Iraq's Ancient Christian Community, Decimated By Violence, Fear
Baghdad, (UrduPoint / Pakistan Point News - 22nd Feb, 2021 ) :Some fled after the US-led invasion, others during sectarian bloodshed and more following jihadist attacks. Iraq's last two violent decades have hollowed out its Christian community which dates back two millennia.
After first settling in the fertile plains of Nineveh province before heading for the busy boulevards of Baghdad, more than one million Christians have in more modern times been uprooted by Iraq's consecutive conflicts.
"By the age of 24, I had already lived through and survived three wars," said Sally Fawzi, an Iraqi Chaldean Catholic, who left her country more than a decade ago and is now living in the US state of Texas.
Some members of Iraq's historic Christian community escaped to the nearby autonomous Kurdish region, others waited in neighbouring Jordan to emigrate and then resettled in countries as far away as Australia.
Many lost hope in their homeland long ago, but see next month's scheduled visit by Pope Francis -- the first-ever papal trip to Iraq -- as an important opportunity for him to use his voice to garner international support for Iraqis of their faith.
But as Iraq's population mushroomed, the percentage of the minorities shrank.
- The first wave - Rana Said, 40, had tried her hardest to stay.
Still, she remained in the city with her husband Ammar al-Kass, 41, a veterinarian.
But by 2013, the region was growing increasingly unstable.
The couple finally left their ancestral Iraq and were resettled on the Gold Coast of Australia where they found jobs in their respective professions and have raised three daughters: Sara, 10, Liza, six, and three-year-old Rose.
"That's where my father was married. It was razed and obliterated to the ground," he said.
"I used to have nightmares about IS entering and killing and raping my family. It was a repetitive, horrible dream," Rana said emotionally, of the jihadists who forced women of the Yazidi religious minority and those of other minorities into sexual slavery.
- Lingering in limbo - Saad Hormuz lived the IS nightmare in person.
"First, we fled towards Al-Qosh," another Christian town further north, he told AFP.
But as the jihadists kept up their pillaging of Nineveh, they escaped to Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish region.
With his wife Afnan, 48, and their four children -- Natalie, 7, Nores, 15, Franz, 16, and Fadi, 19 -- they lived in a church for a month before renting an apartment at $150 per month for nearly three years.
That severely strained their finances.
But they found their home had been torched and ransacked, and that members of the Hashed al-Shaabi, a powerful state-sponsored paramilitary network formed from mostly-Shiite armed groups and volunteers to fight IS, now controlled Bartalla.
"We lived in fear. There were checkpoints and militias everywhere. Once, they even asked my wife to wear a veil," said Hormuz.
"So I decided to sell everything, even my car, and move to Jordan," he told AFP.
He lived through much of the violence they had fled, describing it as "great chaos." In 2006, he was kidnapped after presiding over mass in the Iraqi capital.
"I was held and went through lots of experiences -- including torture and isolation," Hanna told AFP.
"This experience also gave me strength, truth be told. I was born again. I look at life again with a great blessing and a great love," he said.
"There are so many Chaldeans here that I don't even feel like I'm in exile," said Benna, a father of two.
For Sally Fawzi, 38, who was resettled in the US as a refugee in 2008, memories of home can be painful.
With fewer worshippers, "up to 30 percent of Iraq's churches closed," Farid told AFP.
But that hasn't stopped the flight of minorities.
"As soon as I get paid, I have to pay debts from the preceding weeks and then I have nothing left." - An 'angel', meeting 'demons' - Emmanuel grew up in Iraq's southernmost city of Basra, then married and lived in Baghdad until 2004, when a bomb detonated outside the school his children attended.
Emmanuel, his wife and their three other children are eking out a living in Arbil as they await a response for their own resettlement requests.
"We're suffocating: there's no social care, no health services, no public schools, no work," he told AFP at his modest home near Arbil's Chaldean Archdiocese.
It irked him to see the lack of public services in oil-rich Basra, piles of rubbish disfiguring Baghdad's historic Rasheed Street, or posters of late Iranian supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini in squares and streets in southern Iraq.
"It's supposed to be a public place, but it makes me feel like I have no place here," said Emmanuel.
"If they open everything up, I guarantee that by tomorrow, there won't be any Christians left. At least abroad, we will finally feel respected as humans." The economic downturn, the poor quality of life, the shrinking space for minorities -- Emmanuel blamed it all on an entrenched political class seen as deeply corrupt.
And there's little the pope can do to change that.
Emmanuel, whose daughter will sing in the choir that is set to welcome Pope Francis when he arrives in Arbil, broke into a bitter smile.