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Missing nearly three years, Iraqi Christian girl escapes ISIS grasp
"What happened with Christina and with her family and with us is a 'divine miracle!' "
On Aug. 7, 2014, ISIS captured the Nineveh plains, expelling many thousands of Christians—but many faithful remained trapped, including the family of Christina Hanna, who was three at the time, and her parents, Mr. Khouder Ezzo and his wife Aida Hanna. On Aug. 22, 2014, robbed of their money and gold, the family was allowed to leave Qaraqosh, but in a cruel twist of fate an ISIS militant grabbed Christina at the last moment. Miraculously, Christina reappeared, alive and well, was rejoined with her parents on June 10, 2017. Witness to this happy ending was Father Ignatius Offy, a Syriac Catholic priest based in Ankawa, Kurdistan. He spoke with international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
By Maria Lozano
Father Ignatius, how did come that you know the family?
Christina’s family and I are from the town of Qaraqosh. The families in our region know each other well and we all have close social relations. In addition, I am a priest, and since the beginning of our forced displacement from our region on the night of August 6-7 2014, I have been tracking people captured by the Islamic State.
I have submitted the list of persons whose fate is still unknown to many individuals, organizations and associations. Among the names, of course, was Christina—he youngest of them all.
How are you feeling after her miraculous return?
What happened with Christina and with her family and with us is a ‘divine miracle!’ In my humble opinion, this is the fourth birth of the child Christina. The first time when she was born to her parents, the second time was at her baptism, the third time was when a Muslim family adopted and took care of her during the period she was lost, and finally when she returned to her family and her Christian community. Christina was given a new life. We thank God for His work with her, with her family, and with all of us.
Do you know where Christina was hidden during these three years?
Christina’s father explained to us after the kidnapping: “We kept asking the people who remained in the region about our daughter. The last phone call we had was with one of our relatives who assured us that Christina is fine and was seen with one of ISIS soldiers near the mosque. All communications were cut off after that.” Five months after her abduction, Christina’s family was informed by one of their acquaintances that the baby was fine and living with a Muslim family in Al-Tanak area in Mosul.
At that time, the Muslim family had taken Christina from a mosque in Mosul, took her to their home and treated her like one of their own. They wanted to reunite the baby with her own family but they feared for her safety. So they kept, protected and took care of her and her needs.
How did her family keep the faith during Christina’s disappearance?
For two years, Christina’s family heard bits and pieces of her but could not communicate directly with her. Many foreign and Arabic news agencies and satellite channels who met Christina’s family and wrote about her abduction made her story widely spread. Her parents and family toiled in searching for her and published her photo. Her father prayed the rosary each day for her return. He kept the pictures of saints next to Christina’s image on the inner walls of the caravan where they lived in their involuntary exile.
How was possible to bring her back to her family now?
After the fighting erupted in the south of Mosul, the Muslim family which had adopted Christina moved to a safer place. The father got hold of the cellular number of one of Christina’s family. He got Christina’s elder brother’s phone number and called him late at the night of Thursday June 9, 2017 and asked him go to Kojli district in Mosul to take his sister.
On the morning of the next day, Friday, June 10, Christina’s family went to the rendezvous point and the two families met. Christina was handed over to her real family. She was in good health. Her parents thanked the family who took care of her during the last three years. Christina was finally reunited with her real parents, family, relatives and her people.
How is Christina now? She has to be very confused…
Today, the baby girl is almost six years old. She’s still shocked and scared. She has forgotten her real father, mother, brother and sisters. She has also forgotten what she had learned of her Syriac mother tongue. She could only speak Arabic. She speaks very little with her family and with the guests that come to visit. Sometimes she smiles at them and sometimes she doesn’t. She plays with the gifts people are getting her when they visit to see how she’s doing.
And how will you describe the reaction of the parents, the family – the whole community praying and waiting for her for so long time?
The mother was really emotional and the tears of joy filled her eyes. She describes her baby’s return as a “miracle.” She is shocked at how big she has gotten and changed; she didn’t recognize her. “We thank God that He saved her from ISIS,” said the father. As for her brothers and sister, they couldn’t explain their feelings about the return of their youngest sister.
The community welcomed Christina home with music and dancing. They threw her a little party at the compound where the family lives. A special prayer server of thanksgiving was held for her and for the missing people still held by ISIS.
As you said, Christina is not the only case of Christians and Yazidis children abducted by ISIS, do you know about other cases of return?
I don’t know any other children other than Christina who have been liberated and got reunited with their families. What I know is that we have many Christian persons who were captured by ISIS but who haven’t been heard of ever since, including little children, teenagers, men and women, young and old.
Do you know about the future plans of the family?
Christina’s family home in Qaraqosh is destroyed. They currently live in a camp for the Christian refugees in a small two-room caravan. Her older brother, who works in an Erbil bakery told us: “Honestly, we do not have any future in Iraq. Six months ago, we applied for a visa to migrate to France but haven’t got any response yet. This caravan is small and life is hard.”
I plead with all the organizations and associations which take care of children to help Christina’s family and offer the young, still-in shock, Christina psychological support and help her re-blend inwith her family and community.
Do you have a message for all the friends and benefactors of our organization around the world?
My message is like a prayer: “We thank the Lord for his great blessing and miracle that He gave us. We thank the Muslim family that took care of Christina. We thank all who made an effort for her return. We pray for Christina for a new start in getting to know her real parents and family and blend in with her Christian community. We pray for Christina’s family, still in shock to see their baby again.
It was a true miracle, a new birth and a new life. We pray for whoever lends a helping hand for the baby and her family in any way possible. We pray for the return of all the captives, prisoners, and abducted person still held by the ISIS and other factions. We also pray for peace, security and stability to prevail in our wounded Iraq, and the whole world. Amen.”