Iraq’s displaced Christians still struggle

4 mins read
Children stand next to a burned vehicle during clashes between Iraqi security forces and al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in the northern Iraq city of Mosul June 10, 2014. It has been 10 years since the fall of Mosul June 4-10, 2014, when Islamic State insurgents took over the city from the Iraqi army. (OSV News photo/Reuters)

AMMAN, Jordan (OSV News) — For Iraqi Catholics, it’s a date they will never forget. The takeover of Mosul by militants of the Islamic State group 10 years ago began their bloody and destructive rampage over the weeks that followed through the country’s ancestral heartland which Christians called home for the past 16 centuries.

“Young men spread the warning that Daesh (Arabic-language acronym) was entering Mosul,” Rita, a native of Iraq’s once second-largest city, told OSV News. She recounted the horror inside the compound of Mary Mother of the Church Parish in Marka — the northeastern suburb of Amman, the Jordanian capital.

The woman, who is in her 50s, and other Iraqis attending the church only provided their first names for fear of retribution for relatives who remain in Iraq.

Fear and flight

“My aunt learned about the militants’ approach from the neighbors. We knew it would be impossible to stay and so we gathered my sister and my children and headed north for safety, packed inside a car,” Rita said of the start of the decade-long traumatic ordeal that has defined her life and that of her family.

The fall of Mosul happened June 4-10, 2014, when Islamic State insurgents took over the city from the Iraqi army.

IS is an Islamic militant organization that broke with the al-Qaida network and took control of large parts of Iraq and Syria, where it declared a caliphate, a traditional form of Islamic rule, in 2014. It is made up largely of extremist Sunni militants from Iraq and Syria but has drawn jihadi fighters from across the Muslim world and Europe.

“Many Iraqis live with depression. I see it on their faces as they come to church,” Father Khalil Ja’ar, pastor at Mary Mother of the Church, told OSV News. “From time to time, I invite them to come and talk in my office. They say, we know there is no resolution, but at least we have the opportunity to talk,” he said. Father Ja’ar deeply identifies with their struggles, because he grew up as a Palestinian refugee in Bethlehem.

Aid and assistance

Father Ja’ar has served Iraqi Christians and other refugees fleeing conflicts in neighboring lands for many years, while providing practical assistance such as children’s schooling, food coupons, housing and now a recently opened health clinic on the grounds of the parish compound to address the refugees.

This Arab priest finds his own life has been forever changed by aiding the refugees, whom he calls “living saints,” because they chose to stick to their Christian faith in the face of losing all they had in this world.

Seeking refuge

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, says Jordan now hosts some 53,000 Iraqi refugees, most of them Christians. These numbers are down from 2014 when many fled Mosul and the Nineveh Plains towns, including Qaraqosh, by initially escaping to the northern Kurdistan region before heading to Jordan in the hopes of resettlement in the West.

“If they’ve gone, it’s been mainly to Australia, but actually very few have left Jordan,” Father Ja’ar explained. “Most are still here, and they feel blocked and forgotten as there is little help. They are not allowed to work nor go to hospitals. International organizations tell them, ‘You are Iraqi, you have to go back to your country.’ But the situation there is still very dangerous,” the parish priest lamented.

“I know some people who returned and found their homes already occupied by other people,” he said.

Other parishioners, like 60-year-old George, an electrical engineer, said it would be impossible to go back to his family home in Bartella, because it was bombed during the conflict. Even Shiite militias have now taken over the once-predominantly Christian town after it was liberated from the IS.

“Eventually, we felt like we were living between two fires. The Shiite militias came to me demanding my professional electrical tools to sell them for themselves. There was no security, no protection for ordinary citizens. I knew that I had to search for a safe place for my family,” added George, who is in the final stages of a resettlement process to Canada.

Another parishioner, Sami, serves at Marka’s Mary Mother of the Church as a deacon, but he also worked in his home church, St. Thomas in Karamles, one of the most ancient settlements in northern Iraq.

“The church bell rang furiously in 2014 warning us that trouble was coming, the militants were soon invading. We had to move fast, stuffing nine people in a … car; leaving everything behind. It was hot, sunny, dusty, and we had no water. Years later, I tried to return home and found the house had been torched,” Sami said.

Addressing medical needs

“Because of what they have encountered in Iraq and the challenges they now face, Iraqi refugees experience a lot of stress,” explained Taim Suyyagh, who is the attending physician at the church’s newly opened Sant’Angelo health clinic.

Uncontrolled hypertension is one of the chief diseases that Suyyagh sees among the Iraqi refugees coming to the clinic. A lack of funds also means that some refugees have been unable to follow through with maintaining their medications. But, he told OSV News, the clinic is hoping to offer positive change with diagnosis and consultations, and by providing medications and offering best ways to treat their illnesses.

“This is to service the Iraqi community with some medical checks and medicine, and to provide training for general assessment and to assist those with disabilities,” said Tommaso Riva of the Amman-based Habibi Association, set up in Italy in 2013, to aid the most vulnerable and those affected by conflict.

Riva told OSV News that a program to provide psychological support may first be introduced “in a community way as a training or workshop” to participants, because Middle Eastern society is quite private about sharing personal feelings regarding stress and trauma.

“The refugees and the neighborhood’s poor are usually too shy to seek help. We have said, ‘Please come. This is our duty and our privilege to serve you,'” Father Ja’ar explained. So far, some 150 to 200 have come monthly, but he expects those numbers to rise. “When some people can’t make it to the clinic, I ask the doctor and nurse to go to their home for a medical visit.”

Education and hope

The priest’s pride and joy has been the school he set up a decade ago to enable 200 Iraqi refugee children to be educated as they faced challenges in local schools.

“The kids have (told) me, ‘Father … we don’t like to have summer holidays. At home, there is no place for us to play and it’s very dangerous to go on the streets. At this school, we can meet with our friends, play with them and have good food,'” he said. But funding has been tight, and more resources are badly needed.

“I hope, I pray that we may be able to reopen the school in September because we are financially drained,” Father Ja’ar said. “This would be a disaster for the kids.”

Dale Gavlak

Dale Gavlak writes for OSV News from Amman.