Iraq’s Last Christian Soldiers

Iraq’s Christians are fleeing, but a brave few stay to build—and fight.

03.13.16 5:01 AM ET

ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan — Martin Banni is the last of his family in Iraq. The 25-year-old Christian fled his village of Keremles when the so-called Islamic State invaded the Nineveh Plains in the summer of 2014. Today he lives in a camp in Erbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdistan Region, while the rest of his family lives in San Diego.

The thought of one day working to preserve his ancient community is what keeps him here. “Abroad we might have safety,” he says. “But we will disappear.”

It takes a lot these days to convince Iraqi Christians they have a future in their homeland. Of the estimated 125,000 who recently sought refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan—an autonomous region in northern Iraq—tens of thousands have already emigrated.

While many predict the elimination altogether of Christianity in Iraq, Church leaders are doing their best to push back. Beyond managing the humanitarian need for their congregations, church groups are investing in longer-term projects as concrete symbols of hope, aiming to give those torn between their faith and their homeland reason to stay.

The Catholic University of Erbil—the first such Catholic institution of higher learning in Iraq—taught its first courses this year, even as builders continued work on the new campus on the outskirts of Ankawa, Erbil's Christian neighbourhood.

Banni is among the first students, taking a 10-week English language proficiency course. On weekday afternoons he and eight other students, five of whom were also displaced from their homes, study toward the IELTS exam—a prerequisite for tertiary study at many overseas institutions. Banni himself dreams of studying abroad, perhaps philosophy. But unlike many of his classmates, he is also determined to return. “I will come back to rebuild my country,” he says.

Initially the university will have facilities for 1,500 students, although it hopes to accommodate up to 7,000 within five years. Vice-Chancellor Salahaddin Abdul Messiah says the courses offered will equip participants with skills to find jobs or advance in their current profession. Beyond English, the initial courses offered will include business administration, accounting, economics, Oriental studies, network engineering, and computer sciences.

The university alone won’t keep Christians in Iraq. “It's a statement of hope though,” says the Archbishop of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Erbil, Bashar Matti Warda. “That no matter what happened—in Mosul and the Nineveh plains—that it will not take from us our faith.”

As we talked in a formal meeting room at the Saint Joseph Cathedral in Ankawa, Warda said the university is part of a larger project in which the church is trying to do more than just provide basic needs for its congregation.

“I hope that building schools, building clinics, building a university, building a hospital would be a reason to convince them to stay, to tell them that we could make our lives better together here,” he said.

The 46-year-old is familiar with displacement, having fled his hometown of Baghdad in 2007. Before the U.S. invasion in 2003, there were about 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Over the decade which followed the overthrow of President Saddam Hussein, over a million Iraqi Christians left. Having experienced the worst of Iraq’s sectarian violence, Warda says he remains optimistic that the Kurdistan Region will remain a safe haven: “The past in Baghdad was worse by all means.”

But so far there’s no sign that the exodus of Christians has slowed. Warda estimates that of the 20,000 families displaced from the Nineveh Plains, some 6,000 have already left the country.

A few hundred meters from the new Catholic university, the Ashty 2 Camp houses 1,150 Christian families. In January, 20 families left for overseas, says assistant camp manager Ibrahim Shaba Lallo. He expects the numbers leaving to rise as the weather improves. While some families are registering for resettlement with the United Nations Refugee Agency in Jordan and Lebanon, many more are relying on smugglers to ferry them across the Mediterranean. “We expect that by April hundreds of families will be leaving every month,” says Lallo.

In effect the camps have become a clearinghouse for those attempting to get to Europe and a place of last resort for the financially exhausted. Down a muddy lane from Lallo’s office, Bews Shaba Rafu, his wife and six children recently moved into a cabin after its previous occupants moved to Lebanon. The 64-year-old used to work as a government security guard at a church in Qaraqosh, known as Iraq’s Christian capital, but fled with his family in August 2014 when ISIS occupied the town. “We had a house, food, stability, we were happy,” he remembers. “We were lower middle class, by the grace of god.”

Their savings didn’t last and they moved to the camp after running out of money for paying $500 a month rent for a house in Ankawa. Church organizations have funded camps with prefabricated cabins rather than tents, but crowding is still a challenge, says Rafu. “The cabin is too small for eight people and we don’t have a refrigerator or a television anymore.”

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His wife, Junbad, has relatives in Germany but she says they are unlikely to go there. “Everyone else is leaving, but we can’t,” she says. Her 24-year-old severely disabled daughter is unable travel. Options are few. “We don't have a future here,” said Junbad.

Across Ankawa, Archbishop Yohanna Petros Mouche of the Syriac Catholic Church agrees that the future will be dim for families like the Rafus unless more is done. Nearly half his parish has already left, with just 26,000 remaining in Iraqi Kurdistan, despite his best efforts.

The snowy-haired 65-year-old says his church has opened 12 schools, several clinics and hospitals, and job training programs for barbers and bakers. “All this is to convince them that there is someone thinking of them,” he says.

Nearly all of the 9,000 school-aged children of his congregation are receiving an education. In contrast, last year the World Bank estimated that 70 percent of displaced Iraqi children are not enrolled in any school.

But these are all stop-gap measures, says Mouche. The real issue is the need to liberate Christian villages from ISIS control. “The longer it takes to liberate these areas, the more people will migrate, and their hope of returning will become weaker,” he says. “If our people fail to free our territory our hope will fade and it will be impossible to think about going back.”

Two-and-a-half hours’ drive northwest of Erbil, men in fatigues are practicing drills at a newly constructed military base. The eldest marching on the unpaved parade ground are in their sixties, the youngest in their teens. None carry a weapon—not yet. All are determined to return to their homes.

Unlike other Christian towns, Al Qosh never fell to the Islamic extremists, but from here the Nineveh Plains open out in a green swathe towards occupied Christian villages.The ISIS stronghold of Mosul lies 25 miles to the south.

Finishing his lunch inside a cabin on the base is Behnam Abed al Maseh, the commander of the Nineveh Protection Units, one of several recently formed Christian militias. His 300 men have uniforms but only a handful of weapons, says the 65-year-old grandfather. They are hoping for international support and for the chance to liberate their homes. “The frustration is always present, but we insist on going back to our areas,” he says.

One of the few men with a rifle stands watch as gray clouds form over the camp. Athro Kado was a Syriac language teacher at a primary school in Al Qosh. He learned English, he says, from listening to Celine Dion songs.

With rain threatening to fall, Kado explains why he took up arms. “We are bleeding now,” he says. “But if we free our lands, fewer people will leave.”