Thousands of Iraqi Christians have been returning to their homes in the north of the country, days after they fled villages under attack by Sunni Muslim extremists.
They chose to return to the largely autonomous Kurdish-held Nineveh region after Kurdish forces told them it was safe to do so, the AP reported. The area, near the northern city of Mosul, came under attack Wednesday by forces led by the al-Qaida inspired Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
More than 40,000 inhabitants of the Christian towns and villages of the Nineveh Plain, Karakosh, Baghdeda, Karamless and Bartella were forced to flee after the clashes between Sunni armed groups and Kurdish troops. The Syriac Catholic bishop and clergy remained in the churches, according to ‘Save the Monasteries’, a group promoting Christian heritage in countries of persecution.
It reports that most of the Christians who escaped found shelter in schools and public places of Ankawa, the Christian area of the city of Erbil and in the area of Dehok and Akra, in Kurdistan.
The news of their return comes as His Beatitude Ignatius Joseph III Younan, Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antiochia and all the East, visited the churches of Nineveh in the diocese of Mosul on Sunday.
Prior to the latest attack, on June 10th ISIS seized the city of Mosul, forcing thousands of its inhabitants, including most of the Christian families there, to flee to Kurdistan. The Islamic militias are imposing Sharia law on the population and attacking Christians left in the city, according to Save the Monasteries.
Since 2004 the Iraqi Christians have suffered much persecution: Churches have been attacked and destroyed in Mosul, Kirkuk, and Baghdad. In 2008, the Bishop of Mosul, Mons. Paulos Faraj Rahoo, was assassinated; many priests and lay faithful were killed, most notoriously in the Syriac Cathedral of Baghdad in 2010.
In the last ten years, the number of Iraqi Christians has reduced from 1 million to 300,000.
The Mayor of Karakosh-Baghdeda, Nisan Karromi, told Save the Monasteries: “Christians started this country … Notwithstanding what they underwent in the last decade, the Iraqi government did not promulgate any law to safeguard their rights and their freedom.
“In the Middle East,” he added, “there is the idea to empty our countries of Christians and that’s what we see happening in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Sudan.”
Earlier this month, Patriarch Younan said Christians in the Middle East feel “abandoned, even betrayed” by the West as Islamists have taken large areas of Syria and Iraq, and that Christians are facing “the biggest challenge for their survival” in these countries.