Iraqi Christians say they despair about ever returning to the homes they fled after the rise of ISIS, despite government assurances about their safety.
Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi praised the minority community's contribution to Iraq during a meeting with Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako on Sunday and promised his government's support to help Christians return home.
“The presence of Christians in Iraq is one of the most important pillars of the deep diversity in Iraqi society which today contributes to protecting the democratic system and provides solutions to political differences,” Mr Al Kadhimi said.
“Full support will be provided to facilitate the safe return and stability of Christians.”
The struggles of Iraq’s Christians came into focus as ISIS swept through the country's north in June 2014 after seizing Mosul, the region's main city.
The extremists committed atrocities against Christians and other religious and ethnic groups in the area, forcing thousands to seek refuge in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region as well as neighbouring countries.
“I wish I could return home to Mosul and we appreciate the call made by Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi, but we are scared,” said Eva Putros, an Iraqi Christian living in the Kurdish city of Erbil.
“We left Mosul a few weeks after ISIS took over and we were allowed entry into the Kurdish region because of my car’s license plate. I bought it in Erbil a few years before the takeover,” she told The National.
Ms Putros and her family left their home and belongings in the care of neighbours until they could return. However, she learnt that other people moved in soon after they left, claiming to be the new owners.
Several years later, armed groups turned her home into a command centre.
“My family and I have set up our lives in Erbil. I’ve put the past behind me and what happened to us. We lost everything – it’s all gone – but at least we have each other,” Ms Putros said.
She has not returned to Mosul since July 2014.
The Iraqi government has repeatedly called for Christians to return to their homes following the defeat of ISIS in 2017. However, many say they have lost hope in the state's ability to protect them.
Charles Hanna, an internally displaced Iraqi Christian, said the government was unable to provide the public with security or even basic services such as electricity or water.
“We are searching for a better future than the one the Iraqi government can provide us. This will unfortunately mean that we need to leave the land of our ancestors,” Mr Hanna, 65, told The National.
Since 2003, when a US-led invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Christian population has dropped from about 1.5 million to an estimated 250,000.
Mr Hanna, a retired schoolteacher, fled Mosul two years after ISIS took over. He lived in the Virgin Mary Refugee Camp in Baghdad with his family until it closed earlier this year.
The camp has now been turned into an unofficial residential area for those displaced Christians who preferred to stay put rather than return to their region of origin.
Many displaced Iraqis prefer to live in modest camps rather than go back to the places they fled.
“We have no one and fear for Iraqi Christians who are still inside the country,” Mr Hanna said.
Cardinal Sako and his delegation also met President Barham Salih, who said the Christian community of Iraq was a vital component of the region.
“Christians stood by their brothers from all sects in Iraq’s society to face challenges, and their contributions had a profound impact. The East cannot be imagined without Christians,” Mr Salih said.
In March, Pope Francis made a historic four-day trip to Iraq, where he preached inter-faith coexistence.
The pontiff's visit was intended to boost the morale of Iraq's Christians and encourage those who fled abroad to return home.