End of an Era

The Tragic Exodus of Iraq’s Christians

All but defenseless against ISIS and suffering from punishing shortages of vital resources, Iraq’s ancient Christian communities are taking their only option: leave.

Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty

BARTILLA, IRAQ—The Christians of Bartilla are wondering if these are the final days. Since the second century and the origins of Christianity in the Nineveh plains of northern Iraq, they have been unfortunate in their neighbors, suffering attacks and massacres at the hands of Persians, Iraqi Muslims and Kurds. And if geography is destiny, then it is surprising they are still here, but for how much longer they aren’t sure.

Destiny is barking again as far as the town’s Assyrian Christians are concerned. A mere 10-minute drive from Bartilla and other small neighboring Christian towns, jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have set up their most advanced position on the eastern side of the city of Mosul. There are a dozen Kurdish fighters manning an opposing sunbaked checkpoint. Unsurprisingly, despite the protective presence in the area of other Kurdish peshmerga forces, the 16,000 Christians of Bartilla are wondering if they will face a terminal assault.

Standing at the Peshmerga checkpoint, I wave at the jihadist frontier post but see no reciprocal gesture coming from the other side. The representatives of the (Muslim) second coming apparently have the gaze of W.B. Yeats’ rough beast—“blank and pitiless as the sun.” “We have had no contact with them,” says a Kurdish fighter about the jihadist guards two or three hundred meters away. The Kurd squints at me and asks if I want to go to Mosul. And then makes a slashing gesture across his throat and laughs.

In Bartilla, Fr. Binham Lallou of the Chaldean Catholic Church, who was born in the down-at-heel, dusty town and returned after studying in Lebanon for the priesthood, says: “We are scared there is going to be a disaster. People are afraid of the jihadists and afraid of the Iraqi government, maybe they will come with airplanes and bomb here.”

Sitting in his small study, part of the complex of the church of St. George, one of four remaining churches in the town whose Christian population has almost halved since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Fr. Lallou says many of his parishioners are talking about fleeing. As the priest in cassock and collar explains the history of Bartilla and the challenges Christians here face, an old scarfed woman shuffles in with a small cup and a pot of coffee, standing before me, the priest and translator while we take turns drinking the thick dark liquid as if we are partaking in a secular communion.

Above Fr. Lallou’s there is a plaque with words from St. Matthew in Arabic script. “Therefore go and makes disciples of all Nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” But the Assyrian Church here is not triumphant; it has been on the defensive for decades. Since the 1990s, hostility from the government of Saddam Hussein—and, since his fall, sectarian killings and bombings and an increasingly aggressive Islamist political culture—have forced two-thirds of Iraq’s Christian to flee overseas, slashing the population from 1.2 million to 300,000.

The Nineveh plains, the original Assyrian heartland, where Christians speak Assyrian as their first language and Arabic their second, has been also experienced an exodus despite Christian leaders earmarking the strip of land sandwiched between Mosul and Iraqi Kurdistan as a possible place of refuge when sectarian attacks in Basra and Baghdad mounted after the American invasion. Since 2003, Christian families started to arrive from the south looking to settle on extended family holdings, but many moved on because of the depressed economy, partly a consequence of the Nineveh plains remaining disputed territory between the Iraq government and the Kurds. The Christian exodus, though, started during the Iran-Iraq war because many locals had been trading with Iran and their businesses collapsed during the conflict.

The Christians here are now on high alert, as they are in the nearby towns of Al-Qoush and Bashiqa. Entering Bartilla we are closely questioned at a checkpoint by members of a self-defense force of 500 unpaid part-timers. The force, known as the Church Guards, was formed after simultaneous bombings in August 2004 of six churches in Baghdad and Mosul, the first in a wave of bombings of nearly 30 other churches throughout Iraq.

“We cooperate with the Peshmerga,” says Sabah Bihnam, one of the guards and a member of the Popular Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Council. In the guards’ headquarters a short-wave radio crackles. The television tuned to the news beams images of thousands of Shia Muslims determinedly marching in lockstep in Baghdad, volunteers to a call for a show of strength by the powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mehdi Army fought the U.S. in Iraq for years.

