Iraqi Christian refugees begin to return home
By Alaa Hussain in Baghdad
Iraqi Christian families driven from their homes by the religious persecution of the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) are gradually beginning to return from neighbouring countries, Iraqi officials told Diyaruna.
The decision to return to the homeland is largely due to improved security in areas liberated from the group, and Ninawa province in particular, they said.
Babylon Brigades secretary-general Rayan al-Kaldani told Diyaruna he has been working with local Christian leaders to repatriate hundreds of Iraqi Christian families whose applications for asylum in neighbouring countries were rejected.
The Babylon Brigades is a Christian militia that has been fighting ISIS.
The rejection of asylum "has left them in a state of limbo, unable to return nor afford staying in those host countries", al-Kaldani said.
During a recent visit to Beirut, al-Kaldani said he directly supervised the repatriation of 63 displaced Christian families, out of a total of 1,800 who will gradually start coming back to Iraq.
He said the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut had failed to take sufficient measures to facilitate their return, such as cancelling fees the families are required to pay.
These can amount to between $350 and $400 per individual, he said.
"With the support of several wealthy private Christian citizens in Iraq, most of these issues were resolved," he said, adding that he formed a special committee that paid off fines for a large number of these families.
The support included settling legal problems which impeded the return of Iraqi Christians and securing tickets for their flight from Beirut to Baghdad.
"Most returnees are from the Ninawa plain area in Ninawa province, and they returned to their liberated cities and villages with the help of Iraqi security forces," he said.
The effort to repatriate refugees requires government co-ordination, he stressed, as it is more than civil society and individual initiatives can handle on their own.
Calls for government support
The Christian community has deep roots in Iraq, said Iraqi MP Joseph Saliwa, calling on the government to devote more resources to addressing their plight.
Salyou, who represents the Christian community in parliament, told Diyaruna he has called on government authorities to take over the repatriation of refugees, guarantee payment of fines on their behalf and provide transportation.
The Ministry of Transportation has not yet responded to a request to book tickets on Iraqi Airways to return Iraqi Christians from Beirut, he told Diyaruna.
"The Iraqi Foreign Ministry also has not provided the requisite assistance to bring back Christians, not only from Beirut, but also from other neighbouring countries such as Turkey and Jordan," he said.
Bashiqa district director Thanoun Younis Yousef told Diyaruna that his town, once home to a large Christian population, is now welcoming them back.
Residents of Bashiqa and other areas in Ninawa are working together "so that unity can once again prevail, as it did before the emergence of ISIS", he said.