Christians are forced to flee in Iraq

Entire towns, thousands of years old, discuss packing up and leaving

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IRBIL, Iraq — They have gone from comfortable lives in historic towns and villages in Iraq's parched Nineveh plains to the precarious existence of refugees unsure about their next meal and where they will spend the night — and even whether they belong in this country anymore.

"We have no safety, no security, no guarantees of anything," said Alhaan Mansour, 33, as her 6-year-old son, Gaid, clung to her and listeners nodded in fervent agreement. "This is no life for anyone. We need a place where we can be safe and live our lives."

The world has watched as an extremist group that dubs itself the Islamic State emerged from the chaos of the Syrian civil war to carve out a self-proclaimed caliphate that some say is now the size of the state of Indiana. Uncounted multitudes of Syrians and Iraqis, most of them Muslim, have become casualties.

But for the Christian minority of northwest Iraq, the militants' onslaught has been nothing short of a catastrophe. In the last week, most of the Christian communities of the Nineveh plains have been overrun, forcing perhaps 100,000 people to flee, many to the semiautonomous Kurdish zone that has its capital here in Irbil.

Even before the latest exodus, Christians had to evacuate the city of Mosul, long home to a vibrant Christian community, or face death at the hands of the extremists.

To a stunning degree, many Iraqi Christians interviewed here seem to view the turn of events as a definitive message: They no longer belong in Iraq, where Christians have lived for almost 2,000 years.

"I really should be in America, in California," said Athir Hanna, 46, a restaurant worker who approached a Western reporter outside a church here. "That's where all my family is. Do you think they will let me in?"

One after another, displaced Christians now finding temporary refuge in Irbil repeated variations of the same theme: They want out of Iraq. They are no longer welcome. It is an extremely dispiriting development for the Christian clergy, which has been actively urging co-religionists throughout the Middle East to stay put and resist the lure of emigration.

"Of course, we tell people that Iraq is their home, that they shouldn't leave," said Father Ashwan Cosa, who was overseeing meal distribution for about 2,000 displaced Christians packed onto the grounds of St. Joseph Church in Irbil's Ainkawa district, a largely Kurdish Christian neighborhood. "But look at what they face? Of course it's understandable that they want to leave."

Many finding shelter on the church grounds came from Qaraqosh, a historic Christian town of 40,000 east of Mosul that was taken by militants last week. Residents recounted several days of shelling.

"Our priests finally told people, 'It's over, it's time to get out,' " recounted Mansour. "A mother and her two sons were killed in the shelling. That's when everyone realized we had to go."

On the church grounds, meals were being prepared in a communal kitchen, with food donated by aid groups and Irbil residents. People laid blankets and cushions on the grass and on concrete paths. Some lighted candles at an outdoor shrine. Teenagers maintained somewhat cheerful demeanors, chatting with friends and checking their mobile devices for messages. Their parents were uniformly distraught.

"It's sad, it's unfortunate, but where can we go?" asked her son, Menhel Jarjis, 64, a laborer, who explained that the family of six, including his mother, wife and three children, came here last week from Qaraqosh.

People walked back and forth aimlessly on the church property. There was a sudden flurry of activity, and many rushed toward one of the exits.

"The Virgin!" several shouted. "The Virgin!"

A rumor had spread that the Virgin had appeared among these dispossessed people.

The excitement quickly abated. Soon the exiled Christians of the Nineveh plains were back to what has become their daily routine, queuing in the food line and staking out vacant spots on the ground for another night of fitful sleep.