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Irbil Church Offers Shelter Amid Christian Exodus From Middle East


It is the church where a growing congregation reflects deep problems for the Christian community across the Middle East. Based in the Iraqi-Kurdish capital of Irbil, Saint Ilyas Church is not just a place of worship, but a camp for those fleeing the so-called Islamic State.

In a space once used as gardens, it now hosts 110 largely Christian families displaced by conflict. And with hundreds of thousands of Christians having fled their homes in Iraq and Syria, many are left fearing for the future of a community whose faith was born in the region.

Overnight transformation

The church’s transformation into a home for hundreds happened overnight. Last summer, thousands of refugees flooded into Irbil, and wider Iraqi-Kurdistan, with the Islamic State’s capture of Mosul and surrounding region.

Among many Muslims, the displaced included Assyrian Christians, marking the end of 1600 years of presence by the community in the city.

Louay Jibrail, who lives on the grounds of St Illyas, was among the estimated 100,000 Christians who fled the city and surrounding region.

“There was so much life in our village, we had everything in those days,” said Jibrail, who lived in Qarakosh just north of Mosul. “Then one day there were terrorist groups calling themselves Daesh, or the Islamic State. They took our houses and our land, and they said either become a Muslim, or lock up your house and leave.”

Jibrail’s experience is far from unique. Under Islamic State rule, which also harshly targets Muslims it considers heretical, Christians hoping to remain are often told to convert, pay a religious levy called a jizya, or face death.

Since the displacement of the Christian community in Northern Iraq last summer, the Islamic State has continued to present a stark threat to Christians that extends beyond the boundaries of its supposed “caliphate.”

Earlier this year, 21 Coptic Christian migrant workers were kidnapped and beheaded in Libya by the Jihadist group. In response to the threat Christian militias have been formed, while a Christian-only brigade of the Iraqi army was created in March.

Part of a trend

Father Douglas Bazi, who leads the Saint Ilyas congregation, told VOA the role of Islamic State has simply accelerated a longer-term trend.

Father Douglas fled his ministry in Baghdad for Irbil two years ago after being kidnapped and tortured by a militia. His experience reflects a spike in the targeting of Christians following the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who allowed the community to worship freely.

Some estimate that more than three quarters of the 1.5 million Christians who had lived in Iraq have fled their homes or been killed.

Meanwhile, the instability that followed the Arab Spring, and the competing forces it unleashed, has also heighted the insecurity of many Christian communities.

“As Christians we are proud because we are Iraqi people, but Iraq is not proud we are part of it,” he said.

And having faced persecution before, he was determined that his church should offer sanctuary for those in need.

Education as a future

Since the initial influx last year, and with the support of the diocese and other local and international backers, the church has been able to provide support for the families it has taken into its care.

In contrast to many left homeless by the conflict, those living on the grounds of Saint Ilyas Church enjoy secure accommodation. Among those grateful for the assistance is Khalee Defareh, who also fled Qarakosh and lives in a caravan on site.

“The front door of the church was open and the father [Douglas] took us in and accepted us. We have been here since then,” said Defareh.

Defareh said though all she really wanted to do was go home, she was "very comfortable here, because the church is here and they have given us everything that we need.”

As the camp has become more established, youngsters now also have access to play facilities, a library and schooling, as well as music lessons.

“Some priests have asked me if I’m mad, saying that people are dying and you are buying books ... but when they grow up, I want them to say that when we entered persecution, that is the time I started learning French, [or] that is the time I learned to play guitar,” Father Douglas told VOA, explaining the importance of providing an education.

He also cited another reason.

“We believe kids are our future, and teenagers, the girls, the females especially, are our next future. If we lose them we are going to lose the community,” he said.

Beyond repair

Despite the work of those like Father Douglas, there is concern that many Christian communities in the region are already fractured beyond repair. Archbishop of Irbil Bashar Wardar also allowed his cathedral to be used to shelter the displaced and has worked with church figures across the region to provide assistance to the displaced.

Asking for families who wanted to leave the region to “be patient”, he nonetheless admits the circumstances are difficult.

“Most of the people, if you meet them today would say that we have no future here, because of the past, and because of the difficulties,” said Father Douglas.

He also added that though some concerns had been addressed by the Iraqi central government in Baghdad “sometimes you feel that our Iraqi government is caught in so many disputes that this is an ignored case.” Earlier this year, Wardar told British parliament members airstrikes are not enough, and called for Western troops to be deployed to the region.

For Father Douglas, few in the Western world, even among Christian communities, are fully aware of consequences for the religion in the region.

“To our brothers outside I used to say to them, 'Wake up! We are dying here and you have to take action,” he said. “My question is, who is going to stand with us?”

But whether or not the West intervenes, in a time of great instability, no threat or hardship will make father of two Jibrail abandon one of the few consistent things in his life.

“I will leave my house, but I will never leave my religion,” he says. Jibrail hopes to eventually leave Saint Illyas and flee Iraq. “I will cope with all I have been through because of my belief in Jesus Christ.”

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