The demons of Karakosh

The Syrian Orthodox Church of St Behnam and Sarah in Karakosh, Iraq
The Syrian Orthodox Church of St Behnam and Sarah in Karakosh, Iraq, by night. (image: Birgit Svensson)

Christians in Iraq are under massive pressure. With the burning of a Koran by Christian Iraqi Salwan Momika in Sweden, the nationwide ban on alcohol, as well as the tragic fire at a recent wedding reception, life isn't getting any easier for them

By Birgit Svensson

More than a few inhabitants of Karakosh, a Christian town in Iraq, say that ever since the terrorist militia Islamic State (IS) took possession of the town, it has been desecrated and filled with demons. One of these demons is Salwan Momika, who publicly burned several pages of the Koran in Stockholm in June, an action that caused a worldwide furore. Momika was born here in Karakosh but had lost his way, abandoning his wife, children and parents. 

A renegade, a lunatic, a confused man: that's how the people of Karakosh describe their prodigal son. When a Swedish television crew wanted to visit the town recently, the journalists were turned away at the checkpoint. Momika had already brought enough misfortune on the community, some said. Others played down Momika's desecration of the Koran. They have other worries. He had renounced Christianity before he left for Sweden, says a former neighbour who preferred to remain anonymous.

He despises all religions. His parents left Iraq out of shame, his wife has moved in with her parents. There have been death threats. "He did us no favours with his actions," says a passer-by angrily as he listens in on the conversation. "We are under enough pressure as it is, we don't need this as well." 

Die Koranverbrennung in Schweden sorgte in vielen islamischen Ländern für Wut und Empörung.
The burning of the Koran in Sweden by Iraqi Salwan Momika caused anger and outrage in many Islamic countries. Renegade, lunatic, confused: that's how the people of Karakosh describe their prodigal son (Foto: ARIF ALI/AFPGetty Images)

Wedding turned tragedy

Now Sweden is seeking to deport Momika, potentially back to Iraq if no other country can be found that will take him, says the spokesperson for the Swedish Migration Board in Stockholm. In Iraq, however, he risks being lynched by an angry Muslim crowd, imprisoned by Shia hardliners, tortured and even murdered. The man from Karakosh is appealing the migration authority's decision.

The hall stands in the centre of town, near the Syrian Orthodox Church of Saint Behnam and Sarah, whose distinctive twin towers have red crosses set into the masonry that light up at night. It is only a year since the place of worship reopened after being completely destroyed by IS. 

Part of the caliphate that IS established in northern Iraq and north-eastern Syria, Karakosh was under jihadist control for three years. Although almost all the inhabitants of the Christian town managed to flee as the brutal extremists advanced on Karakosh in August 2014, the IS fighters occupied their homes, looting and plundering, to leave scorched earth behind as they retreated. 

During the reconstruction post-2017 there was a tendency to use shoddy building materials. Money was tight and safety regulations frequently ignored. Fires in hospitals and other public buildings are therefore not uncommon. Cheap materials were also used in the construction of the hall in Karakosh; the plastic decorations on the ceiling quickly caught fire and turned a wedding reception at the end of September 2023 into an inferno. The number of confirmed dead was over 100, with more than 200 injured. The hall was completely burnt out and now stands as a charred memorial.

Noury in seinem neuen Supermarkt in Karakosch, Irak.
Noury in his supermarket in Karakosh: Noury's home, his shop, everything burned –70 percent of all the buildings. It cost him 40,000 US dollars to rebuild, says the man in his mid-forties, proudly showing off his goods (Foto: Birgit Svensson)

Scorched earth

There is no end to the purgatory, says Noury in response to the latest catastrophic fire in Karakosh, which the Arabs call Hamdaniya and the locals Baghdida. That's Aramaic, Karakosh is Turkish. Daesh, as they call IS here, also burned everything as they left, he said. Noury's home, his shop, everything was burnt down – 70 percent of all the buildings. It cost him 40,000 US dollars to rebuild, says the man in his mid-forties, proudly showing off his goods. His supermarket is one of the best in town. 

