When Saddam Hussein was in charge, some 1.3 million Christians lived in Iraq. Today that figure is believed to be only 200,000.
Located some 35 kilometers southeast of Mosul along the Nineveh plains, Qaraqosh was once considered the cradle of Christianity in Iraq, its history stretching back to biblical times. Before Islamic State invaded, Qaraqosh was home to Iraq’s largest Christian community. 40,000 people lived here until three years ago –no other city in the country was home to so many Christians. Now liberated after three years of occupation, little remains and former residents are considering whether it’s worth rebuilding in a country with an unclear future.
A local priest, Father Roni, has made it his task to resuscitate Qaraqosh. “We have to bury the dead so life can return,” he says. The bodies of 11 murdered people lie unburied at the cemetery. Some have been here so long that their faces are no longer recognizable.
Around half of the residents of Qaraqosh have left Iraq, with about 40 Christian families heading abroad each week to places like France, Jordan, Australia–anywhere but here, a region that doesn’t hold much of a future for them.
Under Saddam Hussein’s rule, they were at least halfway safe. As a Sunni Muslim, Hussein was himself part of a minority in the country and he formally incorporated the Christians into the state apparatus as part of his efforts to consolidate power. But their situation deteriorated after the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. Despite the Americans’ claims of being liberators, the chaos they created further fomented the hatred many Iraqis had for Christians.
The province of Nineveh, where the Christians found refuge, is one of the most ethnically diverse in Iraq. In addition to Christians, it is also home to Yazidis, Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds. As such, it is considered a test case for how the divided country might coalesce once again after the fall of Islamic State. It would cost $10 million (€9 million) to rebuild Qaraqosh, but no one knows where the money might come from. And coexistence is little more than a vision.