Dis­placed Iraqis head home for ‘wartime’ Christ­mas

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

For the 300 Chris­tians who braved wind and rain to at­tend Christ­mas’s Eve Mass in their home­town, the cer­e­mony evoked both hol­i­day cheer and grim re­minders of the war rag­ing around their north­ern Iraqi town, and the dis­tant prospect of mov­ing back home. Dis­placed when the Is­lamic State group seized their town, Bartella, in Au­gust 2014, the Chris­tians were bused into town from Ir­bil, cap­i­tal of the self-ruled Kur­dish re­gion where they have lived for more than two years, to at­tend the lunchtime ser­vice in the Assyr­ian Or­tho­dox church of Mart Sh­moni.

Torched by IS mil­i­tants, church-su­per­vised vol­un­teers re­cently cleaned it up af­ter govern­ment forces re­took Bartella as part of an on­go­ing cam­paign to lib­er­ate the nearby city of Mo­sul and sur­round­ing ar­eas in Nin­eveh prov­ince. But the church is still miss­ing its icons, elec­tri­cal wiring hangs per­ilously from its ceil­ing and most light fix­tures are gone. The head­less statue of a late pa­tri­arch stands in the front yard, its pedestal sur­rounded by shards of glass.

On Satur­day, women joy­ously ul­u­lated when they stepped into the mar­ble-walled church. Almost ev­ery­one held a lit can­dle. Many took pho­tos with their mo­bile phones. A hand­ful of gas heaters were brought in, but they did lit­tle to warm the place on a wet and windy De­cem­ber day. For many of them, the sight of their home­town in almost com­plete ruin was shock­ing. Only a few homes in the once vi­brant town of some 25,000 peo­ple stand un­scathed. Most have been dam­aged by shelling or black­ened by fire.

On one street wall, IS’s black ban­ner re­mains vis­i­ble un­der the white paint. Next to it, some­one wrote: “Christ is the light of the world. Bartella is Chris­tian.”“Our joy is big­ger than our sad­ness,” said univer­sity stu­dent Nevine Ibrahim, 20, who was in Bartella Satur­day for the first time since she, her par­ents and four sib­lings left in 2014. They found their house badly dam­aged. Ev­ery­thing they owned was gone. “I don’t think we can re­turn. The house can be fixed but the pain in­side us can­not,” she said, seated among three of her sib­lings. “Who will pro­tect us?”

Half­way through the ser­vice, con­ducted in Assyr­ian and Ara­bic, it be­came some­thing of a wartime mass. Roughly a dozen US mil­i­tary ser­vice­men and a 100-man con­tin­gent from the Iraqi mil­i­tary led by sev­eral top gen­er­als de­scended on the church in a show of sol­i­dar­ity. Un­like their Amer­i­cans coun­ter­parts, the Iraqi troops came armed. Iraqi sol­diers with one wear­ing a skull-face bal­a­clava-searched peo­ple com­ing into the church. In­side, sol­diers frisked any­one mov­ing close to the Iraqi gen­er­als, who ar­rived in some two dozen ar­mored SUVs and Humvees.

The dis­tant thud of ex­plo­sions could be heard af­ter mass. But none of that seemed to dampen the wor­ship­pers’ joy­ous spirit. The sol­diers pho­tographed each other and took self­ies. Many of them held lit can­dles, and the con­gre­ga­tion warmly ap­plauded when Bishop Mussa Al-Shamani thanked the Iraqi mil­i­tary for “lib­er­at­ing” Bartella. The Chris­tians of Nin­eveh are mem­bers of an an­cient and once-vi­brant com­mu­nity. They en­joyed pro­tec­tion un­der Sad­dam Hus­sein, but their num­bers rapidly dwin­dled af­ter the U.S.-led in­va­sion of Iraq top­pled the regime of the late dic­ta­tor in 2003.

Since 2003, mil­i­tants have tar­geted Chris­tians and their churches, ter­ror­iz­ing the com­mu­nity and forc­ing many of its mem­bers to flee to the West, neigh­bor­ing na­tions or the north­ern Kur­dish re­gion. IS’ on­slaught across north­ern Iraq in 2014 dev­as­tated the unique com­mu­ni­ties of Chris­tian-ma­jor­ity towns like Karam­lis, Bartella and Qaraqosh all in the Nin­eveh plains. Of the es­ti­mated 1.5 mil­lion Chris­tians who lived in Iraq on the eve of the US-led in­va­sion, about 500,000 are left.

De­fi­ance

“This is the mass of de­fi­ance,” Assyr­ian pri­est Ya­coub Saady told the con­gre­ga­tion at the end of the ser­vice. “We, the Chris­tians, are the old­est com­po­nent of this coun­try. We are stay­ing put and no power can force us to leave.” His words, how­ever, were more hope­ful than re­al­is­tic. The Bartella Chris­tians at­tend­ing Satur­day’s Christ­mas Mass spoke of the com­mu­nity’s woes and their slim hopes of re­turn­ing home.

With the cen­tral Bagh­dad govern­ment strapped for cash be­cause of low oil prices and the spi­ral­ing cost of the war against IS, it is un­likely that mone­tary com­pen­sa­tion will be dis­pensed to res­i­dents who lost their homes, or that large scale re­con­struc­tion will be un­der­taken in Bartella any­time soon. Res­i­dents also have deep se­cu­rity con­cerns, aris­ing mostly from the Iraqi mil­i­tary and se­cu­rity forces’ melt­down in the face of IS’s blitz across north­ern and west­ern Iraq in the sum­mer of 2014. “Peo­ple must first be com­pen­sated and ser­vices like wa­ter and elec­tric­ity re­stored be­fore they come back to live here,” said Ram­sen Matti, a 28-year-old ac­coun­tant who now lives in Ir­bil with his wife and their only child, a daugh­ter born in Bartella less than two months be­fore they fled the town. Al­tar boy Masar Jalal ar­rived with his fa­ther on Satur­day, the 16-year-old’s first visit to Bartella since he fled with his fam­ily to Ir­bil in 2014. “I cried for what has be­come of the town,” said Jalal. “I will only come back to live here if there is se­cu­rity.”

He found some of his old clothes when he vis­ited the fam­ily home, but the fur­ni­ture was gone. “The clothes I found are too small for me now, but I also found a mug with my photo that a cousin of mine snapped. No one took that.” —AP

QARAQOSH, Iraq: A US sol­dier shakes hands with an Iraqi boy dur­ing a Christ­mas Eve ser­vice at the Saint John’s (Mar Yo­hanna) church in this town (also known as Ham­daniya), 30 km east of Mo­sul, yes­ter­day. —AFP

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