Iraq’s Christian heartland was finally freed from more than two years of ISIS occupation this fall as troops closed in on the country’s second-largest city of Mosul. But not before the destruction wrought on ancient Christian towns like Bartella and Qaraqosh was nearly absolute. There is little left now but broken tombstones, burnt churches, abandoned bomb factories and booby-trapped houses.
An estimated 100,000 Assyrian Christians fled their homes when ISIS arrived in mid-2014; most escaped into the Kurdish-controlled northern region of the country. It was the culmination of years of increased persecution, furthering the decline of what was once a large and flourishing community.
Many adherents now see little future for the religion here. Iraq’s Christian population has dropped from 1.4 million to less than 300,000 over the past two decades. Thousands joined the mass migrant flow to Europe, but in some cases arrived back in coffins after falling victim to the risky sea crossing.
Those who remain are often still displaced, living in caravan shelters or camps and struggling to feed their families or access medical care. There’s little chance for change. Job opportunities in the country are bleak, and the Kurdish north is in the midst of an economic crisis.
Many young Christians have put their future on hold until things stabilize – suspending their education or looking for schooling options outside the country. Some blame government forces for not protecting them from ISIS and have formed militias like the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU) to act as a defense force for the community and cities.
Even with ISIS on its back foot in Iraq and expelled from most of the Christian areas they once occupied, little hope remains for national stability, let alone safety for those Christians who remain in the country.
2016 marks the third year those who fled will celebrate Christmas away from their homes. While candles are lit in what remains of the churches destroyed by ISIS this year, much will need to be done before former residents can be assured a safe return.