Basra, Iraq: For almost 15 months, Basra has been home to Afaf Rahim, an Iraqi Christian in her early fifties who fled Mosul when fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group captured the city and the Nineveh plains in June 2014.
“I took my three children out at noontime, and that night, the city and the surrounding area were in the hands of ISIL fighters,” Rahim recalled.
She fled to the nearby city of Kirkuk – 140km southeast of Mosul – and managed to rent a small house. A few months later, Rahim could not afford to pay the rent any more.
“My husband left Iraq before ISIL attacked Mosul. He needed medical care, and his brothers who already live in Germany offered to help him. He left, and I don’t think he can ever come back,” Rahim told Al Jazeera.
Rahim decided to take her family to Basra, south of Iraq, where the St Thomas Chaldean church, one of the few churches remaining in Basra, offered to assist her.
“We had a good life before ISIL; now we are refugees in our own country.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that since fighting broke out between Iraqi forces and ISIL, also known as ISIS, in 2014, more than four million Iraqis have been internally displaced or have fled to other countries. Forty percent of them are Christians.
Not long ago, it was inhabited by Muslims, Christians and Mandaeans, but the city has undergone a major demographic change, especially since 2003.
Father Habib al-Noufaly, Archbishop
In 1987, an official census counted 1.4 million Christians in Iraq, but ever since, their numbers have been decreasing dramatically.
During Iraq’s civil war, between 2005 and 2007, thousands of Iraqi Christians found shelter in Syria, while hundreds more settled in Lebanon and Jordan.
When the Syrian uprising broke out in March 2011, some Christian refugees returned to Iraq, while a few families crossed the Mediterranean Sea into Europe.
In 2015, the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization, an Iraqi NGO, said the number of Iraqi Christians had dwindled to less than 400,000.
“Iraq’s Christians have been undergoing persecution since 2003 [the US invasion of Iraq],” said Father Habib al-Noufaly, archbishop of the Chaldean church. He added that Christians have been targeted systematically, leading to big waves of migration out of Basra and the rest of Iraq.
“Christians have protected Basra for centuries; our forefathers fought the Persian empire and the Mongolian invaders and Ottomans, and remained in this land. Now, only 70 Christian families live in Basra,” Noufaly told Al Jazeera.
“[For hosting] me and my children … I offered to look after the building in return,” added Rahim, whose family lives on small amounts of donations offered by Christian residents in Basra, as well as some Muslim families.
Rahim shares the church space with another Christian family.
After fleeing Mosul with her daughter and grandchildren in 2014, Georgette Mikha’s family took refuge in the church.
“I can’t afford to rent a house,” said Mikha, who lost her husband during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s. “My late husband’s pension is 750,000 Iraqi dinars [$670], and if I use it for rent, I will have nothing left to live on.”
Although Basra was once inhabited by a majority of Christians, Noufaly says it is no longer the perfect place for Iraqi Christians. “Basra is losing its diversity,” he lamented. “Not long ago, it was inhabited by Muslims, Christians and Mandaeans, but the city has undergone a major demographic change, especially since 2003.”
Now, Muslim Shia constitute the majority of the population of Basra.
When asked about the future of Iraq’s Christians, Noufaly acknowledged that “it does not look very bright.”
“The Iraqis have lost all faith in the country since 2003. The governments failed to gain our trust,” he added. “I am not sure what will happen, but I would like to think that our home will always be ours.”
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