone attempting to defend it.
Neither its politicians nor its army rose up on behalf of those being persecuted since the defeat of Saddam Hussein. In the city of Mosul alone, more than 1,000 Christians have been murdered for their faith since 2003. Every family has its own tragedy, its own dramatic story; everybody has family members who were murdered, massacred.
“This is my brother Salman, he was 43 years old; they shot him three times in the head. He had been in Mosul for five years,” a young Iraqi boy says. Next to him, his mother slowly takes out the photo, holding it between both hands, and there is so much pain in this gesture, in those eyes.
A few miles away is Yacoub, a refugee whose leg was crippled and covered with scars from a bomb that exploded in 2008 in a church in Mosul.
When the jihadists issued their ultimatum to the Christians in Mosul in July, Yacoub fled with his four daughters. He has lost his land, his home, everything he possessed. He has suffered the consequences of the destruction in his own body. But Yacoub’s concern is the future of his four daughters.
The children, who understand nothing of wars, or hatred, or massacres, who know nothing of what is happening, are not concerned about the future. It is strange to see so many children together, yet not see a single toy, a single doll. Many of the babies are lying directly on the floor, some of them in little portable cots.
In Erbil, there are field tents set up for those who cannot find space in the rooms of a sports center, with around eight people in each. It is like an inferno during the day, given the extreme temperatures reaching as high as 111 degrees inside the tent. At night, there is the danger of being bitten by rats and scorpions.
“What has she done, for them to throw her off her land and make her have to live like this?” asked Sleiman, carrying his three-year-old daughter in his arms. “We are saving our lives, the honor of our wives and daughters, and our faith.”
The Christians of Niniveh, Qaraqosh, Al Qosh, Telfek and so many other places have also been robbed of hope.
“I cannot go on living here,” laments the father of David, a boy killed by an ISIS bomb in Qaraqosh. “This country is drenched with blood.”
He and his wife don’t know how to request a visa, but they keep repeating that they want to go, they don’t care where, but simply out of this land of suffering.
His brother Adeeb used to work for the press in Mosul. In broken but clear English he asks, “Why is it that the Muslims who come from outside have their rights recognized in the European countries, while here they treat us like dogs – and we haven’t even come from outside – this is our country!”
Adeeb speaks of the biblical roots of Niniveh, of the presence of the Christians in Mosul since the second century, of the Syrian and Chaldean Catholics and the Orthodox Christian communities.
Yet this past is also present, real and active. The priests, religious, and bishops help in whatever way they can. They are everywhere.
Father Samir Youssef is a Chaldean Catholic priest in one of these villages to the north of Duhok. He tells of the shock of that first day when, throughout the night until the morning, this innumerable exodus of people continued to arrive, filling the streets, sleeping in their cars, on the pavement.
In the parish catechetical center alone there are now 77 families, Syrian Orthodox, 321 people altogether, of whom 35 are children.
Bishop Emil Nona, Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, is one of five bishops who have been expelled and displaced. Accompanied by a priest, he brings packets of foodstuffs, and visits the communities, noting their needs: mattresses, tents, a refrigerator, medicine.
In different regions of Iraq, the cry is unanimous: “Help us, we cannot continue like this. We, the Christians of Iraq, are victims of disaster. Save us from death.”
They are hoping for the intervention of the international community. They need more than mere Christian charity to salvage the future of an ancestral culture and religion.
Maria Lozano is vice president of communications for the pontifical organization Aid to the Church in Need. To learn more, visit www.churchinneed.org.