Amman, Jordan – Enjoying a rare moment of privacy, a young couple talks in hushed tones next to a Christmas tree in the corner of a sparse reception room at Amman’s Malkite Greek Catholic Church. Outside, the church’s small compound bustles as the 120 refugees living here go about their daily routine of cooking, laundering clothes, talking and waiting.
All are Christians who fled Iraq after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) advanced across the country’s north. They are among more than 5,000 Iraqi Christians granted temporary shelter in churches and homes throughout Jordan, and as they prepare for their first Christmas as refugees, they consider themselves lucky.
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“Thank God we are here now and we have this,” said Najem Handaniyeh, waving his hand around the small single room where he lives with his wife and four children. The room consists of two bunk beds and a few donated cooking utensils; a donated portrait of Jesus hangs from a nail on the otherwise bare wall. “Any Christian still in our home is now either Muslim or dead.”
INTERACTIVE: Iraq’s exodus
Most refugees travelled to Amman from Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where many of the 120,000 displaced Christians now live in tents. Although refugees say they are grateful to Jordan for hosting them, conditions in the church are becoming increasingly difficult to bear.
“For all the people here, there is only one toilet, and until last week we didn’t have a shower,” Handaniyeh told Al Jazeera. “We have no money to buy water to wash. We tell our children to wait and be patient, but it’s difficult as they can’t go to school.”
Thank God we are here now and we have this. Any Christian still in our home is now either Muslim or dead.
A dozen of these small accommodation units line the walls of church’s courtyard; roofs are covered in plastic sheeting and held down by stones to guard against winter rains. The church hall is partitioned with walls to create separate lodgings, each housing a family. An outbuilding serves as a laundry room, hosting a sole washing machine that runs non-stop.
Women gather in one unit to fuss over a newborn baby, while children kick a football and run between the lines of drying clothes. Their parents faced a stark choice after ISIL seized their hometowns.
“They said convert to Islam or die and gave us one day to decide, so we fled,” Nual Ibrahim, a former resident of Mosul, told Al Jazeera. “There is no future in Iraq for us now but we have no papers, no money and begin at zero again. To be a refugee is like being sick, you live just to eat and sleep.”
Such sentiments have become common in this region. Years of conflict have ravaged neighbouring Syria and Iraq, making Jordan an oasis of stability and security.
The ensuing waves of refugees have heaped pressure on authorities and the local population. The United Nations has registered 640,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, although the government says there are double that number. After the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and years of ensuing violence, 30,000 Iraqis who fled remain in Jordan, while two million Palestinian refugees – whose camps have become established towns after decades in exile – also call the kingdom home.
Despite the obvious pressures on a country with a population of 6.4 million and few natural resources, Jordan’s King Abdullah II extended a welcome to some of the Iraqi Christians displaced by ISIL, describing the protection of the Middle East’s Christian communities as a “duty”.
While refugees paid for their travel from Erbil, their daily needs are met by Christian charities. Their visas allow them to stay in Jordan prior to resettlement in third countries.
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Christianity in Iraq dates back nearly 2,000 years. Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, is still spoken by some of the country’s Assyrian communities, and Mosul – which was seized by ISIL this summer – and surrounding towns on the Nineveh Plain were the heartland of Christianity in Iraq and home to a host of liturgical traditions, ancient monasteries and churches.
That history is quickly being eradicated. Qaraqosh, which was the largest Christian city in Iraq and home to 40,000 people, fell to ISIL in August when Kurdish forces withdrew from the town.
“When ISIL arrived, we took nothing from our homes and left with just the clothes on our backs,” Yusuf Ishak Bahey, a 66-year-old former resident, told Al Jazeera. “In two hours, the town was emptied.”
When ISIL arrived, we took nothing from our homes and left with just the clothes on our backs. In two hours, the town was emptied.
Tom Holland, an author and historian of late antiquity, says religious diversity in Iraq and the region is at risk from the extreme interpretations of Sunni Islam espoused by groups such as ISIL. Along with Christians, Shia Muslims and ancient sects tracing their history to Babylonian times, such as the Yazidis and Mandeans, have become subject to persecution and been pressured to flee their native lands.
“The roots of Christianity in Iraq are as old as Christianity itself,” Holland told Al Jazeera. “But now they are a vanishing minority.”
Between the US-led Iraq wars of 1991 and 2003, the Christian population of Iraq fell to 800,000 from one million. The number decreased significantly again in the years of bloodshed and chaos following the 2003 invasion, and is now estimated to be between 200,000 and 500,000.
“Ironically, it was the invasion of Iraq, launched under the aegis of two devoutly Christian leaders, George Bush and Tony Blair, that heralded the increasing persecution of Iraqi Christians,” Holland said. “Extortion, kidnapping and murder became their daily fare.”
Holland said the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire after the World War I began the process of Christian displacement, as artificial nation states were created across the Middle East.
“Nationalism and ethnic identities took on an increasingly assertive tone – Greeks were expelled from Turkey, Turks from Greece and Jews from everywhere,” he said. “The problem for Christians, though, was that they had no homeland. Now, as the inadequacies of the western model of the nation-state in the Middle East are brutally exposed, they find themselves with nowhere to hide.”
In a recent speech on the threat posed by ISIL, US President Barack Obama raised the importance of maintaining religious diversity, noting: “We cannot allow these communities to be driven from their ancient homeland.”
But it may already be too late.
“Iraq is destroyed now,” said Ibrahim, the former Mosul resident now sheltering in Amman. “We just want to go somewhere where we can live in peace.”
Follow Nigel O’Connor on Twitter: @nigel_oconnor