It isn’t clear whether the Shia show of strength will alarm the jihadists and Sunni Muslims backing them in an uprising that is dismembering Iraq and threatening all-out sectarian civil war. But it is raising the sectarian temperature. The portly, balding Sabah, a father of two, glances nervously at the television. “We are afraid more now than at anytime before. There is a Peshmerga force in the area but we don’t know if we can rely on them. They say they will protect us but maybe they won’t, maybe they will run away like the Iraqi army did in Mosul,” he adds. My Kurdish translator bristles at the remark casting doubt on the pledges and martial prowess of the Kurds, who have sent reinforcements to the area an hour’s drive from Erbil, the capital of semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.

The threat from Da’esh, as locals call ISIS, isn’t the only challenge for the townsfolk. Bartilla is laboring with an immediate crisis with basic services. Since the jihadist takeover of Mosul, 13 miles away, there has been no running water and no mains electricity in the town. Local generators can only provide an intermittent service for 10 hours a day, and they aren’t strong enough to power the pumps to deliver the water. Locals are using the wells, but they are contaminated.

“We can’t live in this way—without water and energy,” complains 52-year-old Marak, a government worker. “The primary things we need for life aren’t here. Unless things change, everyone will have to go and the Christian presence that has been here for centuries will cease. We will have to leave. We don’t want to, but what else can we do?”

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The sentiment is shared by a group of women whose poor families are sharing rooms around a courtyard nearby. They shout to be heard, competing to complain to a foreigner about how impossible things have become. First, they protest in the sweltering heat as children crowd around about the lack of water and energy and a gas shortage across northern Iraq that has sent prices skyrocketing—when you can get it at all.

“We can’t go on with our normal lives,” says a matriarch who gives her age as “80 to 85.” (It’s unclear whether she is being coy or doesn’t know exactly how old she is.) says, “We are under a lot of stress, our psychology is not good.”

Another focuses on the jihadist threat. Wafi, a 40-year-old mother of five, worries that the Kurds will abandon them. “The Peshmerga say they will protect us but we don’t know what will happen. There were security forces in Mosul too,” she says. Wearing pink pajama trousers, a blue T-shirt and purple sandals, she holds a cup of water for her youngest child to sip from.

But the Christians aren’t the only sectarian group in Bartilla and its environs who feel beleaguered. The worries and challenges are the same just outside Bartilla in the village of Khazna, inhabited by Shiite Shabaks, a Kurdish-speaking minority. The village of 10,000 has suffered its fair share of sectarian violence. In 2009, two blasts killed 34 people and damaged nearly 200 hundred houses. The bombing was the first known action of the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq—their first piece of handiwork after they joined up with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

Another crowd—men, this time—swarm to share their fears. Many of the boys pushing in to glimpse a foreign journalist are wearing brightly colored replica football shirts of European teams, mainly Spanish or French clubs. “Barcelona or Real Madrid?” demands one lad. And they chatter about the World Cup, as the Christians do down the road.

But aside from international football, the only other things they share with their Christian neighbors is fear of Da’esh and distrust of each other. Despite the fact that both face an existential challenge in the shape of the jihadists, there is no collaboration between the two communities—and in the case of the Shiites, little with the Kurds either.

“We asked the Peshmerga for new guns, like the Christians have, but they refused us,” says Mahmoud, a 50-year-old retired building worker. After the 2009 bombing the Shabaks of Khazna wanted to set up a tribal militia force but the Kurds, who patrolled the area with the Iraqi army, blocked it, arguing it was a recipe for more sectarian conflict. Now the Shabaks have few guns—though one guard sported a battered AK-47.

The jihadists claim they have killed 1,700 Shia in Mosul since their takeover of the city. Mahmoud says he has heard 300 Shia and Christian inmates of the prison were killed. “There are plenty of people here ready to fight,” he adds. Asked if he would like Iranian Shiite forces to come he responds: “We don’t want Iran or America, but if they are serious about helping, they should arm us.”

In Bartilla, Fr. Lallou shakes his head over the plight they are in. For him flight is not an option. “Now I don’t know if Christians will remain here. But leaving is not a solution. I am a son of Bartilla. I don’t have any value without my home. I won’t have value if I live in Sweden or somewhere else. This my home, this is my place.”