Iraqi Christian children hold olive branches as they read religious texts outside St. Joseph Church in Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Region. Photo: AFP
By JUDIT NEURINK
ALQOSH, Iraq – “We were afraid of being kidnapped,” says Nanith, a 43-year-old Christian, explaining why he and his family fled Syria to return to their native Iraq. “We mainly feared the Free Syrian Army (FSA),” explained his 40-year-old wife Rawnaq.
The couple was among the Iraqi Christian community in Syria, which in 2010 numbered about 100,000. Most fled there after the 2003 US-led invasion, that toppled Saddam Hussein, unleashed a wave of violence, part of it against Iraq’s ancient Christian community.
But after the popular resistance against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad erupted into a civil war just over two years ago, those Christian refugees this time found themselves caught in the fight between radical Islamists allied with the FSA, and government forces.
According to official figures, overall about 76,000 Iraqi refugees have recently returned to Iraq, among them Nanith and his wife, who are originally from Baghdad but now settled in the Christian town of Alqosh in Iraq’s multi-ethnic northern Nineveh province.
Many Christians in Syria looked to Assad’s regime for protection, but with the embattled president himself fighting for survival, they found themselves unprotected, and vulnerable.
Returnees to Iraq say that their community itself became a target after a group of Assyrian Christians in Syria’s Kurdish region sided with the rebels. “We were seen as taking sides,” Rawnaq explains.
In the lawlessness in Syria that has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives, a Christian gold trader was kidnapped, released only after a hefty ransom; at the University of Aleppo a Christian was stabbed to death after a quarrel; more recently, Syrian media reported the kidnapping of two orthodox bishops who were traveling near Aleppo.
Nanith and his family, who lived in the Syrian Kurdish town of Qamishli, say that Islamic militants began threatening Christians. He recounts how a rich Armenian Christian received an envelope with a bullet, together with a demand for $200.000 dollars if he wanted to stay alive.
“He left everything behind and took his family to Armenia,” says Nanith, who himself eventually took his family back to his father’s birthplace in Alqosh, in Iraq’s so-called “disputed territories” that are claimed by both the Arab central government in Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the north. Alqosh is governed by the KRG.
Nanith fled Iraq, after twice deserting from Saddam’s army. He escaped to Syria after receiving a two-year jail term for desertion. In Syria, he was helped by the UN’s refugee agency.
But after Saddam’s fall, he lost his refugee status in Syria. “Because we were no longer considered refugees, we lost our status and our papers,” Nanith explains.
The battles in Aleppo affected some of his children who were studying there. Meanwhile, Nanith and his eldest sons lost their jobs, and the family fell to penury, struggling for food and fuel. “We spent a winter without any heating,” Rawnaq recalls.
Like many Syrian Christians who fled the violence, their Iraqi brothers mainly went to Lebanon on the way out to the West. Those Iraqis who could safely return to Baghdad did so. Alqosh only houses two families who fled Syria.