Dis­placed Iraqi Chris­tians re­turn­ing for Christ­mas

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Hamza Hen­dawi

For the 300 Chris­tians who braved rain and wind 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 U.S. 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’ 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, Sunni 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’s 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 U.S.-led in­va­sion, about 500,000 are left.

“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 any­time soon.

Pho­tos by Cen­giz Yar, The As­so­ci­ated Press

About 300 Iraqi Chris­tians at­tend Christ­mas Eve Mass in the Assyr­ian Ortho­dox church of Mart Sh­moni in their home­town of Bartella.

Iraqi forces guard the en­trance to a Christ­mas Eve Mass at the Assyr­ian Ortho­dox church of Mart Sh­moni on Satur­day.

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