‘They asked me to convert to Islam, but I told them I will die a Christian,’” Associated Press, December 23, 2016:
The Nativity scene and Christmas tree are in place on the corner of the street. Some of the children proudly wear red Santa Claus hats or show off new toys, mostly plastic guns for small boys. Windows and balconies are festooned with colorful balloons.
It is unmistakably Christmas on Friday at the Ankawa camp, home to thousands of Iraqi Christians who have been displaced since the Islamic State group seized their towns and villages in the Nineveh plains of northern Iraq in 2014.
But the holiday spirit is tinged with a mix of homesickness and despair. They still can’t go home even though their towns and villages have been wrested back from the militants by Iraqi forces. The towns are too devastated, with no water or electricity. The Christians are also haunted by memories of their flight under cover of darkness to escape the IS onslaught.
“I just want to go home,” said a tearful 80-year-old Victoria Behman Akouma. She was among a handful who briefly stayed behind after IS seized her town of Karamlis in August 2014. “They asked me to convert to Islam, but I told them I will die a Christian and that they can kill me if they want to,” she said
After 11 days under IS rule, the militants escorted her to the border of the self-ruled Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
The Christians of Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, were once members of an ancient but still vibrant Christian community in Iraq. They enjoyed protection and nearly equal rights with Iraq’s Muslim majority under Saddam Hussein, but their numbers rapidly dwindled after the US-led invasion of Iraq toppled the regime of the late dictator in 2003, ushering in the rise of religious militancy with the al Qaeda terror network taking the lead.
The Sunni militants frequently attacked Christians and churches, terrorizing the community and forcing many to flee, some to the West, some to the Kurdish region where tolerance for religious minorities is much greater than in the rest of Iraq. Of the estimated 1.5 million Christians who lived in Iraq on the eve of the US-led invasion, about 500,000 are left.
The Islamic State group’s onslaught across northern Iraq in 2014 devastated the unique communities in Christian-majority town like Karamlis, Bartella and Qaraqosh — all in the Nineveh plains.
The Iraqi offensive launched in October to retake Mosul has recaptured most Christian areas. But so far, the Christians have only gone back for visits, to see homes or attend services in churches that were not as badly damaged and deemed safe. Returning home for good appears a distant prospect….