Refugee Iraqi Christians pray for stranded brethren
Advance of Islamic State radicals could spell end of Christian presence in northern Iraq
Iraqi Christians celebrate the Feast of the Assumption at Notre Dame de Chaldée in Paris yesterday. Photograph: Lara Marlowe
Wadih (75) was wounded in the 2010 attack in which 58 people were killed at Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad. He is now a deacon at an Iraqi church in Paris. Photograph: Lara Marlowe
Some 100 Iraqi Christians gathered yesterday at Notre Dame de Chaldée in northeast Paris to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption. With 100,000 of their kinsmen on the run from the Islamic State in northern Iraq, they were a sombre congregation.
“Today is the feast of the Virgin,” said Msgr Petrus Yousif. “The Virgin is watching from heaven. We beg her to protect our brothers in Iraq.
“Let us pray especially for the women and girls, who are in a perilous situation,” Msgr Yousif continues, alluding to reports that the extremists have committed rape and sold female slaves.
The church embodies the complex identity of eastern Christians, on the faultline between east and west.
It is in a modern building with plain tile floors and beige walls. Yet among the Arab faces, flowers, bells and incense, one feels transported to Baghdad or Mosul, or to ancient, apostolic times. The Creed and Our Father, like most of the service, are in Arabic. Part of the liturgy is in Chaldean, derived from the Aramaic language spoken by Christ.
Fears for relatives
Smoke billows from the censer swung by Wadih (75), a deacon. Like most Iraqi refugees, he does not want his family name published because he fears for relatives still in Iraq.
Wadih made the same gestures as deacon at Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, on the terrible evening of October 31st, 2010. Gunmen dispatched by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – the leader of the Islamic State, which has seized Christian areas of northern Iraq – burst into the church, shooting and throwing grenades. They held around 100 parishoners hostage, killing 58 and wounding nearly 80.
Wadih and dozens of other worshippers barricaded themselves in the sacristy. “For 4½ hours, we listened to the screams of women and children” he recalls.
The gunmen couldn’t enter the sacristy, so they threw grenades through a stained glass window, killing four. Glass shards embedded in Wadih’s shoulder. The French government brought him and other wounded Christians to France for surgery, then granted them asylum.
Wadih’s son Ameel was shot through the back. The bullet lodged in his guts. “He lay on the floor, bleeding. They had to transfuse seven bottles of blood and serum into him, and cut 35cm from his intestines,” Wadih recalls.
The face of the only gunman he saw, a youth of perhaps 17, is etched in Wadih’s mind. They are thought to have numbered between six and 15. The attack marked the transition from al Qaeda in Iraq to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
At the end of the siege, the extremists blew themselves up with belts of explosives. “It was a massacre,” Wadih says. “The people who did it have no pity, no mercy, no values, no human feeling.”
He’s recovered from the trauma. “We’ve almost forgotten. Now we have other nightmares,” he says, half laughing. “I lost everything in Iraq. We were rich and now we are beggars.”
Does the Islamic State’s takeover of Christian areas of northern Iraq spell the end of the Christian presence there? “I do not wish it,” Wadih sighs. “But yes. That seems to be the case. This time is the end.”
Adnan Paulus, an Iraqi translator and language teacher who has just returned from a mission to help his co-religionists in northern Iraq, says there is only one solution: “We need a UN military-protected zone within Iraq to prevent the Christians from leaving forever.”
Every parishoner I talk to has family members in Iraq who are trying to escape. They feel a mixture of frustration with the unwieldiness of French bureaucracy and deep gratitude to France for receiving them.
The official position of the eastern church has long been that Christians must stay in Iraq. But Elish Yako, the secretary general of the Association for the Support of Middle Eastern Minorities, which has helped 1,500 Iraqi Christians emigrate to France in the last six years, says it is cruel to force Christians to stay if they cannot be protected.
This week, he adds, Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako said for the first time that it was all right for them to leave.
Karam (25), a student in computer programming, is haunted by the assassination of the archbishop of Mosul, Faraj Raho, in 2008.
“Their strategy is to drive us out,” he says. “You kill the father and the children run away.”
Karam misses his family home and the monasteries of northern Iraq. “You get to the point where you don’t feel anything anymore,” he says.
“I try to forget, but I cannot, because I have two married sisters who are refugees in Erbil with their children . . . French people complain about transport and weather, simple things. I think they don’t know what real problems are. I am happy just to be alive.”