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Al-Qosh: A Reminder of the Uncertain Future of Assyrians in Iraq
By Florian Neuhof

Directly on the Kurdish frontline that stretches from Syria to Kirkuk lies Telskuf, a Christian town that has been abandoned by its inhabitants. ( Florian Neuhof/Al Arabiya)
The inhabitants of al-Qosh, a town 50 km to the north of Mosul, hastily fled when trouble first approached in 2004. But after the radical extremists withdrew without entering the town, many townsfolk returned, keeping alive a Christian presence that stretches back to the religion's early days.

The rise of ISIS is the latest threat to the minority, and their advance in 2014 uprooted some of Iraq's largest and oldest Christian communities. Thousands of Christians streamed out of Mosul when it fell to ISIS in June that year, and out of nearby Assyrian villages and towns. They now live in refugee camps in the autonomous Kurdish region, biding their time until their homes are liberated. (Given the pace at which Iraqi and Kurdish forces are rolling back the ISIS, they could be waiting a while.)

Iraq's Christians have had a tough time since the second Gulf War plunged the country into continuing chaos fueled by religious fanaticism. Repeatedly the target of terror, most have left, shrinking a once sizable community estimated at 1.5m in 2003 to as little as 200,000 now.

Time running out? Situated on the edge of the lush fields of the Nineveh plains, at the foot of the Bayhidhra mountains, al-Qosh looks like a town with its back to the wall. Nevertheless, it flourished for centuries, as the dilapidated, once-proud stone houses in its historic core testify. Several churches speak of a rich Chaldean Catholic tradition, and the ruins of a synagogue reminds of a long-departed Jewish community.

A monastery lies on the edge of town, and another is nestled in the craggy mountain range a couple of miles to the east. Established in the seventh century, the Rabban Hormizd monastery has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. Carved out of the steep slope of the mountain, its continued existence points to the resilience of the faithful.

Yet most people in al-Qosh believe that their time in Iraq might be drawing to a close.

Abuna Jibrail, the head priest of the monastery in the town, is pessimistic about Christianity's future in the country. For him the ISIS onslaught only continues a long and sad tradition of religious intolerance.

Mistrust runs deep. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is now trying to extend its control over parts of Nineveh, but it is hard to forget that its militia fled the area without a fight when ISIS approached, leaving Christians and Yazidis exposed. Only a hundred years ago the Kurds were willing accomplices in the genocide of the Armenian Christians that left a million people dead.

What does the future hold? Many of al-Qosh's residents have already migrated to Europe, the U.S. or elsewhere, and many of those left behind are preparing to leave.

A twenty minutes' drive towards Mosul offers a glimpse of what al-Qosh could look like if the exodus continues. Directly on the Kurdish frontline that stretches from Syria to Kirkuk lies Telskuf, a Christian town that has been abandoned by its inhabitants. Held by the Kurdish Peshmerga and a smattering of Christian militia, the town shows few signs of destruction, and no signs of life. An eerie silence cloaks the streets lined with neat residential houses, shops and restaurants.

In a church in the town Centre, a thick layer of dust has descended on the wooden benches and the prayer books still stuck in the back rests. Ceramic Jesus statures have been smashed up and back rooms have been plundered by Peshmerga looking of valuables. The altar remains untouched, and as does the wooden cross rising behind it. A few rays of light shine through the upper windows, in search of a congregation that may never return.

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