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Iraqi Christian leader visiting Mosul sees little future for Christians

30 Jan 2017 – By Paul Jeffrey

MOSUL, Iraq (CNS) — As some residents of the city of Mosul celebrate their new freedom from the Islamic State group, an Iraqi Christian leader who visited the war-torn city said Christian residents are unlikely to return.

“I don’t see a future for Christians in Mosul,” said Father Emanuel Youkhana, a priest, or archimandrite, of the Assyrian Church of the East.

Father Youkhana, who runs Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, a Christian program for displaced Iraqis around the city of Dohuk, entered Mosul in a military convoy Jan. 27, the day Iraqi officials raised the national flag over the eastern part of the city. Islamic State seized the city in 2014, causing Christians and other minorities to flee.

Once inside Mosul, Father Youkhana moved about freely, talking to residents and soldiers. He visited two churches, both heavily damaged.

“The churches were used as warehouses by Daesh,” he said, referring to the terrorist group by its common Arabic name. “They used the churches to store what they looted from Christian and Yezidi villages, but as the end neared they sold the buildings to local contractors, who started tearing down the walls to reuse the steel inside. If the army hadn’t entered for another couple of weeks, the buildings might have been completely destroyed.”

One building, belonging to the Syriac Orthodox Church, had not been completely swept for explosives, according to Iraqi soldiers in the area. The front of the building was painted with an Islamist slogan by the Islamic State, and a military commander told Father Youkhana his troops would gladly paint over it. Father Youkhana replied that it was not his church, so he had no authority to authorize the troops.

“And leaving it as is preserves the evidence of what Daesh did here,” he told Catholic News Service.

At another church, owned by the Assyrian Church of the East, the body of an Islamic State fighter poked out of a pile of garbage in front of the sanctuary.

Father Youkhana, who went to high school in Mosul, also photographed several houses that belonged to Christians, but had been given or sold to Muslim families by the Islamic State. While he doubts Christians will return, he believes they will be able to recover the value of their properties, notwithstanding attempts by the Islamic State to destroy local government records.

“Christians aren’t going to come back to stay. The churches I saw were not destroyed with bombs, but by the everyday business operations of the community. How can Christians return to that environment? It’s unfortunate, because Mosul needs their skills. Most Christians were part of the intellectual and professional class here, they were doctors and lawyers and engineers and university professors. But I don’t see how they can return,” he said.

Father Youkhana would make no predictions how long peace will last once the Islamic State is driven completely out of Mosul, a predominantly Sunni Muslim city. The Iraqi army units that expelled the Islamic State are largely Shiite Muslim. Several of the military’s armored vehicles sported flags of the Popular Mobilization Units, a Shiite militia, and Father Youkhana said he saw several examples of graffiti written by Shiite soldiers calling for violence against the Sunnis.

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