In Face Of ISIS Advance, Many Iraqi Christians Insist On Staying Put


BARTELLA, Iraq — Across the street from a Christian church in this quiet northern Iraqi town, Mounir Behram sits down for lunch with his family. He works as an armed guard protecting the church, an easy job on most days. But now, hardline Sunni extremists — infamous for targeting those who don’t conform to their brand of Islam — control nearby Mosul, the country’s second-largest city. He is plagued by worries that the extremists will invade this predominantly Christian town.

His wife, Sabiha, calms his fears with her soothing demeanor and hot bowls of barley and vegetables. Pointing above the kitchen table to a faded painting of The Last Supper, she says, “They are our guardians.”

“We will stay here,” she adds. “This is our home.”

Mounir nods in agreement. “Where would we go?” he asks.

The couple’s Assyrian ancestors have lived in and around this town of 16,000 since biblical times. She has watched as families fled the area over the past decade to escape battles between insurgents and foreign troops and increasing attacks against Christians. And in recent weeks, people have begun leaving with even greater urgency to escape militants allied with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a Sunni extremist group that has captured nearly a dozen Iraqi cities since mid-June, instigating sectarian strife and reportedly killing Iraqi troops and civilians along the way.

Yet despite ISIS’s brutal reputation, Sabiha says she’s not going anywhere. Her faith, she says, gives her the courage to stay. Many other Christians here echo her defiance, while others plan to flee when they can — like the hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis displaced by turmoil just this month.

“We will defend our churches,” Sabiha says without missing a beat. “Our youth will protect us.”

Sabiha and other Christians are holding out hope that ISIS will take a milder stance toward Iraqi Christians and other minority groups — who made up roughly 3 percent in pre-war Iraq and now likely less after a mass exodus of Christians — than they have in Syria.

“Even if they come, it’s very difficult to leave,” says one religious leader in the Christian community who asked that his name and title remain anonymous due to safety fears. “Where would I go? If I leave, I’ll be living in a [refugee] tent.”

“Of course, we’re worried. But Kurdish forces are here,” he adds, referring to fighters known as Peshmerga who have long guarded the town. “They will protect us.”

Mouad Gorgis, a Christian shopkeeper whose family has lived in Bartella for as long as he can remember, echoes the sentiment.

“I don’t understand how [ISIS] can do this,” he says as a rusty fan spins overhead in his small basic goods store. Residents, some Christian, others Muslim, walk past and wave at him. “I mean, it’s 2014. Muslims wouldn’t do this. I don’t know where they brought these weird ideas. I would stay even if they threatened to kill me.”

Yet like many residents of the town, Gorgis complains that life here is becoming unlivable. Many blame ISIS for recent water and electricity shortages since their town gets the resources from Mosul. Lights flicker on and off in most homes. And some churches have stopped running religious programs like Sunday school for security reasons. Many people compare the current atmosphere in Bartella to that of years past, when car bombs rocked the town.

Mazin Said Shaba, a Christian who fled the violence in Baghdad in 2006 to live in Bartella, says that he’ll jump at any opportunity to leave Iraq. He originally moved to Bartella because he thought it would be safer to live in a community dominated by Christians. Now, he wonders if that will be the town’s demise.

“The priests tell us to stay, but their own families have left,” says Shaba, a father of two young boys. “When I sleep at night, I’m not safe. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”

Just off a main road here, a man named Wa’ad who’s part of the Shabak Muslim minority, many of whom are Shiite, says he fears the Sunni extremists just as much as Christians do.

“It’s not just about the Christians,” he says, a long butcher knife strapped to his pants. “ISIS attacks everyone. They killed my uncle in Mosul just because he’s a minority.”

Though Wa’ad has stayed in Bartella to work, he sent his family to the heavily fortified city of Erbil, roughly 45 miles east. He didn’t want them to meet the same fate as his uncle.

It’s the same fear Sabiha and Mounir have for their teenage daughter, despite their insistence that they should stay in Bartella and cling to their roots.

In the family kitchen, Mounir looks at his daughter, her warm eyes, her bare shoulders, her cross around her neck, and her long, uncovered hair. The thought of ISIS making her cover up in conservative Islamic garb and abandon her faith would destroy him, he says.

“Our girl wants to leave,” Mounir says. “She says, ‘If you want to die here, fine. But I want to live.’”

Abdulla Hawez contributed reporting from Bartella.