Unlike most of his family members who remain in exile, 43-year-old Salam Boutros decided to return to Mosul, the city he was forced to leave on June 10, 2014, when ISIS militants took control and forced its Christian inhabitants to either leave or pay tribute.
He spent six years traveling between Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Mersin in Turkey. Yet halfway 2020, having hesitated for a long time, he decided to return.
He was encouraged to do so by his Muslim friends and by the fact that his old small house in the Al-Dawasa area was spared from the ferocity of war and reclaimed from ISIS in 2017. Years of conflict had caused tremendous damage to Mosul’s old city, turning many of its alleyways and historical monuments to rubble.
Salam, who lives alone, is one of the few Christians who have returned. He tries to compensate the loss of the fast food restaurant he owned at the old market with one he rents near his home.
He and his relatives closely follow the Pope’s visit to Iraq, and his tours of Baghdad, Najaf, Ur, Erbil and Mosul. They hope his visit will shed a light on the living conditions of Iraqi Christians and help save what remains of their presence. Others, however, believe the Pope’s visit has come “too late.”
Activists identify a series of obstacles that prevent restoring part of Mosul to the Christians, who before 2003 numbered over 50,000. Despite the city’s relative security, there are still the militias with multiple loyalties that enjoy wide authority. In addition, the weak government, lack of services, the fragile economy and rule of law make for an uncertain future.
“Things need time,” said Salam, hoping life will go back to what it once was and see his relatives return. However, despite the comfort he finds by being in the place where he spent most of his life, he admitted feeling out of place at times.
This due to the fact that “his” Mosul no longer exists and many of the faces he used to know are no longer there. Markets and streets have been transformed, and the families who used to live there for centuries mostly left.
Also, Salam does not hide his concerns whenever he sees armed militia members roaming the streets, as it reminds him of the deteriorated security situation after 2003 when Islamic militants invaded Mosul and killed many civilians, both Christian and Muslim.
“This is one of the many reasons preventing Christians from returning,” he said. Many are waiting for Mosul to proclaim a definite “farewell to arms” before returning.
Sixty kilometers north of Mosul, in the city of Dohuk in the Kurdistan Region or Iraq, teacher and writer Samer Elias Saeed has entered his 7th year away from Mosul. He left in the summer of 2014.
What prevents him from returning, is the government’s failure to compensate him for the damage to his house near Mosul University. His house was seized by ISIS and used as a Sharia Court for about two years.
After the organization got expelled in July 2017, the Nineveh Guard militia took control and wreaked havoc, according to Samer, as they considered it an ISIS property.
The 46-year-old, who is working in a Syriac school in Dohuk, believes the ideas and atmosphere, in which ISIS appeared in Mosul, still dominate the prevailing mentality in the city. “Not much has changed,” he said.
He has little confidence in his neighbors, which is another reason preventing him from returning. As so many Christians, he holds them responsible for not reporting the people who looted properties. They even suspect some to have participated.
Another factor that keeps him away from the city where he was born and lived most of his life is work. He teaches Syriac. “If there are no Christians in Mosul, to whom will I teach the Syriac language?” he asked.
One Church and Seventy Families
Of the once 35 churches in Mosul, only the bells of the Church of Annunciation are still ringing, while the rest – some of great historical value – are damaged or destroyed and await reconstruction. In fact, this is the case for most of the city’s facilities following “the liberation war.”
According to Father Raed Emmanuel Adel, pastor of the Church of the Annunciation and Syriac Catholic Churches in Mosul, only seventy families returned to Mosul following the city’s liberation from ISIS.
They generally belong to the 5,000 Christians who had stayed in Mosul before ISIS took control in 2014, compared to the 50,000 who lived in the city before the fall of the Ba’ath regime in April 2003.
Father Adel believes the decline in the presence of the Christians in Mosul is due to the persecution at the hands of armed groups, even before the arrival of ISIS. Homes were entered, men were killed or kidnapped for money. This prompted most Christians to migrate to other areas in Iraq, most notably Erbil or, further afield, to Europe, America and Australia.
“Whoever Does not Love Does not See God”
At the entrance to the Church of the Annunciation, the famous words of John the Apostle can be read: “Whoever does not love does not see God, for God is love.”
It is written in a large golden font. Father Adel usually stands underneath to receive visitors of all sects, who come to express their sympathy and wish for the city’s Christians to return.
