Despite the fact that an estimated 120,000 Iraqi Christians were forced to leave everything behind as they fled the extremist Islamic State group's attacks in the northern province of Ninawa, a senior member of the community says his people should continue to try for peaceful co-existence.
And Anwar Hadaya, formerly the representative of Christians on the Ninawa provincial council and the head of the Christian political party, the Syriac Gathering Movement, also believes his people shouldn't give up on Iraq.
Nor should they focus on those of their neighbours they believe betrayed them. In an interview with NIQASH Hadaya says Iraq's Christians shouldn't forget the Muslims who helped save Christians from the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group – some of them paid for that with their lives, he argues.
Niqash: By your count, how many Christians were forced to leave the province after the Islamic State occupied Mosul in the middle of last year?
Anwar Hadaya: Close to 120,000 people, and in fact, many of them were displaced twice. The first displacement was on June 10, 2014 and many Christians went to towns like Qaraqosh, Bartalah and Tal Kaif. The second time they were displaced on August 6 last year and they fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, to places like Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk. Many others have chosen to leave Iraq altogether because they believe they will find a better future for their families elsewhere.
There were some Muslims who helped Christians and Yazidis – and in fact, some of those Muslims paid for that with their lives.
Niqash: What kind of information do you have about property that belonged to Ninawa's Christians that was confiscated by the Islamic State after they took over that territory?
Hadaya: There are no specific numbers. But what we can say is that around 250,000 Christians lived in Ninawa before 2003. Since they are native inhabitants of the city and have been there a long time they must have owned a lot of land and property. The amount of real estate has decreased since 2003 – either it was sold by those immigrating, or confiscated by armed groups even before the IS group took over Mosul.
Because of demographic changes ongoing in these areas it is hard to know how much real estate Christians have lost. We do know that in Mosul the IS group confiscated 29 churches and hundreds of homes on both the east and west sides of the city. Then you should add all of the other property owned by Christians here, factories, shops and other businesses in different parts of the city.
NIQASH: Are you aware of any moves by the authorities to compensate the Christians for what they lost?
Hadaya: No. However the federal government and the provincial government has said that they consider what happened to the Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks and Turkmen here genocide. That means that there will be compensation in the future.
The IS group's confiscation of Christian properties is temporary and can only last until Mosul is liberated. What the group did by changing property ownership papers in the local real estate registry is not valid. In fact, the government considers all IS group procedures null and void. Manipulating the registry, even burning the papers, doesn't cancel out property owners' rights.
Those owners will get their property back one day and their rightful ownership will be proven by identification papers or certificates of ownership, or via other registries in places like Baghdad.
NIQASH: In your opinion, how can Iraq's Christians be convinced to stay in the country?
Hadaya: Before 2014 we had talked about the Christian cause. And it seemed that solving the problem at that time required solving the problem of the country as a whole. After last August, we called upon the Iraqi authorities and the international community to take care of Iraq's displaced Christians and to provide a decent living for them until the liberation of Ninawa.
The Christians from Ninawa Plain must get their own area. There must be guarantees made to ensure their future and the future of their children, and to make sure that this cannot happen again.
The Christians must be compensated. And then Iraq's political process must be reformed so that we are rid of the sectarian quota system, the system that took the country down this dark tunnel.
NIQASH: Some Iraqi Christians are focusing on what they see as a betrayal by their Muslim neighbours in places like Mosul. They accuse them of either taking the side of the IS group, or of not doing anything to help against the extremists.
Hadaya: We cannot consider everyone a traitor or treasonous. Many Muslims in Mosul helped the Christians when the IS group forced them to make impossible choices between converting, paying an impossible tax or leaving the city.
We cannot forget that some Muslim families protected Christian property or helped Christians take their property with them. There were also some Muslims who helped free Yazidi women who had been captured as slaves – and in fact, some of those Muslims paid for that with their lives.
I think it was a limited number of people who attacked Christians in Mosul and I like to think they did this because they were frightened of the IS group.
Unfortunately there were definitely people around the Christian towns of Qaraqosh, Karamles and Tal Kaif who attacked churches and Christian-owned properties. But I am certain this act was denounced by the [Muslim] tribes of Ninawa.
NIQASH: The Christians of Ninawa have been through a lot – they have been persecuted and harassed for years. Do you think this treatment is politically motivated or is it a sectarian thing?
Hadaya: Sometimes it has been political. For example the number of attacks on Christians has always increased in the months before both federal and provincial elections.
But it has also been sectarian. This occurs when armed groups in Ninawa begin a campaign to intimidate and threaten the Christians in Mosul. I believe the local government in Ninawa, as well as community elders and religious leaders, should have faced down those who were starting this campaign of hate against Christians. We also urge those same leaders to tell locals not to buy Christian real estate or Christian property.
NIQASH: There are almost no Christians left in Ninawa now. Who's benefitting from that?
Hadaya: There is no doubt that local political parties benefit as does the IS group. These are both enemies of Ninawa. A more important question is who is being negatively impacted by the loss of Christians from Ninawa. And the answer to that is all the people of this province, including Muslims.
Ninawa's Christians played a large and active part in all aspects of cultural, economic and political life here. The Christian community here was very peaceful and it remains so, holding out an olive branch and speaking the language of peace, coexistence and brotherhood.