x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Christians in Iraq lose faith in state protection

Terrified in the face of increasing sectarian attacks, many members of minority group feel they have no choice but to flee their homeland.

Neysan Jibro Hermes with his grandson, Omeid, 14, and wife, Choni Musa, Iraqi Christians living as refugees in Syria.
Phili Sands / The National
Neysan Jibro Hermes with his grandson, Omeid, 14, and wife, Choni Musa, Iraqi Christians living as refugees in Syria. Phili Sands / The National

DAMASCUS // Even when his young grandchildren were injured in a bombing four years ago, at the height of Baghdad's bloodshed, Neysan Jibro Hermes had refused to leave Iraq, preferring to stay in the country of his birth than to exist as just another impoverished refugee elsewhere.

But, last month, he and his family arrived in the Syrian capital Damascus, finally the refugees they had hoped never to be, and part of a growing number of Iraqi Christians fleeing their homes in the face of sectarian violence.

"We didn't leave before. We didn't have the money, and it's hard to walk away from your home," said Mr Hermes, 68, sitting in the small flat he now rents in Dwela, a Damascus suburb. "We had lived in fear for years, but not to this extent. Then the fear started getting worse for us and you cannot live that way, so we had to leave."

The October massacre in Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation church, when 58 worshippers were killed and 100 others wounded after being taken hostage by al Qa'eda militants was, for Mr Hermes, the turning point. He and his wife, Choni Musa, waited for a few days after the killings to see what the reaction was. Hearing about subsequent attacks on Christians, they concluded the government's security forces were unable to protect them. Winter clothes were quickly packed into suitcases and, together with their sons and three grandchildren - including Omeid, 14 and Media, 10, both wounded by bomb shrapnel back in 2006 - they left Baghdad, heading west to the safety of Syria.

They were not alone in deciding that, after years of war, the time to run had come at last. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, at least 1,000 Christian families have fled the Iraqi capital and the northern city of Mosul since September, in what it described in a UN report last week as a "slow and steady exodus".

Many have moved to Iraq's northern Kurdish enclave, where the autonomous authorities have offered them a safe haven until stability returns to the south. Another 133 families have registered with the UN in neighbouring Syria, which has its own sizeable Christian community and an open-door policy to Iraq's refugees. The UN in Jordan registered 109 newly arrived Iraqi Christian families in November, double the figure recorded at the same time last year.

Some Iraqi Christians have even fled to Beirut since the church massacre, the UN said, despite Lebanon's own problems with instability and propensity for internecine warfare.

"In Iraq, the strong eat the weak," said Mr Hermes. "We are a small community and there is no one to defend us."

He angrily dismissed calls by Iraqi politicians, Christian and Muslim alike, that Christian families defy threats against them and stay in Baghdad, rather than abandoning their ancestral homeland.

"It's easy for them to say that," he said. "They have bodyguards, they have the money for a security team to protect them and their families. Politicians are rich and they are safe, we are poor, we walk in the street alone. It will take one bullet to kill me."

Formerly residents of Baghdad's Karrada neighbourhood, the Hermes family made a series of moves inside the Iraqi capital, seeking safety, before eventually leaving. As they were packing to come to Syria, their friends and neighbours were contemplating a similar step.

"There are some Christians who will stay in Iraq even if they are cut to pieces," said Peter, another Christian refugee in Dwela who asked to be identified only by his first name. "They are stubborn, they adjust themselves to the situation and I admire them, but it's not something that everyone can do, especially if you have children. Many are now leaving and they do not want to go back."

Iraqi Christian leaders estimate some 400,000 members of their community remain in the country, down from a pre-war figure of 1.4 million.

In the Christian villages on the outskirts of Mosul - long one of Iraq's deadliest cities - more families are preparing to take flight.

"We have about 80 families from Mosul living in the churches here now, they ran from Mosul because it was getting to dangerous," said Abu Zaid, a resident of al Qush. "Most of them are planning to leave to other countries, mainly Turkey. They are finished with trying to live in Iraq, they want a new start."

Abu Zaid said he also hoped to leave the country, but was unable to pay the bribes needed to get travel documents from Iraq's infamously corrupt government bureaucracies.

"The people who can get passports are now asking for US$2,000 [Dh7,346] per person, and there are four of us so I just cannot afford to do it. So, we'll stay here I suppose and hope it's okay," he said.