Coping with wrack and ruin

The Christian villages around the Iraqi city of Mosul may have been liberated, but in reality, the scars of brutal IS rule mean they are uninhabitable. For most residents, returning is not an option at this stage. By Karim El-Gawhary

الكاتبة ، الكاتب: Karim El-Gawhary

The name of the church in eastern Mosul is highly evocative. The Titanic Church is built like a ship. The church tower resembles the mast of a boat and the interior is reminiscent of the belly. During IS's two-and-a-half year rule, the Titanic Church literally sank. And although eastern Mosul has in the meantime been recaptured by the Iraqi army, the church is still a scene of total devastation. Everything has been looted from inside. All that remains is the concrete skeleton of the structure. A few children play in the ruins.

"I used to have many Christian friends at school. IS gave them 10 days to move away," says a small boy named Rabieh. The children show us the upper section of the church, which bears traces of gunshot and battle. "The IS snipers were up there," Rabieh remembers and points to several church windows that look like portholes.

The wasteland of Mosul

The terror militia IS destroyed numerous churches in Iraq (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Schwinghammer)
Formerly magnificent churches reduced to rubble: for two years the terror militia IS held sway in Mosul. Tens of thousands of residents in the surrounding Christian villages were forced to leave their home – or convert to Islam

The Christian population of Mosul was never very large. Most lived in the surrounding villages, such as Bartella or Qaraqosh, parts of which were freed from the clutches of IS months ago. But they remain uninhabitable to this day. Many of the former residents returned in buses on the first Sunday following liberation. But they just came to celebrate a mass, before going back to their refugee camp.

One of these camps is the Christian refugee camp "Ashti" in the Kurdish city of Erbil. It is a well-organised container village. Most residents have lived here for two-and-a-half years already, after all when IS seized power, the Christians were the first to be made refugees.

At the heart of the camp is the Bashir Church, an Assyrian-Christian house of worship cobbled together out of containers. At least 200 people attend the service here on this particular Sunday. They are praying to be able to move back to their villages soon.  But that could take at least another year, says Emanuel Adel, the priest of this congregation. Many of the Christian villages may have been liberated, but they are completely uninhabitable, says Adel.

"There are no basic services such as water and electricity, the infrastructure is devastated, there are no schools and administrative offices. It all needs to be rebuilt," he says. Also, many of the houses have been destroyed in airstrikes and burned to the ground, he adds. Expelling the IS jihadists came at a high price. "And most of the houses have been looted," explains the refugee camp priest.

The ideology lives on

Many former residents returned to their villages to celebrate Christmas (photo: A. Awad)
Gradual return to normality: in December 2016, the first church services were held in villages formerly occupied by IS. A return to life as it was before the occupation is however not (yet) possible: "There are no basic services such as water and electricity, the infrastructure is devastated, there are no schools and administrative offices. It all needs to be rebuilt," says priest Emanuel Adel

There is an overriding sense of sadness within the church community, he says. Many members of the congregation are profoundly depressed. "No one knows what the future of Iraq looks like and that does of course impact upon the mood of Christians," he says.

"IS can perhaps be militarily vanquished, but the IS ideology lies on," the cleric believes. "Many of the objects that were stolen from the Christian villages were found in neighbouring Muslim villages," the priest reports. Plenty of people co-operated with IS, he says.

He also expects little from the Iraqi government. In an open reference to Iranian influence on the central government in Baghdad, he calls the authority corrupt and says it is being steered by foreign powers. "Our problems are far from being solved," is his view. "It is likely to be a while before our lives as refugees come to an end and all Christians are able to return to their villages."

Karim El-Gawhary

© 2017

Translated from the German by Nina Coon