The message on the whiteboard inside the Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region bears a message for the hundreds of Christian families driven from their homes by Islamic State militants: “Be grateful. Be alive. Be happy. Be careful.”
But Christianity’s central tenet of forgiveness is a hard sell for children who, after living much of their lives in relative peace with Muslim neighbors, find themselves homeless after their families fled when Islamic State militants ordered them to convert or be killed. With Iraq’s Christian population dwindling, the daunting task of helping kids cling to the faith of their parents falls to church elders, who have taken in hundreds of families now living in a sprawling complex of tents.
“It’s hard to explain what is happening,” Father Daniel Alkhory told FoxNews.com in the predominantly Christian district of Ankawa inside the Kurdish capital of Erbil. “I was teaching them the parable of Ishmael and Lazarus, talking to them about Heaven and Hell, so I used that to bring up ISIS. I asked them where ISIS will go and they said, ‘Directly to Hell!'”
Alkhory tells the story of a Christian in Mosul who had been living next to a Muslim man for more than 20 years when the Muslim man one day suddenly threatened him, ordering him to leave Mosul within 24 hours simply because he was Christian.
“So the Christian man started to pack his things, but before leaving he said he won’t leave without saying goodbye to that neighbor,” Alkhory recounted. “His neighbor opened the door and was really angry and shouting at him, ‘Why are you here? I told you to leave Mosul!’ The Christian man said he wouldn’t leave without first saying goodbye. His Muslim neighbor started to cry and promised to protect him.”
In the enormous swath of Syrian and Iraqi land now controlled by Islamic State, the homes and churches of Christians have been looted and burned to the ground. Christians in Iraq once numbered around 1.5 million, or about 5 percent of the population. Current estimates hover around 200,000, their numbers depleted by murder, forced conversions and flight — mostly at the hands of Islamic State radicals. Those who remain refuse to renounce their beliefs, even under the threat of death. One Christian man living at Mar Elia brandished a large tattoo of Jesus’ mother Mary on his arm. Like many others, his faith was discovered by militants and he and his family were forced to flee to the safety of the Kurdish region.
More than 100,000 Christians have fled the clutches of the terrorist organization since its advance across the Nineveh Plains in Iraq, home to some of the world’s most ancient Christian communities. The Kurdish region has taken in more than 1.5 million displaced people, including Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities, since June – and according to Alkhory, the word “displaced” is crucial terminology.
SOURCE: Hollie McKay