NAOUR, JORDAN - More than 3,000 Iraqi Christians have sought refuge from the fighting in their country in churches in Jordan. And Caritas, an aid group affiliated with the Catholic Church says it expects more than 1,000 more to arrive in the coming days. Unlike the Muslim refugees who have taken shelter in UN-organized camps around the country, the Christians have sought safe haven among members of their faith.
A group from Qaraqosh and Mosul were some of the last Christians to leave an area known for being the home of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
Only days have passed since Fouad and his family arrived at Amman International Airport.
“I went to the Catholic Church and he told me to be patient for a day or two so that they could find a place for us. Father Nour called us and said to come to this hall. He promised it’s a safe place, and thank God we’re fine," said Fouad.
Islamic State nightmare
This hall is in Naour, a quiet town about 20 kilometers southwest of Amman, an area distinctively different than this bustling refugee camp in the nearby Jordanian capital.
Lubna is Fouad’s wife. She said she can finally breathe. She said the war on Christians had been ongoing since Saddam was ousted in 2003. But she also said the last few days under the Islamist militants known as ISIL, or ISIS, were a nightmare.
“They threatened us, saying you have to either leave, be slaughtered, convert to Islam, or pay the jizya tax [on non-Muslims]. We couldn’t bear living in Mosul, and we were scared for our girls and our honor," said Lubna.
ISIL confiscated their home and destroyed sites where their forbears had practiced their faith for nearly 2000 years. According to one United Nations report, more than1500 Iraqi civilians were killed in June, a majority of them Christian.
“When we were leaving, one shot hit at our feet and a mortar sailed overhead," said Lubna. "We were praying 'Mother Mary, please save us, we just need to get to this bridge.'”
They finally arrived at the basement of this Catholic Church, ending up sharing everything with 45 people they had never met before.
“Even if here I’m living in a hall, getting handouts and so on, I feel like I’m better off with how people treat you here, not like how I was living," said Fouad.
“We put up with leaving and the costs and everything for our girls, so that they can have rights, so that they can have a future, because in Iraq there isn’t any future," said Lubna.
But even here, the future is still uncertain. They are waiting for their second interview with the United Nations. After that, Fouad hopes they will grant him and his family permanent asylum in the U.S, Europe or Australia, something that can take years.
“I’m waiting to go to a country that has human rights. Human beings actually have their lives, you don’t have to ask for it. I’ll go to any country," he said.
For now they’ll stay right here. So far only France has granted asylum to Iraqi Christians escaping ISIL. Australia has pledged to accept 4000; what the U.S or other European countries will do, remains to be seen.