World

Iraqi Christians fleeing ISIS find refuge behind church walls

Iraqi Christians are wondering if the arrival of ISIS has signalled the death knell for the community’s future in the country, the CBC's Margaret Evans found when she met some of them taking shelter in Erbil.

Orders from militants to convert or be killed spark exodus from northern towns

Iraqi Christians find refuge in overcrowded churches 2:51

CBC NEWS IS THERE: Correspondents Margaret Evans and Derek Stoffel are in Iraq's semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan, bringing you stories from the front lines of the fight against ISIS militants as Canada prepares to join the international coalition military campaign.

Iraq’s Christian community was already under pressure before ISIS militants marched onto the scene last June, planting their black flags in towns across northern Iraq and ordering Christians to convert or be killed. 

The number of Christians living in the country is reported to have declined by up to two-thirds in the bloody decade of sectarian strife that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein back in 2003. 

Now many Iraqi Christians are wondering if the arrival of ISIS has signalled the death knell for the community’s future in the country. 

At least 100,000 Christians have fled the ISIS advance across the Nineveh plains in Iraq, a country which has been home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.

Many have gone to Erbil, capital of Iraq's Kurdistan region, to take shelter, quite literally, behind the protective walls of their faith. 

The grounds of St Joseph’s Church in the city’s Christian Ankawa district have been turned into a refugee camp. 

“Everybody wants to leave now,” says Sundus Monsour, a schoolteacher from the now-emptied town of Qorqoresh. 

“Go to Canada, U.S., Germany. What can we do [here]?” she says, pointing to the tent she and her relatives have been sharing with two other families for months.  

Can't go home

The men who have sought refuge there sleep outside on the ground. 

Esa Amir, left, was one of 60,000 Christians living in Mosul when ISIS arrived, and now has a hospital bill he can't pay for treatment he received in Erbil. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

Esa Amir says he has two houses and a business back in Mosul to which he can’t return. Now, after having eye surgery in Erbil, he also has a hospital bill he can't pay.

Amir was one of 60,000 Christians living in Mosul when ISIS arrived. He says the militants gave people two days to leave and used those two days to rob as many as they could.

“They told the women to give their rings … if not, they will cut their fingers. We have been destroyed inside. That’s why we fled. We are frightened even in Erbil because they might attack.”

For the Christian leaders tending to this transplanted flock, the prospect of another exodus from the Middle East is a painful one. 

"Sometimes you feel paralyzed to discuss [convincing them to stay] because from one side they have the right,” says Archbishop Bashar Warda, a leader of the Chaldean church. 

“They have nothing. They’ve lost everything.

“But for me as a bishop when I see people are just leaving, it’s not easy.”

Kurdish leaders have said their famed Peshmerga soldiers will fight to take back the Christian villages, but Warda says no one will return to their homes if Mosul remains in the hands of ISIS. 

'It's the mentality'

He’s also not convinced arms alone are enough to defeat the militants.

At an internal displaced persons camp in Erbil in September, most of the 632 families were Christian. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

“ISIS is an ideology which is spread all over Mosul,” he says. “Only [300] to 400 entered Mosul and within one day they became 5,000 … so it’s the mentality.” 

Warda says he’s disappointed that “some of the more influential Islamic figures” didn’t come out with stronger condemnations of ISIS.

It is on an intellectual level that the battle must be won, he believes. 

“Maybe it would stop the activities,” he says of a physical fight for the city, “but it would not put an end to the mentality which is attracting so many young people, not from Mosul but from all over the world to come and fight.”

About the Author

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.