AINKAWA, Iraq — An estimated 10,000 Christians have been displaced from the Nineveh plains to Iraqi Kurdistan during the past few days as a result of raids by the Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), surrounding the majority-Christian Hamdaniyah district. Al-Monitor has confirmed that shelters for displaced persons have been opened in the town of Ainkawa, in Erbil province.
Tamara Jirjees, who fled ISIS attacks with her four children, told Al-Monitor: “We heard the thud of strong blasts that shook our region, and my kids broke out in tears and cries of fear. We took our things and escaped to the Iraqi Kurdistan region.” She further stated, “We reached the checkpoint in Erbil in the evening, and many people were fleeing. It took us a long time to enter the province. The Kurdistan Regional Government opened schools to shelter us and offered us food and water. A representative of the church also visited us and helped us.”
Ainkawa Mayor Jalal Habib told Al-Monitor, “Ten thousand Christian citizens were displaced to Ainkawa in the past few days, and 20 schools and youth centers were turned into shelters to accommodate them. Moreover, the Barzani Charity Foundation, UNHCR [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] and UNICEF … in addition to several other civil associations have provided humanitarian aid to the displaced.”
After the 2003 US-led invasion and occupation and the subsequent rise of extremist Shiite and Sunni organizations, acts of violence against Christians increased in Iraq. The most violent attacks that targeted Christians occurred on Aug. 1, 2004, with the simultaneous bombing of five churches in Baghdad and Mosul.
The violence has since expanded to target liquor stores, clothing stores and beauty salons — most of which are owned by Christians — with the aim of shutting them down. Music shops have also come under attack. Moreover, Christian women have been threatened if they fail to cover their heads like Muslims. A number of abductions and assassinations of Christian clerics have also been reported.
Romeo Hakari, general secretary of the Bet-Nahrain Democratic Party, which represents Iraqi Christians' interests, told Al-Monitor: “The regions inhabited by Christians are located between the hammer and the anvil of the federal government and the Iraqi Kurdistan region, although the latter offered some services during the past two years to these regions. The task of taking care of the affected regions is the responsibility of the federal government and the Nineveh Provincial Council, which has not offered any real services in the past.”
Hakari said, “The Iraqi Kurdistan region specifically has to take care of these areas,” citing the inhabitants' feeling that Iraqi Kurdistan is their safe haven. “Fortunately, there weren’t any casualties in the wake of the raids. However, fear of arbitrary raids and attacks from the terrorist ISIS and other militias on their regions pushed thousands of Christians to flee to the Iraqi Kurdistan region. We tried to stop the wave of displacements, but fear has taken hold of the citizens and driven them out of their regions.”
In explaining the current plight of Iraq's Christians, Hakari said, “We blame the federal government for our suffering because it has not fulfilled its constitutional and legal duties in protecting all segments of the Iraqi people, especially the Chaldeans, Syriacs and Assyrians.” He asserted, “The Iraqi constitution was unjust with us. It did not consolidate the rights of our people, as we had demanded in our capacity as their representatives.”
Hakari underlined that people feel that there are no guaranteed rights or equality in Iraq. He stated: “Marginalization has bred a feeling of injustice in Iraq. This feeling has been around since the establishment of the Iraqi state.”
Expressing sentiments similar to Hakari's, Salem Touma, an independent Christian politician, told Al-Monitor, “Fighting did not reach Hamdaniyah, but the lack of services like water and electricity in the region has annoyed people. The wave of fear has also overcome the citizens due to the mortars that fell south of the region. The displacement of Christians from Iraq started after 2004.” He added, “We were around two million Christians before 2003, and now the number has decreased to around only half a million.”