You can get everything here, absolutely everything. Aid has been forthcoming from international organisations, especially from the West. Personally, Noury did not receive any reconstruction aid, because the application process was so complicated. But those who were able to fill out forms and write applications profited handsomely. Some took full advantage of the situation, opening a shop, sending pretty photos to the donors and then selling the shop on at a high price. Corruption, says Noury. 

At the beginning of September 2023, Iraq's Supreme Court ruled that the alcohol ban, passed by parliament in the spring for the entire country, was legally valid. The complaint filed by Christian MPs was thrown out. In Iraq, only non-Muslims are allowed to produce and sell alcohol. For Christians in particular, this had become a way of life. Yet another demon for Karakosh.

Only half the inhabitants have returned

It is said that Christianity came to the Nineveh plain around the year 400 and also to Baghdida, situated midway between Mosul and the Kurdish metropolis of Erbil. 

The first mention of Baghdida as a Christian settlement dates from the 7th century. 400 years later, numerous refugees from Tikrit came here to escape forced conversion to Islam. The Syrian Orthodox churches became well established. 

Following the U.S. invasion in 2003, Christians in Mosul, on the Nineveh plain, but also in Baghdad became the target of Islamist terrorist groups. Karakosh doubled its population from the original 20,000 to over 40,000, becoming a safe haven for Christians in Iraq. Until IS came.

Mathi, whose real name is Matthias, documented everything. The journalist and photographer has opened an archive where he keeps photos from all eras. Each house has been given a code to show what it looked like both before and after IS. 

As far as Mathi is aware, only half of Baghdad's inhabitants have returned: 25,000. The rest have emigrated to the USA, Canada, Australia or Europe. The trend to leave the town and Iraq is ongoing. Since 2003, two-thirds of the Christians have left their homeland. It's a veritable exodus.

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The Daesh market in Mosul

"The jihadists took our things to the Daesh market in Mosul and made money out of them," Mathi says. When the family returned from exile in Lebanon, there were no animals left on the farm that his son Mikael now runs; 800 olive trees had been torched. He is slowly rebuilding everything, raising calves, geese and chickens. But he can't feed the family yet, Mikael says, pointing to the little animal feed he has been able to buy. At the moment, his mother and sisters are earning money with their hairdressing salon. 

Back at the church of Saint Behnam and Sarah they are still considering whether to leave a broken column in the churchyard as it is, as a reminder of what happened. Outside the entrance gate there is a sentry box. The burly man's uniform has a logo sewn on it that needs explanation. "Christian militia," he says quietly. "Kildani, Babylon Brigade". But he also has another one. 

From his breast pocket, the militiaman pulls out a second logo, similar to that of the Assyrian Democratic Party, depicting an eye with wings. The Christian party's office is located diagonally opposite the church. 

Emad Babawi sips his tea and looks worried. In 2015, the NPF (Forces of the Nineveh Plains) militia formed to fight Daesh, he says. It was founded by Yonadam Kanna, a member of parliament at the time. His vision was an independent Christian militia that would no longer be defenceless against the jihadists. 

Six hundred men thus joined forces. But then one of them, Rayan al-Kildani, hijacked the militia, replacing its leaders, offering the militiamen more money and integrating them firmly into the PMF network of Shia militias. The latter had been created by the Shia Ayatollah to protect Shia holy sites and fight Daesh. They were trained and paid by neighbouring Iran.

"Now the only question is for or against Iran," Babawi comments on recent developments. Against Iran are the Kurds, who are also courting the favour of the Christians, promising them more political influence if they side with the Kurds. "But we want to remain independent," swears the head of the Assyrian party in Karakosh imploringly. "Otherwise we will lose the blood of our people." 

In Karakosh, it seems, the demons are still at work.

Birgit Svensson

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