As the coalition offensive to retake Mosul from Da’esh continues, various communities displaced by the group’s terror have sought to return to their historic and cultural communities. Included within this group is Iraq’s Christian population, many of whom left home in Ninewa at the start of the conflict in June of 2014. While Iraqi and American forces continue to close in on the heart of Da’esh in Iraq, the newly liberated areas outside of the city have seen the return of Iraqi Christians, some of whom continue to fight for their homeland as Da’esh’s influence wanes in the region.
In Qaraqosh, the story of Syriac Catholics standing up to radical extremism has been one of hardship and hope. Syriac priests returning to the community’s Church of the Immaculate Conception found their place of worship, “blackened by fire, [its] alter vandalized,” and its bell tower “disfigured by cannon fire, and the bell itself gone, snatched from its chain.” Additionally, efforts to completely free the town from Da’esh influence have been hindered by the group’s sustained presence in the region; Da’esh has utilized suicide car bombs following the beginning of the Mosul offensive, and the area still sees its fair share of sniper and mortar fire.
However, despite these difficulties, the Qaraqosh community remains resolute in reestablishing their church and defending the community. A local Christian militia, the Nineveh Protection Units, has assisted the Iraqi army in combating terror, manifesting some additional progress in fully liberating the town. Most inspiringly, local religious figureheads were able to affix a makeshift cross to the roof of the church, in addition to leading local militias in worship for the first time since the start of the conflict.
Elsewhere in Nineveh, displaced Christians who fled Da’esh found refuge at the Mar Mattai Monastery northeast of the city. Defended by the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, Iraqi Christians left both Mosul and areas immediately outside of the city en masse for the monastery, in search of basic necessities and housing. As Da’esh further established itself within northern Iraq from mid 2014 to 2015, Iraqi Syriacs could only wait patiently within the sanctum of Mar Mattai, assisted by monks comprising a 1600 year old community based at the monastery.
With the influx of forces combating Da’esh in the area, local Christians have been able to resettle in the villages surrounding the Alfaf Mountain, where the monastery is based. The peace remains tenuous at the best, with the community occasionally needing to defend itself from encroaching Da’esh fighters; however, while the entirety of the Syriac population has yet to return, many have reestablished themselves within their ancestral homeland.
While optimism prevails within these enclaves north of Mosul, refugees living outside of Iraq often feel differently about returning. Some Christian refugees living in Amman, Jordan, resolutely refuse to ever return to Iraq, seeking asylum in countries like Australia. According to one mother, “we paid the price and I don’t want to go back in a few years and go through it again.” Despite the progress of the United States-Iraqi coalition, IDPs and refugees will undoubtedly live with the legacy of Da’esh for years to come.
By Connor McInerney
Photo Credit: The Daily Beast