Mosul, in northern Iraq, had a substantial Christian population of around 10,000 until Sunni Islamist militants belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) took the city in their lightning offensive last week.
Most of them have fled, seeking refuge in nearby Kurdistan, an autonomous Kurdish territory where they feel protected from the hard-line Sunni fighters by the local Peshmerga army.
Unlike the rest of Iraq, Kurdistan has succeeded in preserving co-existence between its diverse communities, and for now it's a safe haven for oppressed minorities.
The Peshmerga have taken advantage of the power vacuum in northern Iraq to extend their influence beyond the borders of Kurdistan.
Refugees in the town of Bashiqa, just ten kilometres from their homes in Mosul, are benefiting from the protection of Kurdish forces.
In the town centre, FRANCE 24 watched Peshmerga fighters deploy under the steeple of Bashiqa's Syrian Orthodox Church, whose patriarch had traveled from Damascus to show support for Christians in the region.
The security measures are tight, and FRANCE 24 was not allowed to film the event.
Bashiqa has welcomed some 500 Christians who have fled nearby Mosul. Among them is Father Pios Affas.
He found the courage to return to Mosul after it fell to ISIS insurgents so that he could retrieve the relics of his parish.
According to him, Mosul’s churches haven't been attacked, but for the vast majority of the city’s 10,000 Christians, there was no question of trusting to the mercy of the Islamists.
“There was panic,” he told FRANCE 24. “Everybody fled, carrying whatever they could. Ninety percent have left and only 10 percent remain.”
“They stayed because they were old, or because they didn't have cars or simply didn't have the possibility to leave,” he added. “Those who knew it would be worse for them said: ‘it's better to die in our homes than on the roads’.”
‘We have left everything behind’
FRANCE 24 interviewed one family that had taken refuge in Bashiqa. Terrified, the women asked for their faces not to be shown.
“This volatile situation scares us,” one woman said. “The jihadists have spread through the city. Of course we are sad to have left our home and everything behind. Christians are less numerous, year after year. More and more families leave the country.”
Bashiqa is a microcosm of Iraq. Nearly all the religions that make up the country's sectarian mosaic live peacefully side by side. This makes it the perfect target for Islamist intolerance.
One building, which used to be a bar selling alcohol, was hit six months ago in a double car bombing. Since then there's been a third attack on the town. Now the locals have decided to take their security into their own hands.
“All the people and local political organisations are ready to defend themselves and defend their city alongside the army,” said Ali Darwish, who is head of the Bashiqa town municipality.
Date created : 2014-06-17