Christians living in Iraq's Nineveh Plains say they are a target for militias and have been forced to leave their homes in what they claim is a policy to create a demographic shift in the areas around Mosul.
In March, Pope Francis, 84, will make a historic visit to the country, and Christians hope the occasion will help put an end to the persecution they are experiencing.
"In general, conditions for Christians in Iraq, similar to other minorities, are not good, since this country is unstable and the future is not clear," Father Ayman Hurmz, a priest at St Joseph's Chaldean Catholic Church in Sulaimaniyah, told The National.
“In Mosul and Nineveh, Christians feel unsafe because of threats by militias, as well as ISIS.
“The situation for Christians is better in the Kurdistan region, compared to other parts of the country.”
Father Ayman said he hoped the Pope’s visit would help to “bring stability and peace”.
Christians were driven from their homes when ISIS controlled the Mosul and Nineveh provinces between 2014 and 2017.
Those who could not escape or refused to convert to Islam were killed by the terrorist group.
There has been little respite since ISIS’s defeat at the hands of US-backed Iraqi forces, which included mainly Shiite militias.
“Christian families are living in panic and anxiety after the liberation of Mosul,” said Nahir Zaheo, a Christian poet and writer from the Hamdaniya district, 32 kilometres south-east of Mosul.
"They did not return to the war-torn city as they do not have trust in the security forces, and did not receive any aid from the international organisations to rebuild their houses and churches.
“Currently, the issue of demographic changes is most concerning for Christians in the dominant Christian-populated areas of Bartala, Qaraqosh, Talkef, Batnaya and even Mosul city, where houses and land belonging to Christians are being confiscated by powerful Shiite militias, as well as government officials.”
Another Christian civilian from Hamdaniya said that when he returned home after ISIS was defeated, he found that militias had confiscated his car and home appliances, including his refrigerator and television.
Since the US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraqi Christians have become targets for Al Qaeda, ISIS and different Iraqi militias.
They have been forced to leave Iraq and seek refuge abroad or in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region that is relatively more secure than other parts of Iraq.
Father Nadheer Dako, a priest at Saint Joseph's Chaldean Cathedral in Baghdad, said most Christians who fled the Nineveh Plains were finding it hard to return to their homes.
“The situation is unstable,” he said on Wednesday, as he was overseeing preparations at the church, one of Pope Francis’s planned stops where he will hold Mass.
“All those displaced are facing numerous hardships.
"People there are not comfortable and [are] tired, and they need years to get back on their feet and retain the dignity and value of the Iraqi citizen.”
In addition to the financial and economic woes “there are some ideologies and policies preventing the return [of displaced Christians] in a proper way”, Father Nadheer said.
He blamed the absence of “real, good intentions” to allow Christians to return.
Father Nadheer said Pope Francis would raise these issues in meetings with Iraqi officials, and encourage them to protect and respect Christian rights, as per the law and constitution.
“I believe that our Iraqi brothers will understand the real message of this visit, a message of love and partnership in this country," he said.
"But there is always someone out there who is fishing in the troubled water and defaming the Iraqi mosaic.”
‘Half of Christians have left Iraq’
The Popular Mobilisation Forces, a pro-Iranian, mostly Shiite militia grouping that was nominally integrated into the Iraqi state, helped to liberate Mosul and Nineveh Plains from ISIS.
But they, along with other Iraqi militias, are being blamed for the expulsion of Christian civilians and the slow return of displaced Christians to their homes and churches.
Sayed Hosseini, head of relations for the PMF's Northern Front, denied that it was behind the confiscation of Christian properties, displacement and intimidation.
"Christians are our brothers. We condemn those allegations and strongly refute them; those accusations are not true," Mr Hosseini told The National.
“Christians have a battalion within the PMF and they guard themselves. Then, how can the PMF intimidate Christians?”
However, there is still an atmosphere of hostility to which Christians point as a reason for their reluctance to return home.
“Some Christian families have returned to their homes in the Nineveh Plains, while more than half of the Christians have left Iraq because of bad security and economic conditions, horror from the militias and demographic changes,” Mr Zaheo said.
“The population of Qaraqosh, the centre of Hamdaniya district, was 55,000 but now only 10,000 people are left.
"There are Christian families in Erbil, Baghdad, Duhok and Sulaimaniyah provinces who did not return because of the dangerous security situation, and the lack of public services and job opportunities.”
Mr Zaheo said that Christians hoped for “all goodness” from the Pope’s visit, with preparations already under way in Qaraqosh to welcome him.
The pontiff is scheduled to meet senior Iraqi political and religious leaders in Baghdad and Najaf, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani.
Pope Francis will also meet Iraqi bishops and priests, and hold Masses in Erbil, Mosul and Qaraqosh, as well as Baghdad.
Healing 'deep wounds'
A former member of parliament cautioned that the Pope’s visit would do little to “heal the deep wounds” of Iraq’s Christians.
“Since 2003, different groups of Iraqi Christians, including Chaldeans and Assyrians ... are being intimidated, displaced, and their properties are being confiscated by various Iraqi militias,” said Joseph Slewah, who led the Warka bloc in the Iraqi Parliament.
“The lives of Christians are in serious danger, and if they refuse to leave their hometowns they will be killed, not only by Shiite militias, but by other sectarian militias that are sponsored by the ruling parties across Iraq.”
Mr Slewah said the Shiite militias did not cover their faces to hide their identities, but other militias attack Christians under false names.
“If the Pope does not meet and discuss these issues with us face to face, as the real representatives, politicians and intellectuals of the Christian component … the visit cannot heal the deep wounds of the Christians,” Mr Slewah said.