For Iraqi priest, the Islamic State has destroyed Christians' trust in Muslims
by Dario Salvi
Fr Youhanna Issa works with hundreds of Mosul refugees who found refuge in Aqra. The winter has made the emergency worse, as people are forced to stay in dilapidated houses, without much food. Uncertainty about the future fuels a desire to emigrate. Thefts, robberies and violence have undermined relations with Muslims. The Church's action is "fundamental" in a crisis that is bound "to last".

Erbil (AsiaNews) - After experiencing first-hand the violence of Islamic State forces, Christian refugees have "lost trust" in Muslims, and wonder "how they can possibly live with them," like the "neighbours who, in the days after the escape, looted their homes and took their property," said Dinkha Issa, a 50-year-old Mosul priest from the Antonian Order of Saint Ormizda of the Chaldeans who spoke to AsiaNews.

Fr Issa is the apostolic administrator of the (vacant) diocese of Aqra, between Erbil and Duhok. Currently, he is working with refugees who fled Mosul and Christian villages in the Nineveh Plain - Tilkief, Karemles, Qaraqosh - following the Jihadist advance.

The village of Mella Baruan, where he lives, used to have 70 families. In recent months, the population more than doubled with at least 80 more families. All said, that is 400 more people who have turned local life upside-down.

Another 50 families found hospitality in a nearby village. "They arrived on 6 and 7 August with the second wave of refugees when Mosul fell into the hands of the terrorists," Fr Issa said.

Even today, after several months, the situation remains difficult. The Church is in the forefront in the distribution of food aid, and other necessities, like blankets, at a time when winter is starting to bite, because of the cold and the rain. In fact, temperatures are near zero, and many still live in makeshift accommodations. Problems abound every day.

"Christians are suffering a lot," the Antonian priest said. "They live in abandoned, crumbling houses. Food is sometimes in short supply. There is no money to provide for everyday basic needs. The crisis is here to stay and will not be solved in a few weeks."

Families spend their days in an atmosphere of perpetual waiting, uncertain about their future, eager on the one hand to return to their homes, but also more and more inclined on the other hand to flee abroad oriented to flee abroad, making the big jump to Europe, Canada, Australia, where they have friends and relatives who left Iraq long ago.

"With ISIS's arrival, they no longer believe that they can live with Muslims," Fr Issa explained. Relations have become unbalanced and it is clear that "there is no more trust."

In the past, under Saddam Hussein's regime, a strong government and army ensured respect for order and upheld some aspects of the law; there were no sectarian divisions, the regime nipped in the bud tensions and conflicts.

The two US-led wars have upset the balance and unleashed latent ethnic-religious tensions between Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds, and between Muslims and Christians.

"When there is no order, when there is no rule of law, when Christians become victims, problems emerge," the priest said.

Unlike Iraqi Kurdistan, where coexistence is possible (for now at least), refugees "see no such perspective in Mosul and the villages of the region. Muslims robbed them, destroyed their things. . . . The Islamic State, which was actively involved in the area since 2013 exploiting the resentment against America and the dissatisfaction with the economic situation, has changed everything."

As in other parts of Iraqi Kurdistan, the local Church is helping scores of displaced families, doing a "tremendous job" amid great difficulties. "Without the Church," Fr Issa said, "these Christians would be lost. Instead, they received crucial help." However, "the lack of job prospects, the opportunity to educate their children breed resentment and mistrust."

In fact, "Some refugees are angry. Others are waiting for the Lord's grace, i.e. they want to flee. Others show patience and want to believe in change."

For Fr Issa, "Iraq's future is one of conflict and increasingly sharp divisions. This will likely lead to the country's dismemberment unless a strong government emerges with a strong military presence that can control the territory."

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