Iraq's Waterless Christians: The Campaign to Expel a Religion

Qaraqosh is one of the last refuges in northern Iraq for Christians fleeing persecution by the militants of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, who swept into the region in June. A historic Christian city of 50,000 about 19 miles southeast of Mosul, Qaraqosh is under the formidable protection of the well-armed Peshmerga—the Kurdish fighters whose autonomous region disputes the area with both ISIL and the Iraqi central government based in Baghdad. Now, in a further effort to oust Christians from land they have inhabited for two millennia, the Islamic militants have begun turning off a precious utility: water.

Since taking Mosul on June 10, ISIL militants have squeezed Qaraqosh and nearby Christian villages by blocking the pipes that connect the communities with the Tigris river. Without a sufficient number of deep wells to fill the gap, the city must have water trucked in, at huge cost, from Kurdish-controlled areas just 15 miles away. Since ISIL took over key refineries in northern Iraq, the price of fuel has spiked across the region. The parched residents of Qaraqosh must pay about $10 every other day to fill up emergency water tanks, no small sum in this economically depressed part of Iraq.

Outside one of the town’s 12 churches, people queue from 6 a.m. until midnight to get their daily rations from a well. Flatbed trucks are joined by children with pushcarts and riders on bicycles bearing empty jugs. “Our lives revolve around water,” says Laith, 28, a school teacher who returned with his family a day earlier from a suburb of Erbil, the Kurdish regional capital, 45 miles away, to which thousands of threatened Christians have migrated. Though aid agencies have erected several water depots around town, supplies are limited, barely enough to sustain large families in the 100-degree-plus heat. Plans to dig new wells will take at least several months to fulfill.

Christians have been fleeing ISIL-controlled territory since the militants and their allies overwhelmed the garrisons of the Baghdad government in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and its most Christian. The Islamic State, which sees itself as the restoration of the caliphate to rule all Muslims, immediately imposed anti-Christian rules, ordering Muslim employers to fire Christian workers. The homes of Christian religious leaders were ransacked and occupied by militants. A Christian population as old as the faith shrank from 3,000 families to several hundred in weeks.

On July 18, ISIL ordered non-Muslims to convert or pay a tax last imposed during the Ottoman empire. If not, they would face “death by the sword,” according to a decree that was read out in city mosques and broadcast from loudspeakers around town. Many families then fled to Qaraqosh. Keen to absorb the disputed territory, the Kurds dug in around Qaraqosh and three smaller Christian villages, to the relief of refugees and locals who have faced the mortar attacks accompanying ISIL’s offensive.

“The [militants] want to erase our history and break our faith,” says Father Amanoel Adel Kalloo, a Syrian Catholic priest from Mosul who has taken shelter in Qaraqosh with more than 470 families. “We must struggle to preserve this, but so much has already been lost.” Father Yosef, a second displaced clergyman, said that the hard deadline set by the militants to depart or convert has forced people to abandon homes and businesses, often with little more than a car and some clothing.

Apart from the enforced drought conditions, electrical blackouts last most of the day. Merchants say business has been hamstrung further by a trade “embargo” that ISIL has placed on surrounding Muslim towns that used to trade with Qaraqosh. Shops are mostly shuttered, and work is scare. Firaz Petros, 27, says the situation has compelled him to car-pool an hour each way to Erbil, where he works in waste disposal. “We’re barely earning enough to live,” he says, adding that he and fellow local commuters share the cost of a $45 daily gas bill.

Despite the hardships—and the presence of jihadists less than a mile beyond the city limits—local religious leaders say that must resist the urge to leave, or risk losing their centuries-old identity. For Christianity to endure in Iraq, “we must stay until the end,” says Archbishop Basile Casmoussa of the Syrian Catholic church in Mosul, who was kidnapped for a day by radical gunmen in 2005. With his exiled flock in Qaraqosh, he laments that mass is not celebrated in Mosul for the first time in 1,600 years. He draws hope, however, in the fact that churches in Qaraqosh are still drawing crowds. “Our faith is being tested,” he says.