According to Father Adel, however, many obstacles remain. These include a lack of basic services and living facilities in the places from they were displaced.
Then there is the fear of the unknown in a country he described as “weak” and “riddled with foreign interference,” as well as the rampant corruption both in the central government in Baghdad and the local government in Nineveh.
In order to convince Christian citizens to return, they must be granted guarantees, security, and social and economic stability, Father Adel said.
Unofficial statistics estimate that the total number of Christians in Iraq before 2003 stood at some 1.5 million, which has gradually decreased to some 100,000 to 125,000. Their presence is concentrated in the historical cities on the Nineveh Plain (Qarah Qosh, Karamles, Bartella, Alqosh and the district of Telkaif) and, to varying degrees, in Baghdad, Basra, and the Kurdistan region.
Many Christians, including Father Adel, hope the historic visit of Pope Francis to Iraq and Mosul will shed a light on their threatened existence and the reasons for their continuous immigration.
They Stole our Properties
Many Christian emigrants from Mosul have complained that organized gangs falsified real estate records to seize and sell properties, especially since the Real Estate Registration Department (RERD) was closed at the start of 2021 following the detection of major forgeries.
Zuhair Al-Araji, District Commissioner of Mosul, confirmed that more than 6,000 properties have lost their documents or saw their records tampered with. He added that the RERD’s former director is serving a five-year prison sentence, while other employees are under investigation.
His deputy Abd al-Rahim al-Shammari indicated that most property papers that were forged belonged to Christian emigrants and displaced people. Numerous arrest warrants have been issued against those accused, some of whom were arrested, while others fled.
Lawyer Ahmed Fattah Khodor revealed the three main methods through which Christian properties, both lands and constructions, were seized and sold.
The first method was most common between 2004 and 2014, as specialized gangs took advantage of the disruption within the RERD, popularly known as Tabur Al Zohour. They benefited from the fact that people resorted to documenting real estate sales at the Court of First Instance with civil lawsuits in a process known as titling.
Such suits are controversial, as the buyer attends and shows a copy of the property registration telling the court that he had bought it earlier, yet claiming the seller’s place of residence is unknown. So the court will grant the buyer ownership with the phrase “pending on the abstention of taking the oath.” This means that as soon as the seller shows up and denies the sale, the contract is canceled.
However, because of the deteriorated security situation, Christian property owners were unable to reach Mosul, while gangs sold the real estate, as soon as they obtained the property titles.
The second method came with the control of ISIS members, or people loyal to them, of real estate owned by Christians, who had left Mosul. Their properties were traded after being registered as ISIS properties.
Finally, a third method arrived with groups linked to or affiliated with the Al Hashd Al Shaabi militias, which seized properties exploited by ISIS, yet previously owned by Christians.
Khodor doubts the cases of stolen real estate would ever be resolved, as many of them had been sold multiple times. This means that the Christians who lost their properties must enter a lengthy legal battle to get them back.
Walid (a pseudonym) said to be extremely cautious being back in Mosul. He and his family returned last year in an attempt to get back the properties he and his brothers had inherited from their father. They include a warehouse for cooling foodstuffs and the adjacent shops, as well as two apartments. People had forged their papers and sold them, and now others were exploiting them.
Walid said the security apparatus and authorities were cooperating with him, as he is in possession of the original documents. In fact, they had already helped him get back his house in the Mohandessin area, but he needed more time to obtain all judicial decisions needed to restore the other properties.
As for 65-year-old Manal Yaqoub, she has tried to deal with the matter from Sydney, to which she emigrated 13 years ago. She appointed a lawyer to file a lawsuit to cancel the 2011 titling decision with which her house in the Zohour area was sold without her knowing.
Ramzi Khushaba was in Mosul for two days only, trying to regain his 200-square-meter land in the Al-Hadba neighborhood. Someone associated with the Al Hashd Al Shaabi militia had taken it and sold it to another person who built a house there.
In contrast to the many stories of loss, there are also some success stories. Christians who managed to take back their properties and returned to occupy them. Bashar Hanna Fattouhi is one of them. He has been working in manufacturing machine parts for 36 years and managed to regain his house and workshop after 2017. Unfortunately, his story is still much more exception than rule.
The report was completed with the support of the NIRIJ Foundation for Investigation.
This article was translated from Arabic to English by Fatima Jaber.