Days of Terror Iraqi Christians Live in Fear of ISIS

Christian Werner/ DER SPIEGEL

By in Qaraqosh, Iraq

Part 2: 'Iraq Is Disintegrating'

Salam sits in front of his house on the stairs and searches for a word on his mobile phone. "Division, partition" appears on his screen. "Iraq is disintegrating," Salam says in English. "And we will lose -- regardless whether we belong to the Arabs or the Kurds in the end." When asked why he thinks that, he responds, "If we remain aligned with Baghdad, then nothing will change in Qaraqosh. There won't be any streets, work or hope." And what would happen if the city were to shift its allegiance to Kurdistan? "Then we might get streets, but in exchange we would slip into renewed conflict just as soon as the Iraqi army were to attempt to reconquer the oil city of Kirkuk from the Kurds."

Salam says he doesn't want to become a refugee. He loves this tough, dusty city in which the churches are the only things that are complete. He also knows that his elderly parents, who suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure, would have a very difficult time fleeing. He's afraid because the images of the past keep reemerging -- ones of the burning buses that exploded in the city of Mosul in 2010, leaving 186 students dead or injured.

'ISIS Will Turn Our City into Hell'

Salam was one of them. He had been on his way to the university in Mosul where he studied electrical engineering. The bomb severely damaged his eyes, split his nose and lacerated his legs. Salam also knows the stories of other attacks on Christians in Iraq, particularly those against churches in Baghdad that have killed hundreds of people. "If the Peshmerga withdraw, Qaraqosh will be obliterated," he says. "The ISIS will turn our city into hell."

If you ask people in Qaraqosh if they would rather remain a part of Iraq or join a new Kurdistan, you often get a similar answer. "We want to be part of those who will protect us, give us freedom and love us," they say. "In other words: Kurdistan." Yohanna Petros Moshe, the archbishop of Mosul, who lives in Qaraqosh, recently wrote a letter to the prime minister of the Kurdish autonomous region thanking him for his help and for the Peshmerga fighters. "If we were to write a letter to Baghdad, we'd never get an answer," he says. "Only the Kurds express any interest in us. Perhaps it's because they were also oppressed."

After the meal, Salam plans to head over to the priests' seminary in the city center, where new Christian refugees arrive daily, bringing news from a paralyzed ghost town, where distrust prevails in all directions, guns are fired and men cover their eyes with their hands when women walk by without a headscarf. Here in the seminary, elderly men from Qaraqosh also sit in the shade under the trees discussing what they can do to defend their city. Young girls practice their songs for the upcoming Holy Communion.

As Salam enters into the seminary gate, the archbishop hurries over to him. He whispers into his ear because he doesn't want to spread panic. "ISIS representatives want to come to the city and visit me in two days," he says. They sent a messenger to deliver the news to him. The archbishop says he doesn't know how the terrorists intend to enter the city and whether it is even a good idea to talk to them. Salem says he doesn't know either. Nor does he know if the message is even real.

Adorned in his cassock, the archbishop takes a seat in a plastic chair. Men step up to kiss his ring. The archbishop has become the most important man in the city and it is he who is holding the community together. In his garden, he discusses water, electricity and the Internet with representatives of the church and the city -- all things that have been missing for days in Qaraqosh. Residents say the ISIS troops have cut water pipes and power lines in order to wear them down, and that's only the beginning.

In addition, the Iraqi central government in Baghdad has cut off Internet access in the region surrounding Mosul in order to prevent the terrorists from using it to further their propaganda. People say the "terrorists are already in the city, at least indirectly." "Fortunately we haven't seen them yet. Alhamdulillah - thanks and praise to god," locals say. It's now 4 p.m. and mass will begin at all churches in the city in another 30 minutes.

The bells announcing the afternoon services can be heard across the city. The Saint Jean church is a solid-brick building, ochre yellow like the desert and guarded by 10 volunteers from Qaraqosh carrying Kalashnikovs. Hundreds of people stream into the church, which smells of incense inside. Men beat kettle drums and cymbals, the congregation begins to sing and pray to counter the fear.

'The Terrorists Want To Destroy Us'

"You know what is happening around us," the archbishop intones in a booming voice, speaking Arabic. He stands at the pulpit holding the silver cross around his neck firmly in his hand. "The terrorists want to destroy us. We have to remain strong. Don't panic. We will be protected, but we also have to protect ourselves."

He stretches out his upward-facing palms. "Our values are love and peace. Let us rise up and pray together," he says. "Forgive us for our sins just as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us."

The people of Qaraqosh have always placed their lives in the hands of God. They're used to seeing bombs explode in their country. They know that people of other confessions would like to kill them. Still, the danger feels more present this time than ever before. They don't know what's in store for them and many fear a massacre. They are hoping for conciliation but are at the same time planning their escape.

Salam has taken a seat towards the rear of the church, bathed in the glow of the afternoon light as it flows through the colorful stained-glass. A smart, confident man with a light beard, he is also a dreamer -- a fan of Russell Crowe who would one day like to live in Melbourne. Instead, he has only rarely left his city and can recall every journey -- to the doctor or taking friends to the airport.

Salam also stands up to pray -- and begins to cry. Then, before the mass ends, he leaves the church, stepping outside into the streets of Qaraqosh. His city.

Translated from the German by Daryl Lindsey


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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Inglenda2 06/26/2014
1. It is not just the ISIS
Anybody who takes the trouble to observe what is happening in the world, could notice, that in no country where Islam is the leading force, Christians are able to feel really safe! To look the other way, when murder and oppression are a daily occurrences in such countries, may be regarded on the short term as diplomatically clever, by a number of western politicians, but to disregard the facts does not improve the situation. What we see in the Middle East now, might well happen in Europe in a few years time. To ignore such dangers, simply because they do not fit in with the ideals of modern party politics, is asking for trouble of a kind not known to Europeans since WW2.
turnipseed 06/27/2014
2. Christians in Iraq and the Middle East
Just as the dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 at the hands of American, French and British imperialists led to sosme groups being given self-determination and other groups eventual genocide or discrimination, the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire created the same problems in the Middle East. Now it is the turn of the Sunnis in Shiite areas and the Shiites in Sunni areas and the Christians everywhere to receive the blessings of nationalism mixed with Islamic fanaticism. The Austrians and Hungarians made many mistakes, as did the Ottoman Turks, but everyone was probably better off before their empires were destroyed.
spon-facebook-10000105403 06/29/2014
3. better off before...
what a spin. the troubles in and among newly formed europe and middle east countries were very much result of actions from American, French and British imperialists, as well as German, Ottoman, Austrian imperialists, and last but not least - Vatican expansionists! tell me when did some country in the east of europe attacked west europe country, for any reason? and, on the other hand, west europe had its share of wars and trouble among themselves, what make them differ? why do you think people gave their lives for, when it was as you mentioned, better off before...?
redbaron616 07/14/2014
4. Iraq - Before
Surprised that it is not mentioned in this article that Saddam Hussein protected and allowed Christian churches and worship. No so much the "democracy" which followed him. Notice that Assad of Syria also allowed Christianity in his country. One wonders if the West doesn't have a vendetta against any ruler allowing some religious freedom. Saudi Arabia doesn't have any relgious freedom at all, but they are viewed as a reliable ally. Go figure.
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