QARAQOSH, Iraq — Despite their hometowns having been recently freed from the Islamic State, the Christians of Iraq are still in a state of mourning as Christmas approaches.
Old towns on the edge of Mosul, where Christians lived for many centuries, have become wastelands. Most churches are badly damaged and ransacked. When a liberating soldier hoists a cross atop a church, or a priest returns to take stock of the losses and light a candle, the scene feels more sad than hopeful considering the widely felt sentiments of displaced Christians that they will never go home.
Some of the early gains in the campaign to retake Mosul from the Islamic State, which began in mid-October and is grinding into its third month, were the liberations of historically Christian villages and towns, including Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city, and Bartella.
There were early feelings of jubilation. Some families returned to celebrate alongside some of the Christian militia fighters who participated in the battles. But it quickly became apparent that rebirth for the Christian community in Iraq is unlikely, given how few seem to want to return.
“There is no guarantee that we can go back and be safe,” said Haseeb Saleem, 65, a Christian from the Mosul area who left more than two years ago and now lives in the Kurdish city of Irbil, the regional capital.
Saleem echoed a deeply felt belief among Iraq’s minorities that the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, by removing a dictatorship that at least promised them security, marked the beginning of the community’s demise in their own country.
“Before 2003, believe me, my neighbor didn’t know what I was,” he said. “No one could ask, are you Sunni? Or Shia? Or Muslim? Or Christian?”
In 2003, an estimated 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq. By the time the Islamic State swept through northern Iraq in 2014, that figure had fallen to roughly 400,000.
Since then, many thousands more have left the country or fled to the relative safety of the Kurdish region. There, in Irbil, Christians are clustered in the neighborhood of Ainkawa, and many of the displaced were taken in by local churches. The neighborhood is perhaps the last center of a vibrant Christian culture in Iraq; shops these days are filled with Christmas decorations, and it is always easy to find wine or pork.
When the Islamic State seized Mosul and outlying areas in the summer of 2014, the militants stole the money, jewelry, and property of Christians, and gave them a choice if they wished to stay: either convert to Islam or pay a special tax. Nearly every Christian left home and joined Iraq’s growing community of the displaced.
But there were two Christians, two women in their late 70s, who stayed. Cut off from their families during the chaos of two summers ago, Badrea Gigues and Zarifa Bakoos found themselves left behind in Qaraqosh. Each had ailing husbands.
After their hometown fell to the Islamic State, their husbands died. The two widows, old friends, found themselves living together, and facing together the brutality of new rulers who stole their money and demanded they renounce their faith and convert to Islam.
“Sometimes we prayed, and sometimes we cried,” said Gigues, who is blind and largely deaf, in a recent interview after Qaraqosh was liberated and the security forces found her. “We talked about our husbands, our memories, our children, what it was like when we were young.”
The women said that Islamic State fighters forced them to spit on a cross and to stomp on a picture of the Virgin Mary.
‘There is no guarantee that we can go back and be safe.’
“Sorry, Mary, that I did that,” Bakoos recalled thinking. “Please forgive me.”
Even for former residents of Qaraqosh who might wish to return and stay, it is not yet safe. Rubble and destruction are everywhere. Weeks after the battle to retake the city, Christian militia fighters who secured the town are still on alert for possible counterattacks.
The Christians of Iraq may have lost much to the Islamic State — houses, gold, money. But some say the experience has strengthened their faith.
“They can destroy our houses, our things, but not our souls,” said Huda Khudhur, a nun from Qaraqosh.