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To leave or not to leave Iraq: Easter joy is clouded by doubt
"We will not leave Iraq. Where would we go? This is our home. We belong here."
By Oliver Maksan
"ISIS is an army of the devil," Father Dankbar Issa believes. The pastor of the Chaldean parish in Malabrwan, in northern Iraq, had just presided over the Palm Sunday liturgy. He added that “the warriors of ISIS are sons of the devil. There is no other explanation for what they are doing to people."
The priest is a monk of the Chaldean Antonian order. When ISIS captured Mosul last summer, he and his fellow monks at the monastery of St. George had to flee the city. But he is not bitter: "We Christians were baptized into the suffering of our Lord. So persecution is something we have to expect. Furthermore in a few days we will be celebrating Easter. We know that Easter, which means life, will be victorious. It gives us hope in spite of all the difficulties."
And there are plenty of challenges. Dozens of families have found refuge in the parish. People have been given accommodation wherever there is space. Some are now living in the catechism school: there is a Christian family living in every classroom, often five people or more. Religious instruction is taking place in the meantime in a tent.
The people have food to eat and shelter, but, said Father Issa, "they don't have any prospects. And the children don't go to school. Their homeland has been occupied by the army of the devil. There's no way of foreseeing what will happen. This is of course a great burden for them."
Fadil, a young father from Mosul, concurred. "We Christians must suffer as Christ suffered. That is what our faith teaches us. But that also comforts us," he said. "Faith is the only thing we have left. After all, we had to leave everything else back in Mosul." But Fadil does not want to leave his country. "We will not leave Iraq. Where would we go? This is our home. We belong here,” he proclaimed.
By contrast, there is the family of five of Abdel, a Christian from Qaraqosh. Once the largest Christian city in Iraq, it has been in the hands of ISIS since early August 2015. Abdel and his family are determined to leave Iraq. They are due to be in Jordan to celebrate Easter. "Of course we don't find it easy to leave our homeland. But we have no future here. We want to go to Australia and start a new life there. We have family there. And so the new start will not be too difficult,” said Abdel, even as he acknowledged the difficulty of actually making it into the country.
For the Church it is a race against time. "Every day Christian families are leaving Iraq," said Archbishop Bashar Warda, who heads the Chaldean Church in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan. "But we do what we can to help our people,” he said.
Since the chaotic days of last summer, much has changed for the better. According to the bishop, “the humanitarian situation has since stabilized. In this phase we are concentrating mainly on two things: schools for the children and proper accommodation for the people.” That focus, he stressed, has helped restore the refugees’ sense of dignity—and Easter will be celebrated with a measure of genuine joy.
ACN photo: Palm Sunday in Malabrwan, Iraq