“This is the last wave,” said Father Rayan Atto, a local priest who, on Thursday, was running an impromptu refugee-processing center on the outskirts of Ainkawa, located near Erbil. “Qaraqosh was the second city for Christians [in Iraq], after Ainkawa, and now they are here. Think about it<
/em>,” he told The Globe and Mail.
Already the city centers and surrounding villages of Northern Iraq were filled with the 500,000 who had fled from Mosul when The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Shams (ISIS) took that city earlier in June.
“Already forty are sleeping here in the church, and there are another fifteen or twenty at the checkpoint to arrive tonight,” an Iraqi pastor told International Christian Concern (ICC) on Wednesday evening. The community in Northern Iraq is doing their best to cope with those who have fled, but their capacity is stretched and resources are limited.
“This latest influx will place further pressure on resources there, particularly housing and fuel supplies. Conditions for these new arrivals will be challenging. In one school visited by UNHCR field staff, there are already 700 people and more expected,” the UNHCR saidon Friday.
For many of these Iraqi Christians, this is just the latest move in a decade that has been filled with violence and seemingly shrinking space for Christians in Iraq.
Sabria Karami told The Globe and Mail this is the fourth time in the last 11 years she has moved because of the violence and threats that she faced, especially as a Christian. After threats convinced her to move from Baghdad to Mosul, a 2008 wave of murders targeting the Christian population prompted Sabria and some 12,000 others, mainly Assyrian Christians, to move to Qaraqosh. Then ISIS came to town, and now she has joined the hundreds of thousands who fear that they will not survive under the strict and often brutally enforced Shaira law that ISIS is known for.
A New Islamic State and a New Caliphate
On Sunday, June 29, a statement was released with ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani declaring that the conditions for restoring the Islamic Caliphate had been met.
ISIS’ leader Abu Bakir al-Baghdadi was declared the new caliph, the leader of all Muslims, and all Muslims should pledge their allegiance to him, al-Adnani said in the video. The statement also declared that the group was no longer to be known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Shams (ISIS) but as simply the Islamic State.
The idea of restoring the Caliphate, which was abolished after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1924, has been a goal of various Islamic groups for decades. What will be the tangible results of this move and its acceptance by Muslims around the world remains unclear.
“It’s not hard to imagine Sunday’s announcement, at the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, inspiring young Muslims already inclined toward jihad,” Karl Vick wrote. Some commentators speak of ISIS as a greater threat even than al-Qaeda.
Already ISIS had attracted hundreds of foreign fighters to join them in the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and this pronouncement may effectively draw more extremists to join them in their fight.
While it is unclear how much support al-Baghdadi and ISIS will receive from Muslims around the world, they are certainly raising concerns across the region.
ISIS largely controls a wide and expanding swath of land from Northwestern Syria to central Iraq, in some places effectively removing the borders between the two countries. While many civilians are fearful of the brutality for which ISIS is known, their gains have been aided by sectarian divisions. The conflict between Sunni Iraqis and the Shi’a-led government in Baghdad has been ongoing, and ISIS’ advance is forcing many to take sides and is providing the local support needed if they want to solidify their gains.
Across the region, countries are taking notice and trying to craft a response. Jordan, a key ally of the United States in the region, has fears that extremists will gain a foothold there. In Northern Iraq, the Kurdish government and Peshmerga fighters have looked like the most competent force in the region. Kurdish President Marsoud Barzani said that a referendum on Kurdish independence is coming in “a matter of months,” BBC reported.
The potential threat is forcing countries to rethink long-standing disputes. Turkey, which shares a long border with both Syria and Iraq, despite decades long conflict has recently been strengthening its ties with both Syrian and Iraqi Kurds who can form a buffer for Turkey, saysSoner Cagaptay. Even the United States is now reconsidering its stance towards Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, “the dictator it said must go,” and Iran in reaction to the Iraqi crisis, Josh Rogin writes.
Where Next for Iraq’s Christian Minority
Among all of the concerns about the growth of the Islamic state, what is often lost is what this means for the Christian community in the region.
ISIS, more than most other groups fighting against the Syrian government, has gone about to establish a truly Islamic state in the areas under their control. Raqqa, in Eastern Syria, has become the de facto capital of their state and they have imposed Islamic rules to govern the city. They have also destroyed a number of Christian churches and archeological sites.
In Iraq, since the seizure of Mosul, ISIS is believed to be responsible for the disappearance of five Christians, including two Chaldean nuns, Sister Miskintah and Sister Utoor Jospeh. The Hammurabi Human Rights Organization reports that “ISIS continues to takeover houses belonging to Christians who fled the city.” Nearly all of the churches and monasteries have been abandoned, as Christians fear their destruction at any moment.
On the whole, the annihilation of Christians and other non-Muslim minorities in Iraq has not happened, as many had feared, in contrast to what happened in many places in Syria. Though the effect has been nearly the same. The area has been almost entirely emptied of its Christian population.
“This is very serious. We are losing our community,” Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako said while reflecting on the dozens of families he has seen leave in just the past few days and the hundreds of thousands in the last decade. The place of Christians and the future of Iraq are unclear.
The last decade has taken an incredible toll on the Christian community, as one of those again displaced told Al-Monitor. “We are a minority and yet we have paid the biggest price of any group during these past years,” a Christian lady said.
Then expressing what so many have felt, she continued, “There is no future for Christians in Mosul anymore. No one knows what will come next.”