In IS-torn Iraq & Syria, rays of hope for Christians

MIDDLE EAST (BP) -- While the Islamic State maintains territorial strongholds in Syria and Iraq, Christians have reportedly been able to remain in or return to areas where they held majorities before civil war began.

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Alqosh, about 30 miles north of IS-held Mosul, is described as the last Christian town in Iraq, with 500 Christian families, four churches and two monasteries, World Watch Monitor reported Thursday (Nov. 3). Iraqi soldiers are liberating several surrounding communities in the Nineveh Plain north of Mosul, including Qaraqosh, Karamles and Bartella, allowing some Christians to return to their homes despite fear of landmines left behind by Islamic State terrorists, World Watch said.

Catholic priests have returned to heavily damaged churches in Karamles and Qaraqosh and placed crosses there, praying and expressing hope that others will return, World Watch said Nov. 1. One of the priests identified only as Father Ammar returned to Iraq's largest Christian town of Qaraqosh, where 95 percent of the pre-war population of 50,000-60,000 was Christian.

"I praise God for this wonderful day," World Watch quoted Ammar. "Yes, they (Islamic State or IS) destroyed and burned some houses and churches, but we can rebuild them. What counts is that we have prayed here and have put up the cross. After being away for exactly 811 days, after being attacked by the forces of darkness and evil, we have come back to worship in freedom."

Another priest identified only as Father Thabet brought a cross covered with flowers to his home village of Karamles and planted it atop a hill overlooking the community.

"I am so happy I can do this. I'm smiling from cheek to cheek and I weep tears of joy at the same time. This is the trip I have been praying for, for two years now," World Watch quoted Thabet, who had been living with his congregation in a community for displaced people in Erbil. "My dream is to bring all the Christians back to this village."

But Henriette Kats, an analyst with the World Watch Research unit of Open Doors International, cautioned against false optimism a week earlier.

"Of course it is to be hoped that citizens of Mosul and of the neighboring towns will be able to return to their homes when the IS militants are defeated," World Watch quoted Kats Oct. 25. "[But] although many Christians are looking forward to returning, many others are distrustful and say that they do not believe they can ever live in Iraq in safety again."

IS still controls central and eastern Syria and much of northern and western Iraq, the BBC reported Nov. 2. Yet at its peak, IS controlled territory with a population of about 10 million people; today, the jihadists control an area inhabited by 6 million, according to the IHS Conflict Monitor, which identifies itself as an "open-source intelligence collection and analysis service."

An anomaly is Alqosh, which World Watch said has managed to fight off IS jihadists by banding civilian Christians with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. Identified in the Old Testament as the home of the prophet Nahum "the Elkoshite" (Nahum 1:1), the city has been Christian since the Middle Ages.

In Syria, where civil war broke out in 2011, the Christian population in Aleppo has dwindled from 200,000 to 33,000, World Watch reported, but those who remain have been able to minister to displaced Muslims. For many Muslims, it is the first time they have spent time with Christians, a 28-year-old Christian mother named Kristina told World Watch.

"Many Muslims were genuinely surprised when they met Christian women in our churches willing to serve them," Kristina was quoted. "Their image was that all Christian women spend most of their days dancing in night clubs and drinking alcohol! Meeting each other was a shock, both for them and for us."

Kristina finds hope in the interaction between Syrian Christians and Muslims.

"Muslims are coming to us. The only thing we have to do is tell them the good news: they are waiting for it," she told World Watch. "They realize that, when living in a Christian environment, the [Christian message] will be shared. They may even see it as a sign of weakness if it isn't."

Compiled from World Watch Monitor reports. Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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