There used to be more than a million Christians in Iraq. That was before the 2003 invasion. Before the insurgency. Before ISIS.
No one knows exactly how many Christians are left today. Some say as few as 250,000. Some say that Christianity will inevitably disappear from Iraq altogether.
“The time is coming where it is over,” Canon Andrew White told Fox News in March. Canon White is a respected Anglican priest who spent years in Iraq until it finally became too dangerous for him to stay.
It’s true that Christians in Iraq have suffered a lot in recent years, as have other religious minorities. It’s true their numbers have dwindled. And it’s true their future is uncertain.
But writing them off as finished?
If you’re tempted do that, then you don’t know what these people are made of.
A few minutes up the road from Mosul are the towns of Batnaya, Telskuf, and Alqosh. This is the heart of Christianity in Iraq and some of the oldest continuous Christian communities in existence. Alqosh is one of only a few places on earth where people still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
In August 2014, ISIS engulfed Batnaya. Then they reached Telskuf. Their advance was finally stopped just short of Alqosh.
At this point, ISIS had gained notoriety for targeting Christians in nearby Mosul, marking their homes with the Arabic letter N for “Nazarene.” Christians were given four options: leave, convert, pay a “protection tax,” or be killed.
ISIS was determined to purge “the people of the Book” from Iraq.
Families in Batnaya and Telskuf knew better than to wait and see how things would pan out. As ISIS advanced north, both towns quickly emptied.
In a tragically short time, Christianity vanished from this part of Iraq, just as many feared it would. The church in Batnaya became a training center for ISIS militants.
Graffiti on the walls outside proclaimed, “The cross will fall.”
ISIS’s military victory proved to be short-lived, but the effects of their occupation linger.
Kurdish forces pushed ISIS out of Telskuf in a matter of days. But Batnaya was not liberated until October 2016—and the town paid a heavy price. More than 80 percent of the buildings here were destroyed in the fight against ISIS. Today Batnaya is a ghost town, occupied by Kurdish soldiers but otherwise empty.
What future is left for Christians in Iraq? Even when ISIS is finally defeated, will anyone want to come back? What if those who predicted the demise of Christianity in Iraq were right? Maybe it really is over.
Some 235 families have already returned to Telskuf, determined to rebuild. And over 1,000 families who fled Batnaya and Telskuf said they want to come back, too.
Even after ISIS.
Even after all the devastation.
Over 1,000 Christian families have said, “There’s still a future for us here in Iraq.”
We think they’re right.
We saw a glimpse of this future recently, when hundreds of families poured into the church at Batnaya, where ISIS graffiti is still visible on the walls. They came even though their homes lay in ruins. They came to celebrate Easter in their own church for the first time in years.
“We are going back,” one of the worshippers told us after the service. “We are all going back, my son.”
The road home will not be easy for these families. Returning is a daunting prospect when your home still bears the scars of war. When armed soldiers patrol your streets. When basic services have yet to be restored. And perhaps most of all, when there is no school for your children to attend, because the old one was damaged in the fight against ISIS.
What future is there to go back to—for you? For your children?
We’ve seen it before—families aching to return to their communities after they’re liberated from ISIS, but choosing instead to prolong their displacement. One of the most common reasons: there’s nowhere to educate their children if they go back.
That’s the dilemma facing hundreds of families from Batnaya and Telskuf right now. And it’s a dilemma we can solve.
Our friend Father Salar, who led the Easter service in Batnaya last month, is coordinating the rebuilding effort in this part of Iraq. He’s already arranged for two buses to take children from Telskuf up the road to a school in Alqosh—about a 20-minute drive—so they can continue their education uninterupted, while their parents rebuild.
But there are already more children in Telskuf than two buses can carry, and more are coming. So we’ve agreed to provide two more buses—each capable of carrying another 30 children to and from school every day.
It’s a temporary solution, until the schools in Batnaya and Telskuf can be rebuilt. But it’s a vital step that makes it easier for more families to return. It means their displacement will be shorter. It means they can begin the work of rebuilding sooner. It means their children will suffer less disruption—and will have more opportunity to thrive, closer to home. It means kids like Meron, 8, will be able to help their community flourish.
“I don’t want to lose my schooling,” he says. “I want to be a big engineer and help rebuild Telskuf.”
It means the story isn’t over for these families in Iraq. It means life can return to their ancient Christian homeland.
Christians are vital to the fabric of Iraq. As one of our Muslim colleagues said after visiting the church in Batnaya, “This is what Iraq is. This is what Iraq should be. If you take the Christians out… if you remove all this diversity, it will not be Iraq.”
We’re determined to help Christians return home and rebuild, just as we’re determined to help all Iraqis who were displaced by ISIS—Yazidi, Muslim, Turkmen, and others. We are determined to remove every obstacle we can.
For families in Telskuf right now, the biggest obstacle is the lack of education for their children. And we can solve that.
We need to raise $50,000 to provide two buses—so that dozens of children can go to school again, so their families can return home and resettle, and so they can write a new chapter in their story, right here in Iraq.
Give today so that dozens of children can return to school with Meron and achieve their dream of rebuilding their homes and their lives.