Mon, Apr 17, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Fear and hope compete as Iraqi Christians return home

Christians who had fled the town of Qaraqosh are trying to revive their former lives amid fears of new religious tension with Shiite Muslims

By Ulf Laessing  /  Reuters, QARAQOSH, Iraq

Illustration: Yusha

With the Islamic State expelled, Iraqi Christians are trickling back to the ransacked town of Qaraqosh, beset by anxiety for their security, yet hopeful they can live in friendship with Muslims of all persuasions.

The town, about 20km from the battlefront with the Islamic State in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq, shows why Christians have mixed feelings about the future of their ancient community.

In the desecrated churches of Qaraqosh, Christians have been busy removing graffiti daubed by Sunni Muslim militants during two-and-a-half years of control — only for new slogans to have appeared, scrawled by Shiite members of the Iraqi forces fighting street to street with the extremists in Mosul.

However, nearby, a shopkeeper is doing a good business selling Dutch beer, Greek ouzo and several whisky brands to Christians, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds alike, perhaps offering a glimpse of how Iraq’s fractured communities could again live together peacefully.

Encouraged by security checkpoints and patrols by a volunteer force, up to 10 Christian families have returned to what used to be the minority’s biggest community in Iraq until the Islamic State seized it in 2014.

Iraqi forces pushed the group out of Qaraqosh in October last year, part of a six-month offensive to retake Mosul.

However, residents are worried that the Shiite slogans signal a new kind of sectarian division.

“Oh Hussein” is daubed in red on the wall of a church torched earlier by the Islamic State, praising the hero of Shiite Muslims who was martyred 1,300 years ago.

“We are afraid of this, of tensions,” church worker Girgis Youssif said. “We want to live in peace and demand security,” said Youssif, who returned after fleeing to Erbil, about 60km away in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Shiites in the Iraqi government forces and paramilitary groups, mostly from further south in the country, have scribbled such slogans on buildings all over Mosul, too.

Soldiers have also hoisted the flag of Ali in the city and on their military vehicles. Shiites regard Ali, who was the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed and Hussein, the prophet’s grandson, as his true successors.

Two Shiite flags also fly over Qaraqosh.

Most Sunnis, who are the dominant community in Mosul, have shrugged off the Shiite slogans as the work of a handful of religious zealots, but Christians take them as a signal that their future remains uncertain.

“Of course we are afraid of such signs,” said Matti Yashou Hatti, a photographer who still lives in Erbil with his family. “We need international protection.”

Those families who have returned to Qaraqosh — once home to 50,000 people — are trying to revive Christian life dating back two millennia.

However, most stay only two or three days at a time, to refurbish their looted and burnt homes.

“We want to come back, but there is no water and power,” said Mazam Nesin, a Christian who works for a volunteer force based in Qaraqosh, but has left his family behind in Erbil.

By contrast, displaced Muslims have been flocking back to markets in eastern Mosul since the Islamic State’s ejection from that part of the city, despite the battle raging in the Old City, across the Tigris River, which is the militants’ last stronghold.

Numbers of Christians in Iraq have fallen from 1.5 million to a few hundred thousand since the violence which followed the 2003 toppling of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

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