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Iraqi Minorities Powerless in Face of Islamic State Advances

Iraqi Christians, who fled violence brought by Islamic State militants in the village of Qaraqosh, seek refuge inside a church building in Irbil, north of Baghdad, Aug. 11, 2014.

Iraqi Christians, who fled violence brought by Islamic State militants in the village of Qaraqosh, seek refuge inside a church building in Irbil, north of Baghdad, Aug. 11, 2014.

Islamist extremists raging their way across Syria and northwestern Iraq have forced Iraqi Christians and Yazidi minorities to flee areas where they have lived for thousands of years.

Thousands of Iraqi Christians, who in early August fled their villages in northwestern Iraq when militants from the Islamic State swept in, have flooded into Kurdistan. And many of them are not looking back.

Khalis Barbar, an Iraqi Christian who represents the Christian community from the ancient town of Ninevah, told VOA by phone from Irbil that despite help from officials and non-governmental organizations, their conditions are dire.

"Many of the people [are in] hotels and motels and others in schools, every family gets to live in a classroom, in one classroom, and many, many of them are living in gardens and in church," he said.

Barbar has stayed in touch with Christian families left behind in the town of Qaraqosh. He says the militants have looted most of the shops and homes there. He says one of the leaders of the militants, known locally as "Daash, "took over his house."

"We have there about 20 or 30 families, they did not, they cannot leave because they were asleep or they haven't money or cars or something like that, so they are still [there] now," Barbar said. "And the 'Daash' now they are starting to steal [break into] the shops and open it and start to open [break into] many of the houses there also and steal what’s in the houses and shops, like electrical instruments, like computers, like telephones, like food. So, they emptied all the shops there in Qaraqosh."

He says many local Sunni Arabs have been forced into joining the militants, but others are supporting the Islamic State group against what they perceive as a hostile Shi'ite government led by incumbent Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Iraqi President Fouad Massoum on Monday nominated Haider al-Abadi to take over the prime minister post in hopes of creating a new unity government to bring Iraq's Sunnis back into the mainstream. So far Maliki, seen as a deeply polarizing figure in Iraqi politics, has refused to step down.

Leaders from around the world have denounced Islamic State extremist attacks against Iraq's Christian and Yazidi minorities.

Fearing a potential genocide, the United States on August 8 started bombing militant positions in northwestern Iraq, while joining an international air drop of emergency food and water to Yazidis stranded on Sinjar in Iraq's remote northwest.

Metin Corabatir, a former UNHCR official who now runs an NGO in Turkey, says some Yazidis have finally managed to escape.

"We are witnessing a big tragedy actually. Thanks to efforts from the U.S. government and Kurdish groups and some neighboring countries, now some people have been evacuated from Sinjar Mountain," he said. "In Turkey, we have about 2,000 people in Silopi area at the border and they are [being] helped by the local municipality and NGOs there. But we hear, according to reports, that there are thousands of Yazidis mainly waiting at the Iraqi side of the border, waiting to cross the border."

While encouraged by the political shift in Baghdad and the U.S. airstrikes, Barbar says although not all Iraqi Sunnis support the militants, there are some who do, and that means many Christians are no longer comfortable in Iraq.

"They have sleeper cells in other towns, maybe in Baghdad, I think they have these sleeper cells there. And if, for example, they [Islamic State militants] go to Baghdad, enter Baghdad, they [Sunnis] will be with them [supporting them]," he said.

Washington on Tuesday said it was sending an additional 130 military advisers to Irbil to assess the scope of the crisis and get the refugees to safety. The United States has insisted it will not send any combat troops to the area.

The Islamic State militants have grabbed large swaths of eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq and declared it a "caliphate."

Barbar says their invasion has forced some 140,000 Christians to abandon areas where they have lived for 7,000 years. Now, he says, many no longer want to go back.

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    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.

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