Iraqi Christians trying to rebuild their lives in northern Iraq following the military defeat of Islamic State live with the daily threat of Muslim violence.
Shaqlawa, 20 miles from Erbil, was a Christian-majority town until the 1960s. Today, there are 200 Christian families and 10,000 Muslim ones. “We have many Muslims in Shaqlawa who have the same ideas as ISIS [Islamic State],” says a Christian minister from the town. “They hate us. Not all of them, because I have many Muslim friends, but the big majority doesn’t like us.”
Violence against Christians began years before the rise of Islamic State. The minister remembers seeing youths destroying Christian cemeteries when he was a child, and an increase in burglaries and violence targeting Christians. In 1997, a Christian man and his father were tortured and murdered by a 200-strong mob of Muslim Kurds, allegedly over a marital dispute. Their bodies were cut into pieces and thrown into the garden of a Christian family. The murders were never investigated
Saliha, a Christian woman from Shaqlawa remains wary. “Today there are some peaceful interactions between Christians and Muslims. Face to face all is good, but if an Imam calls a person an infidel, it all changes.” She is determined to try and rebuild her life in northern Iraq, despite the dangers. “This is our country. This is why we want to stay … I might be a second-class citizen here, but I’m not a stranger.”
Saliha was referring to what Islam calls “dhimmi” status. According to sharia, “People of the Book” (i.e. Christians and Jews) are permitted to practise their faith in areas under Muslim rule on condition they submit to a second-class status in society, keeping many humiliating rules and recognising that they have been subjugated by the Muslims. They are known as “dhimmi”, which is sometimes defined as “protected” i.e. the dhimmi are allowed to live, whereas pagans (according to classical Islam) would not be.