Iraqi Christians were forced to flee their towns and villages across the Nineveh Plains and from the city of Mosul in the summer of 2014 when Islamic State (ISIS) militants launched a lightening campaign through the region.
The jihadists gave Christian residents of their newly conquered territories three options: convert to Islam, pay a heavy religious tax, or die. The majority chose to flee, taking refuge in the Kurdistan Region.
Thousands flocked to Ankawa -- a predominantly Christian neighbourhood in the north of Erbil city. Here, churches like Mar Yousif opened their doors, becoming makeshift camps until the government and aid agencies stepped in to build facilities for the displaced.
Since the liberation of Mosul and the Nineveh Plains from ISIS control in 2017, Christian families have faced a new dilemma: should they go back and try to rebuild their homes destroyed in the fighting, emigrate abroad, or start over in the Kurdistan Region.
Bashar Warda, the archbishop of Erbil's Chaldean Catholic Church, believes Christianity can only survive in its diminished state in Iraq if displaced families are offered housing assistance.
Earlier in March, Rudaw reported on the case of dozens of Iraqi Christian families living above Neshtiman Bazaar, near Erbil's historic citadel. They have been living there rent-free for several years thanks to the charity of the building owner Nizar Hanah.
However, since the liberation of their towns and villages, Hanah has requested the families move on -- raising fears they could be left homeless.
Speaking to Rudaw on Wednesday at the Cathedral of Mar Yousif, Ankawa, Bishop Warda explained how the church has supported families like those living above Neshtiman Bazaar and what donors can do to help rehouse them.
Rudaw: What will happen to the families living above Neshtiman Bazaar?
Bishop Warda: From day one of arriving here we really worked hard to take care of these cases on a large scale and in a smaller case. Neshtiman camp was one of the issues we were really grateful to Mr Nizar Hanah who offered the whole building to be used and for the first year and a half there was no charge at all for electricity, water, everything was for free.
When the liberation started last year, we approached him to give us more time, and he said yes, fine, no problem, I'm not considering [eviction] until the time will be right. Then he asked us to leave the building in January, and I told him no, that's not good, because most of these families have children and these children are in schools so it is better to finish, and he says fine, no problem.
To be fair to the man, he did all he can. To say that those families have no chances to return, it's not true, because there are empty houses in Bartella, we have empty houses also in Qaraqosh, we have also some empty houses in Karemlash, so there are empty houses.
But the other side of the story is most of those people have also already found a job here, and to find a job means they are settled. Travelling every day from Bartella or Qaraqosh would be a really costly one. Here it's much cheaper, in that it is in the heart of the city. There are other people who are from Mosul, which means it would be extremely difficult for them to go home. That's why we are offering alternative houses in Bartella. We spoke with Father Benham Benoka and he said "I have so many houses I could arrange."
Why are these homes empty? So these are people who have left and are not going back?
We have 6,000 families who have left the country from Nineveh Plain and their houses are empty. Six thousand families left to Australia, Canada, America, and there are still lots of them still waiting in Lebanon and Jordan and Turkey, not the mention those who made it to Germany. So yeah, we do have so many houses empty.
So it's not about people who are refusing to go back -- no. Actually all the people who have houses in Nineveh Plain, they've made some arrangement. Having said that, we are approaching the NGOs, like Catholic NGOs who used to help us during the time of displacement. The problem is everyone is focusing on Nineveh Plain. Everyone is focusing on building and rebuilding, and reconstruction, and the renovation of the burned houses. And that's why we are unable until now to really do something about that.
The houses is one issue. The people we spoke to at Neshtiman, they were also saying it was a question of security, and a question of infrastructure, and a question of public services. And also in other areas that have been liberated.
We have 8,000 families already in Nineveh Plain. So when you have 8,000 families in Nineveh Plain with churches, sisters, priests and bishops there, it means you have to bear with the community that is there. I mean, if we are talking about an area where no one has made a decision to go, ok, I'll give them all the rights to say that. But when you have 8,000 families already in Teleskof, Bartella, Bashiqa, Karemlash, and Qaraqosh, well here we could say, ok, we live as a community there. We know public services are not good. That was even before 2014. Security, we haven't heard any incidents so far.
Yes, it's still a disputed area, which we are also working with the politicians, parliamentarians, to solve it peacefully, because we've said it quite clearly that any military clash that happens in this area, this would mean the end of the Christians in the area. We said it quite clearly. So we are fully aware of the situation of the Nineveh Plain.
