Ousted by war, Iraq's Christians struggle to reclaim homes

Baghdad (AFP) –


Fleeing war or threats of persecution, Iraq's Christians left behind thousands of homes in recent years -- returning to find them occupied by militiamen or secretly sold using fabricated deeds.

Getting those houses back, families, clergy and officials told AFP, is a dizzying bureaucratic process that usually ends in failure.

"In the end, I sold my home at the price they demanded," said Fawzi Bulos, a Catholic veterinarian, who once owned a spacious house on the Iraqi capital's plush Palestine Street.

He hasn't stepped foot in it since 2007.

At the time, Baghdad was gripped by a sectarian war that had erupted following the 2003 US-led invasion.

Fearing persecution, Bulos took his dentist wife and children north to the relative calm of Iraqi Kurdistan.

But soon, squatters moved into his home.

For years, he begged high-level government officials and military commanders to evict them, even travelling to Baghdad when it calmed down to see the house in person.

Mediation efforts ended in death threats and a legal complaint failed -- the squatters were too well-connected.

A decade after he fled, Bulos reluctantly sold his home to the squatters for around $400,000, the same amount he had spent in legal fees and bribes paid to opportunistic middlemen promising to resolve the case.

"I thought it was better I come out alive," he said.

- Forced doors, fake deeds -

Before 2003, Baghdad counted a diverse Christian population.

But once sectarian bloodletting began, they fled to Iraqi Kurdistan or abroad, leaving their homes in the care of relatives or Muslim neighbours until they could return.

Within months, many discovered that other families had moved in, claiming to be the real owners, or that armed factions had turned their homes into command centres.

"In many cases, people just broke down doors. In others, they tampered with the deeds," said Yunan al-Farid, a Greek Orthodox priest in Baghdad who advocates on behalf of victims of squatting.

Muslims lost their homes in similar ways following Saddam Hussein's ouster, either during the chaotic civil war or as retribution against members of his toppled regime.

In 2008, with sectarian violence easing, Iraq created a commission to return homes in Baghdad to their rightful owners.

More than a decade later, the body told AFP it had successfully returned more than 26,500 homes in Baghdad, now a city of 10 million people.

Among them were only 50 Christian-owned homes, said current commissioner Mudhir al-Mulla. The body has not published the overall number of return requests it has received.

- 'We have no one' -

One of the reasons is bureaucracy, with dozens of stamps and signatures needed to process a complaint.

Even Christian owners who acquired eviction orders found security forces unable or unwilling to enforce them, said William Warda, who heads the Hammurabi Human Rights Organisation.

After seeing fellow Christians lose their homes even with court orders, many are too sceptical to even begin the process.

"Then, judges say they can't do anything unless they are presented with a complaint," Warda said.

More broadly, Christians say the system is rigged.

The post-2003 power-sharing system paved the way for Shiite parties and armed groups to win unprecedented sway in Iraq's parliament, ministries and security forces.

Christians, who make up less than one percent of Iraq's 40 million people today, were granted a quota of five lawmakers in the 329-seat legislature.

But the MPs are seen as weak, and beholden to the larger political factions with whom they have aligned.

"At least Muslims can go to their political parties or tribes, who will defend them," said Farid, the Greek Orthodox priest. "But us, we have no one."

- Little hope to go home -

Iraq's Christians were hit with another devastating blow in 2014, when the Islamic State group swept through their historic heartland in the northern province of Nineveh.

Tens of thousands of Christians fled their homes, often forgetting their deeds.

Returning after IS's defeat in 2017, they found their properties had been taken over by armed groups that had gained tremendous power after battling the jihadis.

Many of the occupying forces were themselves minorities, including Christian, and were subsequently blacklisted by the US for illegally seizing civilian property.

In recent months, an unlikely figure has emerged as a self-styled champion of the issue -- cleric and former militia leader Moqtada Sadr.

A terrifying name in the 2000s for US troops and Iraqi minorities alike, Sadr now heads parliament's largest bloc.

He recently called for Christian-owned homes to be protected and returned to their rightful owners.

With a bitter smile, Iraqi Christians and government officials pointed out to AFP that a number of forced expropriations were carried out by Sadrists themselves.

With a historic visit by Pope Francis due in March, the issue could gain new traction -- but advocates are not hopeful.

"Of the cases I know, 20 percent were resolved. But the remaining 80 percent are still a huge problem," said Farid.

Without institutions, some said, Christians are forced to beg for rights from top leaders, like second-class citizens.

"There's no law, no institution to guarantee Iraq's diversity and citizenship for all," Warda told AFP.

"And as long as this is the case, Christians will be subject to the whims of the powers that be."