Iraqi Christians call for safe zones as they struggle to find solace

Fears about their persecution increase after US rejects their plea

Destroyed furniture litter the ground of the heavily damaged Saint John the Baptist church in the Christian town of Qaraqosh, also know as Hamdaniya, some 30 kms east of Mosul, on December 4, 2016, one month after Iraqi forces recaptured it from Islamic State (IS) group jihadists. (Photo by THOMAS COEX / AFP)
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Iraq's Christians are calling for an internationally protected safe zone to let them rebuild their lives after the brutal rule of ISIS that threatened to end their 2,000-year history.

Although the Iraqi government declared victory against the terror group in 2017, Christians are continually targeted and caught in the middle of sectarian conflict, said Zina Kiryakos, president of the Iraqi Christian Foundation.

"We want an internationally protected safe zone to give the genocide victims the ability to rebuild and recover in Nineveh Plains with peace and security," Ms Kiryakos told The National.

Iraq is home to a variety Christian denominations, a representation of the country’s religious and ethnic diversity.

But the damage done to Christian enclaves on the Nineveh Plains, east of Mosul, after their capture by ISIS has been so extensive that it has become difficult for minorities to exist in peace.

The Iranian-backed militias mobilised to fight ISIS, also known as Hashed Al Shaabi, have against the will of local Christians taken over the liberated Syriac towns of Qaraqosh and Bartella, and the Chaldean town of Karemlash in Eastern Mosul, Ms Kiryakos said.

“Many Christians living in Nineveh Plains are fearful of returning to their homes in those areas due to the Shiite militias taking over their towns,” she said.

The militias are trying to take over the Nineveh Plains to make a road for themselves from Iran to Lebanon, passing through Iraq and Syria, Ms Kiryakos said.

The US, whose forces helped Iraqi troops to defeat ISIS, and the Iraqi government have rejected the idea of a safe zone.

Christians also proposed that the US-led global coalition against ISIS could train them to guard and police their towns under the authority of the government, but this was also turned down, Ms Kiryakos said.

She said Iraqi Christians were shocked when US President Donald Trump said in January that US troops would remain in Syria to protect the Syrian Kurds and help to create a safe zone for them in the country's north-east.

“After hearing this news, Iraqi Christian advocates decided to publicly cry foul play since our calls for an internationally protected safe zone for Christian victims of ISIS in northern Iraq were ignored for years,” Ms Kiryakos said.

Christians in Mosul were forced to flee when ISIS seized the northern city in mid-2014 and began destroying centuries-old religious sites, ending a presence that once numbered in the tens of thousands and went back to Christianity’s earliest years.

Today, Iraq has nearly 500,000 Christians, according to Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans and head of the Chaldean Catholic Church.

"At one point Christians represented 20 per cent of the Iraqi population, but the number dropped to 10 per cent and it now stands at 2 per cent," he told The National in February.

The number of Christians started to decline after the US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Like millions of other Iraqis forced to leave their homes when ISIS seized a third of the country, members of the Christian community have moved from northern towns and villages to the capital or other cities, and many joined the masses fleeing to Europe.