“We are still quite a long way from where the Sunni Muslim extremists have taken over in Mosul,” says Georgis Shamoun. “But we're still afraid.”
Shamoun is a 60-year-old Christian man living in Tal Isqof, a mostly Assyrian Christian town in northern Iraq that is around 30 kilometres north of the city of Mosul, where the Sunni Muslim extremist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, are now in charge.
“Dozens of families have left our village over the past few days. Most of them went to Dohuk but some have even gone to Turkey, in the hopes of eventually immigrating to Europe,” Shamoun explained. “They are desperate, they have faced so many fears over the past years and they no longer want to live in Iraq.”
Shamoun's daughter, Marianne, had been studying at the University of Mosul but she left when she heard ISIS were coming. “I'm just afraid they may start to target Christians,” she says. “But living in these remote villages, we are worried that ISIDS will attack us, the same way they did Mosul.”
Iraq's Assyrian Christians, who are also known as Chaldean Christians and Syriacs, are native to the country and the Ninawa Plain; in fact the Christians of Mosul have lived in the Ninawa Plain area for over 1,800 years.
Although Mosul used to be home to one of the biggest populations of Christians in Iraq, over the years this has changed. Around half of the estimated 20,000 Christians that used to live here before 2003 have fled, either out of the country or to more peaceful parts of it. Previous to the current Iraqi crisis, with problems in Anbar and now in northern Iraq, some figures had suggested that around 40 percent of all displaced persons inside Iraq are Christian – a significant fact when one considers they make up a very small percentage of the population.
There were more than 2,500 Christian families still living in Mosul before this crisis, says Ashur Georgis, who heads the Iraqi Assembly of Assyrians. “But around 900 families have left the city and they've gone to outlying towns in the Ninawa Plain, like Hamadaniya, Karamalis, Tel Isqof, Tal Kaif and Qosh. Some families have also gone to Erbil and Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan.”
There are a lot of fears, Georgis says, and there are many rumours that Christians in Mosul are being threatened. “We heard that the houses that Christian families left were burned down or taken over by the militants for their own use. And we also heard they burned down a church when they first arrived there.”
And now, Georgis notes, the villages that the Christian families fled to have become the new frontline. “The people in these places are worried that ISIS might attack them or the nearby villages,” Georgis says. Very recently the city of Qaraqosh came under fire as ISIS faced off against Iraqi Kurdish troops.
In the Christian neighbourhood of Qosh, Matta Slaiwa was sitting in one of the cafes. “I was born here and now we are all living in fear,” he said. “The fall of Mosul in just one night is a disaster for us. Those armed men might raid our villages any time they want to, too. Which is why we were taking turns to guard our own village for the past few days – me, my children and our neighbours,” Slaiwa said.
However, when the Iraqi Kurdish military reinforcements began arriving, they had stopped keeping watch, he noted.
“I am afraid,” agreed another Christian woman in the cafe, who also lives in Qosh. “We heard the insurgents shelled villages and we are worried they will do that to us, even though our village is now full of women and children.”
Iraqi Kurdish military forces, also known as Peshmerga, have increased their presence in villages and towns close to Mosul and there are now reinforcements in most of the cities and towns where there is a big population of Christian, Yazidi and Shabak minorities.
“Because of this there have been some clashes with ISIS and we have lost about a dozen men,” says Sarbas Babiri, an official with Iraqi Kurdistan’s most powerful political party, the Kurdish Democratic Party. “But I just want to assure my fellow citizens living in these areas that the Peshmerga will not desert them, no matter what happens.”
Meanwhile in the village of Birouz Ava, Henri Bulous' family has just arrived from Mosul; they had been living in the Shifa neighbourhood in Mosul. “We are glad to be here but we are afraid that ISIS will attack us again,” Bulous said. “We left our house and everything we own and we came here at night. I have actually called my father – he lives in the US – and asked him to send us enough money so we can leave here and go to Europe. We are scared that ISIS might take over all of the country.”
“The laws that ISIS has announced in Mosul, where they say that local Christians must pay a special tax, have raised fears that the gunmen will do worse things,” says Farid Yacoud, of the Assyrian Democratic Movement in Dohuk province in Iraqi Kurdistan. “They are also afraid the gunmen will come to their villages next.”
Yacoub said he knew of a lot of local Christians who had left, or who now wanted to leave, Iraq and immigrate to another country. “If the situation continues like this, the exodus of Christians will just increase. This area may eventually be empty of Iraq's Christians, who have been here for thousands of years,” he warned.