AMMAN: Threats by jihadists have sent a fresh wave of Christians fleeing their Iraqi homeland, bustling from exodus to exodus in search of a safe haven to rebuild their lives.
Raja Marzina, who has taken refuge in Jordan with her husband and their five children, never imagined she would one day have to leave Iraq for good.
“But we had no choice; we had to flee to save our lives and our religion,” she said.
Like dozens of others who fled the orgy of violence unleashed by ISIS jihadists this summer, Marzina goes to the Syriac Catholic Virgin Mary church in Amman for prayers and to discuss the latest events back home.
ISIS militants between June and August seized Mosul, Iraq’s second city that was home to a sizeable Christian community, and Qaraqosh, the country’s largest Christian town.
Jordan is the transit point for Iraqis waiting to emigrate to North America or Europe, after a stopover in the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
“Around 70 percent of the Christians of Iraq have left their country over the past 20 years because of its successive wars and conflicts,” said Wael Suleiman, a director of the Catholic relief organization Caritas.
It was estimated there were 1 million Iraqi Christians before the wave of emigration began, with Baghdad once home to 600,000 of them.
The number of Christians in Iraq has been declining ever since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and the insurgencies that followed.
“The final straw for those who stayed behind in Iraq came when the extremists seized control of their regions, sending almost 200,000 into flight to Kurdistan,” Suleiman said.
In the ancient, pre-Islamic Christian heartland of Iraq, ISIS captured Mosul, a city of 30 churches, some dating back 1,500 years, before also taking over neighboring Christian towns and villages.
Its campaign of what the United Nations condemned as “ethnic and religious cleansing” left Christians with the stark choice of converting to Islam, paying a special tax for protection or leaving on pain of death.
In the end, tens of thousands fled to Iraqi Kurdistan further north, most of them to its capital, Irbil.
Ghadir Yussef, a 34-year-old widower with three children at his side, told of how they escaped from Qaraqosh Aug. 6 when it came under bombardment.
“All I took was my wife’s gold, which I then sold for $2,000 so that the children would not die of hunger,” he said.
“We stayed a week in Irbil, where we slept on roads and in public parks. We couldn’t take it anymore so we decided to come to Jordan.”
Stroking his children’s heads, Yussef said he has no choice but to leave the land of his ancestors behind.
“It did not protect us, my children and me. We want a better life without fear, injustice and humiliation,” he said.
Marzina, a 39-year-old mother, was bleak in her assessment as she listed the horrors of life back home.
“We have no future in Iraq. I don’t think we’ll ever go back,” she said. “For years now, we’ve had to put up with kidnappings, murders, beheadings, threats, car-bomb attacks.
“There is no place anymore for Christians in Iraq, and those who are not fleeing today will have to sooner or later,” Marzina added.
For Hamid Tobia, 55, Jordan is a short stop on his way to fulfilling an ambition of a new life in North America, Europe, Australia or New Zealand. “The place doesn’t matter much, so long as we get away from here as quickly as possible to start a new life,” he said.
According to AEMO, a French aid group for minorities in the Middle East, around 1,000 Iraqi Christians have applied for asylum at the French consulate in Irbil over the past three months.
French President Francois Hollande was in Iraq Friday to offer his country’s support in the battle against ISIS, and pledged in a meeting with Christians in Irbil to take in some refugees.
But he stressed what he said was the importance of Christians remaining in Iraq.
“We will set up a veritable humanitarian bridge and we will also treat the cases of families facing extreme situations who have links with France and who want to shelter with their relatives for the time-being,” he said.
“Our aim is not to take populations to live in France or in Europe ... but that the populations remain here,” he said. “It would not serve the interests of Iraq, of Kurdistan, of Christians and [other] minorities just wanting to solve the problem through asylum.”
Back in Jordan, a veteran in the asylum waiting game, Tareq al-Ishaqi, 76, chipped in with a sobering account.
“Look at me, I’m an old man. I’ve been here four years, made an official request for asylum on humanitarian grounds, and I’m still waiting.”