BAABDA, Lebanon: The hall of the Chaldean Church’s archdiocese in Lebanon resonates with the voice of a local clerk giving instructions to newly arrived Iraqi Christians as they wait to be registered in order to receive church assistance. Among them is Walid, just one of a small but growing number of Christians who have fled northern Iraq in the face of the onslaught by Al-Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). For the moment, they are seeking safety among their co-religionists in Lebanon, but this is just a first step in their quest for a new life in a third country where they hope to settle for good.
“There is no hope for Christians in Iraq anymore,” said Walid, a father of four. “The situation there is getting worse every day, and the latest events in the area of Mosul were the harshest ever for Iraq’s Christian community.”
He said he had already filed for political asylum through the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and hopes to be able to go to France – or any other country that is willing to facilitate his resettlement.
“As far as I am concerned, there is no turning back, I just wish to be put with my family on a plane bound to any country that is safe and secure,” he said.
Although resettlement – particularly in the West – is often a distant dream, Walid and other Iraqis like him have been given hope by a recent statement by the French government of an offer of asylum.
The offer of sanctuary to persecuted Iraqis from one of Europe’s most historically powerful countries came after ISIS, who had captured large swaths of land in northern Iraq, ordered non-Muslims in Mosul to convert to Islam, pay a tax or face execution.
ISIS succeeded Thursday in taking over Iraq’s largest Christian town Qaraqosh and the surrounding areas.
And the aggressions by ISIS are only the latest in more than a decade of violence targeting minorities in Iraq. The country was home to an estimated 1.6 million Christians before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein. Since then, militants have frequently targeted Christians across the country, bombing churches and killing clergymen. Under such pressures, many Christians have left the country, and church officials now put the community at around 350,000.
Yet France’s stance has proven controversial, with the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch and the Levant accusing the country of being part of a scheme to uproot one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
“The best way to help the Christians ... as well as Muslims is through pushing for peace through dialogue and political solutions,” it said in a statement last week.
Father Youssef Denha, an Iraqi Chaldean priest based in Lebanon, also deplored Paris’ position, which he said was aimed at encouraging Christians to emigrate and was “very dangerous.”
“Is there no other way to help the Christians?” he asked. “By making such an offer, France is actually telling Christians that they have no other option but to emigrate.”
Denha urged the West, including France, to instead design policies aimed at helping Iraqi Christians to remain in their country, saying that “if they leave Iraq they will never go back.”
He called for Iraq’s Christians to be given international protection within their own country, pointing to a no-fly zone imposed in the 1990s by the West on the semi-autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq to shield residents from the attacks by Saddam’s regime.
“Why can’t the West and France, make the Christians secure in their own land in Iraq instead of offering them security abroad?” Denha asked.
He said France’s asylum offer had raised hopes of emigration among Christians: “I received calls from well-off Iraqis living in security in the Kurdish enclave to inquire about the chances of resettling in France.”
For many countries, however, the fate of Christians in Iraq poses a big dilemma.
“France had two options,” a diplomatic analyst, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Daily Star. “Either to stay silent and be accused of letting the Christians down, or come out with an initiative such as facilitating political asylum and be reproached for encouraging the oldest Christian community in the region to leave their land.”
“It is a dilemma for France. Is it supposed to act or not? ... In either case it is subject to criticism.”
He argued that the inability of regional authorities to assume their responsibility to protect Christians in Iraq or elsewhere, “compels other countries, not only France, to take action in order to protect them.”
And despite the criticisms, the majority who fled ISIS’ onslaught feel that finding a new home abroad is the only option they have left.
Queuing up in the Chaldean Archdiocese, Aref Shamma rifles through a pile of papers he is carrying, checking to make sure he has all the required documents to apply for church aid.
Shamma, 39, fled his village of Telkif on the outskirts of Mosul in the northern Ninevah province to the safety of the Kurdish enclave a couple of weeks ago.
Many of his relatives, including his sister and her family, stayed in Iraq, unable to travel after ISIS militants confiscated their identification papers and passports.
“I arrived in Lebanon a few days ago with my wife and children. We were among the few lucky ones who were able to leave Iraq,” said Shamma, a father of five.
“It is true that I was raised in Iraq and it is my home and I am attached to it, but there is nothing left of it to make me stay,” he said. “Iraq has gone through one war after another for several decades and I don’t think that will change, at least not in my lifetime.”