Thousands of Iraqi Christians to celebrate another Easter away from home
By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 15, 2017
ANKAWA, Iraq — A giant statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus, stands with open arms in a park that divides one of the busier roads in this suburb of the Kurdish region’s capital, where a U.S. consulate is located and American military helicopters often cross the skies. It’s an appropriate symbol for this Christian enclave, where some 12,000 displaced Iraqi Christian families have taken refuge.
Long a bastion for the followers of Jesus, it became their de facto center of gravity practically overnight in August 2014, when thousands fled here from Qaraqosh to escape the Islamic State’s advance.
ISIS was routed from Qaraqosh, once Iraq’s “Christian capital,” roughly five months ago. But as many Christians here prepare to spend their third Easter in exile, it remains unclear when, if ever, they will return home.
“I will never go back,” said Naja Rafu, a vegetable vendor who runs a makeshift produce stand under a tarpaulin in Ankawa. His home in Qaraqosh was destroyed, and his savings have been used up in the years since he and his family fled, so he has no hope of rebuilding. Besides, he said, “It’s safer here.”
Christian communities in Iraq, among the oldest in the world, date to the first century, and many speak a dialect of Aramaic, the language Jesus is believed to have spoken. Before the 2003 U.S. invasion, there were roughly 1.5 million Christian inhabitants, including several prominent scholars, businessmen and senior politicians in the secular Baathist regime.
Those numbers have declined precipitously because of years of anti-Christian violence and persecution by al-Qaida, Wahhabite groups and other Sunni extremists. Fewer than 300,000 remained before the Islamic State group’s military victories nearly three years ago, and many more have fled since then.
Roughly a decade ago, the population of Ankawa was about 15,000. Church officials estimate five times as many live here now, thanks to the influx of Christians who have taken flight from areas around Baghdad and Mosul since 2003 and especially since 2014.
The population boom has turned Ankawa into a hive of activity. Dozens of shops like Rafu’s line the streets, many made with tarpaulins bearing the symbols of the U.N. refugee agency. The vendors, who hail from Qaraqosh, sell fruit, vegetables, candy, cosmetics, clothing, toys and more.
On the weekends, sidewalks teem with perfumed and coiffed young people, and the streets are clogged with traffic. Women in head scarves and modest black abayas intermix with others wearing tight jeans and no head coverings.
The shops, cafes, hookah lounges and restaurants remain open until late at night. In the area’s many social clubs, men crowd the tables, smoking hookah. They pick at salads and appetizers, called meze, while some play cards or a bingo-like game.
As a nightlife destination and a refuge for the country’s dwindling Christian population, security here is a main concern, officials say.
The suburb is also home to other potential targets of violence, including the U.S. consulate and several hotels where foreign journalists and aid workers frequently stay. It’s just minutes from the Irbil airport, where U.S. and coalition troops are based.
Citing security concerns, Karwan Mamand Ibrahim, Ankawa’s chief of police, was mum about the size of his force, but he said his officers work closely with the Kurdish region’s security police and intelligence agency, known as Asayish, to thwart terrorist plots. His officers are Kurdish Muslims, he said, but they are respectful of religious differences and often attend Christian events as part of their duties.
Yet some threats slip through. In April 2015, a suicide car bomb detonated outside a cafe near a consulate here, killing three civilians and wounding five others. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.
Not all the Christians in Ankawa want to stay, and church officials have begun encouraging them to return to their battle-scarred villages where storefronts are scorched, buildings are smashed and church towers are cracked or crumbling.
Haibad Hannah Polis, who lives in Ankawa now, said she was ready to return to Qaraqosh permanently. She was among scores of former residents who returned briefly on Palm Sunday to celebrate mass and march in a procession recalling Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.
“We are tired there (in Ankawa),” she said, dressed in a traditional outfit worn by many of the townspeople for the special occasion.
But some Christians who want to return are wary, fearing they may face sectarian violence if more isn’t done to secure the region, which lies largely outside Kurdistan’s current protective boundaries. Ibrahim, the police chief, said he thinks they will be safer under the Kurdish flag.
But they have no choice except to return, said Mumtas Bashir Estefu, a locksmith who now lives in Ankawa but went back to Qaraqosh for the Palm Sunday rituals.
“Our grandfathers had nothing when they built these churches,” he said. “We cannot abandon them.”
A trio of Iraqi Christian girls carry candles and branches during a Palm Sunday vigil procession in Ankawa, a Christian suburb of the Kurdish region's capital, on Saturday, April 8, 2017. Hundreds of Christians filed the streets of the city, singing and praying, during the afternoon event and then filed into the churchyard of the Saint Joseph's Cathedral for a celebration that stretched into the evening.
CHAD GARLAND/STARS AND STRIPES