The churches here in Ankawa were celebrated for the role they played [in the 2014 displacement] ... I'd like to know a little more about your role ... what the churches are still doing to support this community.
Well, here in Ankawa, little. Because since the time of the liberation and since the period of time when families have started to go back all the focus of the church and the NGOs, Catholic NGOs, is on rebuilding and reconstruction. We managed to get 2 million euros to rebuild Teleskof in which 1,100 families are settled now in Teleskof. Another $2 million from the Knights of Columbus to Karemlash, in which Karemlash is being rebuilt and over 360 families are there. Church in Need and Knights of Malta with the help of the German government are working on rebuilding Qaraqosh with L'Œuvre d'Orient from France. There are so many people.
So, the efforts of the church is to find enough subsidies really for this. Unfortunately, here in Ankawa, although we have around 2,000 families who are still in and out between here and Nineveh Plain, we stopped the housing program, food program, medical program, all of these which were provided for free for three years, has been stopped, because there's lack of funds on this. Everyone is focusing there. Nothing in Mosul, as a city, no.
I did see that the community is recovering somewhat, the Assyrian community. I was there with Francois Hollande the other day. We visited an Assyrian church that looked like it had been completely refitted. But the congregation did seem very small. Extremely early days.
We will not, as a church, we will not endanger our people for any principles. No. Because their life, their dignity is more important than having a piece of land there in Mosul. I mean, what for?
Some of the people we spoke to as well, the key things were the cost of living in Erbil. If they were to look for somewhere else to live here, who are thinking Ankawa seems the natural place to go, the rent here is extremely high. This touches on another point -- that Ankawa is known in all of Iraq as being this Christian neighbourhood. But the likes of myself arriving here: expats, other immigrant workers from around the world, the price of rent going up, do you think that maybe the cultural makeup of Ankawa itself is beginning to change and to move away from Christianity?
No, and in a way you see these rents make an income for certain families. It's not a luxury style of living, it's just that life is expensive here in Erbil, it's not easy. When you go shopping... And don't forget the economic crisis hit also the Christians as well as everyone, but it feels on minorities more.
Hopefully now when the salaries are back again, there will be more income, more jobs. You know, before 2014, 900 young people were every day travelling from Qaraqosh to here to work in Erbil, because there was a lot of work. Everything collapsed at the end of 2013, beginning of 2014, and that's what's really bad. But it's part of making income.
Yes we know the fact that lots of hotels, lot of restaurants, all of these will change also the style of Ankawa, but on the other hand now we have around 7,000 Christian families in Ankawa. It's the largest Christian enclave in the Middle East. It's not easy when you are surrounded by crisis, inevitable crisis in the region around you, Turkey, Baghdad, everything. All of these political disputes surrounding Iraq will make its effect on Iraq and also it will be felt on us.
But, as I told you, we as a church keep the families of Neshtiman in our mind and hopefully we will be able one day to convince some of the donors to contribute at least paying partially some of the rent and stuff like that because if they come and rent here for $300 or $400 or probably more, at least find a way of really helping them in that.
So really they face three options. They are supported to afford to live in Ankawa, they are encouraged and empowered to move into empty homes in Bartella, Qaraqosh, or they have to rely on the IDP camps.
IDP camps are not a long term solution.
We don't like it.
Is the KRG doing enough to move this forward, and is Baghdad helping enough?
The KRG have said it from the beginning that the economic crisis has hit the economy badly. Over 1,400,000 IDPs already from Anbar and Saladin and all of Mosul, and don't forget these people from Syria. But, during the crisis, the government themselves were quite helpful, facilitating all of the logistics. Because we as a church for example built 14 schools, and with the help of the government of Erbil made it quite easy for us really to cross all of these bureaucratic [hurdles]. And when we had the head of the educational department Mr Fahim Babakar [it] was quite a help for us. Yes, so the government with its limited resources, I would say yes, they were a big help. Really, without their support and pushing of issues, many cases were difficult to be passed.
My final summing up question -- it's a leading question, because you've given me a very optimistic picture I think overall, but answer as you wish. Is Christianity as a surviving, lasting minority in this region, is it doomed, long term?
Well, I would say yes. And Ankawa would be the last place for the Christians in Iraq. I would say that. We will still have Christians here and there, but as a strong community I would say Ankawa. And that's why we have to think long term not just of a survival plan but a thrival plan. Thinking of a good infrastructure like schools, hospital, universities, some good business coming to encourage Christians really to stay and thrive and to contribute in that. And you have the support of the government for that case, which is needed.