The desperate flight of Iraqi Christians

The desperate flight of Iraqi Christians
The exodus brought about by the US-led war has been intensified by the rise of the Islamic State group.
6 min read
15 December, 2014
Christians of Iraq survived Saddam, but are fleeing the Islamic State group [Getty]

They fled the abuses of the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS), and arrived in Lebanon after spending a few weeks in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Beirut should only be a stepping-stone for them, en route to Australia, Canada or even the United States. In the meantime, Iraqi Christians are surviving among hundreds of thousands of other refugees.

"This isn't your country anymore, it's ours," they were told [Fr] by IS members as their ID cards were torn up before them.

Elham described how they commandeered her husband's taxi. "Either you give us your taxi, or you come with us," they threatened.

"They were also kidnapping women," she said. And so, Elham, her husband, and their four children left with the passports they had kept hidden. They left Iraq four days after Mosul was seized in June. Once they reached Erbil they flew to Beirut and are surviving today thanks to humanitarian aid distributed by the Chaldean Diocese in Lebanon. They are waiting to be able to leave Lebanon.

Ranad also lived in the Mosul area and had a grocery that he was forced to abandon. He tells of the rapaciousness of IS, and the indignity he felt.

"[IS] humiliated us; they pillaged the place, and they broke everything," he said. "We've been humiliated in the past, but this time they chased us from our home. They marked our houses [to indicate Christians lived there]. They are barbaric and cruel."

Ranad also emphasised the presence of foreigners among them. "There were definitely a few Iraqis," he said, but the majority of troops came from different countries. "It was clear they weren't from here."

A protected minority

The flight of Christians from Iraq did not begin in 2014. Under Saddam Hussein, many fled successive wars because of instability and the catastrophic economic situation, worsened by international sanctions on the country.

Iraq's Arab Christians have belonged to Arabic culture and participated in its development for centuries. But at the time, Christians and other groups had managed to continue to worship and maintain their traditions, despite Saddam's oppressive rule. Christians were not particularly targeted, as the regime pushed a Baathist party message rooted in  Arab nationalism rather than religion.

The Baath movement's founder, Michel Aflaq, a Syrian Christian philosopher, considered Islam as a principal component of Arab culture, but advocated a more secular basis for the unification of the Arab world. 

Tariq Aziz, a childhood friend of Saddam, became the most prominent Iraqi Christian in the Baath party leadership from the 1980s up until the 2003 US-led invasion of the country.

Born in Mosul to a Chaldean Catholic family, he became the minister of information and subsequently the foreign minister, and was twice deputy prime minister.

Following the United Nations embargo, imposed in 1990 as  punishment for the invasion of Kawait, Saddam sought legitimacy in adherence to Islam, to secure the support of the influential Islamic movement.

     In reality, Christians, like all other Iraqis, suffered from a lack of freedom and instability.
- Father Fadi Daou

But while Saddam didn't persecute Christians for the sake of being Christian, he did rule with an iron fist.

"In reality, Christians, like all other Iraqis, suffered from a lack of freedom and instability," explained Father Fadi Daou, the founder and president of the Adyan Foundation for dialogue between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon.

"Even though the country was neither free nor democratic, these minorities were to a certain extent, protected from the attacks Saddam Hussein carried out against Shia and Kurds, particularly as they received protection in exchange for keeping a low profile," added Harry Hagopian, a lawyer and consultant for the Armenian, Orthodox and Catholic Churches in the UK and Ireland.

The US-led invasion in 2003 and the new constitution approved in 2005 changed everything, marking the collapse of Iraq "and disaster for the Christians", said Father Daou.

The new constitution no longer defined Iraq as Arab, but as a country of, "many nationalities, religions and sects", Kurds, Christians, Yazidis, Mandaeans and Sabaeans and more.

The Christians then become an Assyrian-Chaldean non-Arab minority, said Father Daou. "They are now of a separate ethnic group, and are not Arab either," added the priest.

The dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein had leaned on the Sunni. But with the formation in 2003 of the new government - mainly composed of Shia and Kurds and supported by Washington, the Sunni were kept from power.

As for the Christians, they seem to have lost out more than anyone in this process of religious delineation.

"Under Nouri al-Maliki, Christians no longer exist in public life," commented Father Daou.

Hagopian agreed. "Christians and other communities managed to survive a decade of threats, attacks, bombings and murders subsequent to the American invasion," he said.

Up until 2003 there were about a million Christians in Iraq - mainly Chaldean Catholics and Syriac Orthodox Christians, as well as members of the Armenian Churches.

But before the sudden rise of the Islamic State group this year, more than 65 percent of them had already left the country.

     The Islamic State group cannot be held solely responsible, but what they introduced... is a form of savagery.
- Harry Hagopian, lawyer

"The Islamic State [group] cannot be held solely responsible," said Hagopian. "But what they introduced into the lives of people in the region and in Iraq is a form of savagery that they mistakenly interpret as a pure form of Islam, as the organisation and its members are motivated by a logic of extermination - whether consciously or not."

A stepping-stone

Since June, 1,300 Christian families have arrived in Lebanon (about 6,000 people, reports the UN High Commission for Refugees).

According to Mira Kassarji, head of communication for the Chaldean Diocese of Beirut, between 20 and 30 families continue to arrive each week. Lebanon is a stepping-stone for them.

"They will stay two or three years, then leave when they are granted asylum in a country like Australia, Canada or the United States," she said.

It is easy to reach Lebanon from Erbil. With a large Christian population, Iraqis feel safe there. They receive aid thanks to the private donations received by the churches and the NGOs that can also provide them with staple food products and basic medical care.

In reality, Lebanon hosts relatively few Iraqis, as it has no official status for refugees, who are instead registered with the UN whilst waiting for another country to accept them.

"It's a problem linked to bad management of Lebanese policy, to the Palestinian problem dating from 1948 and to the demographic protection policy of the Lebanese government," said Father Fadi Daou.

Palestinians are not recognised by the Lebanese state - it's the United Nations office for Palestinian refugees in the Middle East (UNRWA) that looks after them. They have never had access to Lebanese nationality, are prohibited from entering several professions and from buying property in Lebanon.

The problem reoccurs with Syrian refugees - of whom there are now more than 1.5 million in a country with a population of just four million - not including the Iraqis.

The Lebanese government facilitated the coordination and planning of international aid but has no policy for receiving and managing refugees. It has just closed its official border crossing to Syrians, except in extreme humanitarian cases - the criteria for which have still not been defined or communicated to the UN.

This measure was introduced after the Nusra Front and IS offensive against the Lebanese army in Arsal, a border town with Syria, which serves as a rear base for many fighters in opposition to the Bashar al-Assad regime. Tripoli, the country's second city, also played host to violent clashes, again between combatants claiming to represent Nusra or IS, and the Lebanese army.

A lack of financing further burdens the country: this year, only 38 percent of the sum pledged to the UN and NGOs by Lebanese government donors was actually paid.

This feature was originally published in French by our partner, Orient XXI. This is an edited translation.