SHAFAQNA – Samir’s children still remember their last Christmas in Maaloula, before Islamist militants overran the ancient Syrian Christian town.“They remember the snow,” Samir says, rubbing his thumb over the tiny crucifix tattoo imprinted on his hand, as he waits for handouts at a refugee centre in Beirut. He knows, however, that it is only a matter of time before his children’s memories of their hometown fade. “It’s impossible to ever go back,” he says.
Samir and his family are part of an exodus of Christians from communities across the Middle East that is raising alarm bells about the disappearance of the faith from the region of its birth. They have been leaving the Middle East for decades, in search of better economic opportunities and, in the case of Lebanon, to escape the civil war, but, more recently, they have begun to flee because of persecution — beginning with the Christians of Iraq, whose numbers halved in the ten years after the American-led invasion.
The past year has brought a fresh crisis in the form of the Islamic State and other extremist groups such as the Nusra Front, which swept through Maaloula demanding that Christians convert.
More than 130,000 Christians have fled Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, and its surrounding villages, where church bells once mingled with morning calls to prayer. Unlike most Iraqi and Syrian Muslim refugees, few want or expect to ever go home, seeking instead to emigrate to the west. The fear of what is happening to them in their ancestral homelands led every one of those interviewed by The Times, even in the safety of Lebanon, to ask that only their first names be used.
“There’s no Christian who thinks of anything except moving to another country,” says Fouad, Samir’s father. He and the rest of the family are awaiting news of their application to resettle in Australia. “Christians prefer to emigrate than to die.”
The mood is similarly bleak at St Raphael Chaldean Cathedral, where scores of Christians from northern Iraq gather to collect emergency supplies of mattresses and groceries.
The plains of Ninevah around Mosul, mentioned in the book of Genesis, have long been a rich tapestry of different faiths, from Christians to Yazidis. In recent years, its villages played host to many Iraqi Christians who fled persecution in other parts of the country but who could not yet bring themselves to leave their homeland altogether. All that changed when Islamic State (Isis) fighters swept through Mosul and the surrounding countryside, demanding that they convert to Islam, seizing their homes and sometimes their women, and ordering them to leave.
Most of Ninevah province remains under the control of Isis, whose black flag flies over St Ephrem’s Cathedral, the seat of the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese in Mosul. Homes belonging to Christians have been systematically seized and marked with the letter “N” for Nazarene and the legend “Property of the Islamic State”.
Nadim’s five children were asleep at their home in Batnaya village one early August evening when Isis fighters broke down the door and demanded that he and his wife convert to Islam. He was beaten and kicked out of the house when he refused. The village was later recaptured by peshmerga fighters, and Nadim went back to try to retrieve some belongings, but his home, car and grocery shop had been looted, both by Isis and by his Muslim neighbours. “Our neighbours, the Arabs, took advantage of this situation,” he says. “There is no way we will live together again.”
Several western countries, including France and Australia, are seeking to give priority to the resettlement of Christian refugees there, citing the persecution they face. The Archbishop of Canterbury, however, said last month that offering asylum to Middle Eastern Christians would risk “draining the entire region of Christians who have been there since the time of St Paul”. He has called instead for the setting up of safe havens in the region.