Middle East

Iraqi Christian refugees lament lives destroyed by IS

Iraqi Christian refugees pose with speakers from Jordanian Catholic and Muslim institutions coming to their aid in Amman
Image caption The rise of Islamic State forced huge numbers of Iraqi Christians to flee their historic homes

"My daughter was the first to be born in exile here in Jordan," says Abu Safwan, cradling the tiny infant in his arms, amidst the din of displaced Iraqi Christians sheltering in a Catholic centre outside the Jordanian capital, Amman.

First escaping to the northern city of Irbil, some 1,800 Iraqi Christians from Mosul and surrounding villages are now temporarily sheltering in Jordan.

They have come at the invitation of the country's ruler, King Abdullah II, with assistance from the Catholic humanitarian aid agency, Caritas. The latest batch arrived last week.

"Militants from the so-called Islamic State uprooted and expelled us from our country. We left Mosul broken," Mr Safwan says of his hometown - the centre of Iraq's Christian heartland for the past 1,600 years until this summer when they were forced to convert to Islam, flee or be killed.

"They took away our homes and businesses and slaughtered our Bishop Faraj and priests Ragheed and Boulous. How could we ever possibly return there?" he implores.

'Dark film'

Earlier this month, the United Nations reported that Islamic State had committed a "staggering array" of systematic and widespread human rights abuses and "acts of violence of an increasingly sectarian nature" in Iraq.

Image caption Jordanian Catholic leaders say conflict is creating an exodus of Iraqi Christians

It alleged that it had carried out possible war crimes including mass executions, the use of child soldiers and the kidnapping of women and girls to use as sex slaves.

The Christians also maintain that "crimes against humanity" have been committed against them and Iraq's other minorities - such as the Yazidis - by Islamic State militants, and urge international help.

"They put a red letter 'N' on my house, signifying 'Nasrani,' meaning Christian in Arabic, and declared it to be the property of Islamic State. I've lost my shop, everything I ever had in life," says Abu Suleiman, a man in his 60s from Mosul.

"How do I live after that? All of our human rights have been abused. Now I've heard that a militant from Afghanistan is living in my family's home. This is unbearable for us," he says, shaking his head.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Islamic State militants control vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria

"We only survived because we escaped from the city early in the morning. Other Christians had their cars, gold, money, even diapers stolen from them by Islamic State militants," he says.

Most are now penniless, fleeing with just the clothes on their backs, and are dependent on the generosity of others.

"We walked to a safe area under Kurdish control and slept under the trees in Irbil until we arrived in Jordan," Ms Suleiman says of his family of seven.

Businessman Jassam Hanna says his beloved city of Mosul has been turned into a "dark, dystopian end of times film" with the IS takeover in June.

"Men ran around with swords. How can this be happening in the 21st Century? There is no humanity in Iraq. It's dead," he angrily told Jordanian Catholic and Muslim officials during a recent day of solidarity with the Iraqi refugees.

'Decisive' battle

Mr Hanna's father built a prosperous business over the past 40 years, owning three shops, he said. But after the IS occupation, a militant told Mr Hanna he should "pay" to keep his shop. Also the 33-year-old Christian says a teenager came to the family home and announced he was the new "governor".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Iraq's Christian population has plummeted in recent years

"He declared the region was part of Islamic State, including my house and property. It's enough. This is my family's property and we worked for it," Mr Hanna says. "But in the end, we had to flee for our lives."

The Christian refugees expressed resentment that neither Iraqi nor US troops came to Mosul's aid when IS laid siege to Iraq's second largest city.

"America did nothing for Mosul when Christians were forced to flee the city," says Mr Suleiman. "It was a different story when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990."

"It has been four months, since IS took over Mosul and neither the Iraqi military nor the Americans have tried to regain control," adds Mr Hanna.

The latest US air strikes began in Iraq in August in an effort to help Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar to escape being massacred by IS.

John Allen, US President Barack Obama's envoy for the coalition against IS, recently said the battle to retake Mosul, Iraq's largest jihadist hub, could take up to a year to plan, adding it would demand as much preparation as possible.

Meanwhile, Gen Martin Dempsey, the US' military commander, told ABC's This Week on Sunday that Mosul could at some point be the "decisive" battle in the ground campaign which may require US ground troops working alongside Iraqi forces.

Nevertheless, most Christians said they will never return to Iraq as long as IS is around.

Jordanian Catholic leaders and Muslim officials have expressed concern that this latest wave of displaced Iraqi Christians could lead to more and more of their number forsaking their historic home for the West - a growing trend among Christians across a turbulent Middle East.