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Iraq's Displaced Christians Seek New Identities in Baghdad

Ahmad Mohammed
Many members of Iraq’s Christian minority who fled Mosul have more to worry about than just finding a roof to put over their heads. Often they also need to renew the identity papers and other official…
20.11.2014  |  Sulaymaniyah
Extremists marked Christians' houses in Mosul with an 'N'.
Extremists marked Christians' houses in Mosul with an 'N'.

After the extremist organisation known as the Islamic State entered Mosul in early June, it took them several weeks to reveal their true intentions towards religious minorities in the area.

In mid-July, a message from the group was read out at mosques around the northern city of Mosul, which is also the capital of the province of Ninawa. The Islamic State, or IS, group gave the Christians in the town, three choices: Paying them a tax, converting to their version of Islam or death.

The leaders of the Christian community didn’t trust the IS fighters so they and almost all other Christians left the city. And in doing so, many of them left behind almost everything they owned.

Samir Abdul-Samad, one of the Christians who left Mosul, told NIQASH that he left well before the midday-Saturday deadline. But he says he was in such a panic that he and his family left behind some of their official documents. After spending several days in one of the refugee camps set up in nearby Iraqi Kurdistan Abdul-Samad and his family were forced to travel to Baghdad to one of the special offices set up for internally displaced people to get new papers issued.

It’s a common tale. In November the International Organization for Migration, an inter-governmental organization working in the field of migration, estimated that the number of displaced throughout Iraq was coming close to 2 million and that Iraqi Kurdistan was hosting almost half of these, around 47 percent. Many of these individuals left their homes with only the clothes on their backs and many now require new documents in order to claim, not just their identities, but various social welfare services.

Another displaced Iraqi, Haytham Matti, who comes from an area east of Mosul, says that although he managed to bring most of the necessary documents with him, he knows many people who were not able to. The Christians who left later, shortly before the IS group’s deadline, lost nearly everything, from official documents to cash to their mobile phones, he says.

Some Christians in Mosul who refused to leave their homes were rounded up by the IS group and had all their possessions and papers confiscated before being released, says Matti, who is currently living in one of the basements in a church in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah.

Once the Christian families had left Mosul, the IS group began confiscating their homes and other property, distributing these to followers and fighters or making plans to sell it.

“We heard that other people were given these houses and that they used the furniture and facilities,” Matti told NIQASH. “Other houses were simply looted or even demolished. Even the doors and windows from these houses have gone.”

The troubling thing is, there don’t seem to be any official – or even semi-official – records being made that would say which property belonged to whom, that might clarify things once the IS group are driven out of Mosul.

Nobody has taken the trouble to meet with the displaced people here in order to collect information about their property, says Father Ayman Aziz Hermiz, the priest at St Joseph’s Chaldean Catholic Church in Sulaymaniyah.

“The displaced can get hold of new official papers they lost – such as identity cards or certificates of nationality as well as ration cards,” Hermiz said. “But the problem is they have to go to Baghdad to do this and a lot of them cannot afford to travel there, or stay there, in order to do this. Passports,” he added, “can be replaced in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.”

A lot of the people who fled their homes are either thinking about leaving the country, or else they already have, says Hermiz. For example, in his church hall, he has around 40 families in residence and their living quarters are separated from the other families by only a sheet. “These conditions are very difficult,” Hermiz said.

MP Shorouq al-Abeji, a member of the coalition of civil society-minded Civil Democratic Alliance in Baghdad who is on a committee to follow up on how displaced Iraqis are faring, believes that the procedures for issuing new identity papers and other documents is not yet good enough.

“These procedures are one of the major dilemmas that many displaced people are facing,” she told NIQASH.

In a telephone interview, al-Abeji explained that the government had put in place measures to help those who had lost of all of their official documentation. But these were limited simply to providing direct aid in that realm and that nothing had really been done about collecting information on confiscated properties as a result of the current crisis.

“Baghdad has all the required information to re-issue official documents for the displaced that need them,” says Iraqi Christian MP, Yonadam Kanna.

Kanna says he’s suggested the Iraqi government form a new body that he thought should be called the National Commission for Disasters and the Forcibly Displaced. Its task would be assessing and compensating Iraqis for damages and to rehabilitate affected areas.

Kanna believes that now the situation in Iraq is about more than simply liberating areas occupied by the IS group and their followers. It must also be about reconstruction of destroyed infrastructure and compensating locals for their losses. “We need special projects that aim at civil peace. We need legal and social remedies for this illness,” he asserted. However, he added, “for things to go back to the way they were before the IS group, we’re going to need two to three years.”