Over the last few months, thousands of Christian refugees have fled to the city of Erbil, many relying on the church for sanctuary. But how are local churches bearing up to the influx?
In the suburb of Ankawa, Father Douglas manages to carry on church life amidst a sea of refugee tents. He knows what it’s like to experience trauma, having himself survived being kidnapped while leading a church in Baghdad years ago.
Father Douglas’ church hall is one of many church and school buildings doubling as a sanctuary in Erbil. In Ankawa, morning prayers are held every day at 10am and church life continues with services, weddings and funerals. But dotted around the church is a collection of grey, brown, white and green tents – donated by an array of different organisations. The tents have become home to 700 families from Mosul, Karamlesh, Qaraqosh and other Christian villages on the Nineveh plain.
“I don’t like to call this ‘camp’ actually, we call this a home – a sub-home to the people here… they are welcome. Actually, it is an honour to serve them and to help them,” Father Douglas says warmly. “We wanted to be sure that people who have left their homes and come here feel welcome. We treat them like guests, where we enjoy sharing life and where they can feel safe and relaxed.”
An overview of the situation in Iraq, including the work Open Doors is doing and an interview with Father Douglas.
As Father Douglas walks further into the grounds, he is greeted by children coming towards the entrance, dragging big black bags into the street.
“I promised the kids they would earn treats for collecting rubbish and you can see how much they love doing this,” the Father explains. “It is so important to give them something to do. Everybody enjoys having purpose and a task rather than sitting around doing nothing.”
The ‘home’ in Ankawa has collected ‘guests’ from all different kinds of church backgrounds: Chaldean Catholic refugees are camping next to their Assyrian Church of the East neighbours. The affairs of the church, as well as attending to the needs of the refugees, are now shared between Father Douglas and his new colleague, Father Daniel.
Father Daniel points out that in these circumstances the church must, for practical reasons, be unified.
“Right now our differences don’t matter too much,” he says. “We are united in Christ and our shared beliefs.”
Outside the church, youths are dressed in blue t-shirts to show they are working as volunteers amongst the network of tents. They do many different jobs – clean, sweep, door duty and child care. They also host fun and games in a large blue tent with multi-coloured cloth on the inside, that sits in the middle of the grounds. Open Doors sponsored the tent through a local partner, to create a child-friendly space where youngsters could play and dance to music. It’s the most colourful tent in the complex.
“These kids love it when we give them space to have fun, laugh and enjoy their lives,” says Father Daniel. “Please tell others that our life continues.”
The sentiment is shared by Father Douglas, whose personal story of living in Baghdad, surviving explosions, car bombs, church attacks and even a nine-day kidnapping ordeal has taught him how to accept hardship, receive God’s grace and to forgive. Now this inner strength is something he is eager to pass on. He says,
“Although we don’t know what the future will hold, we especially want to teach the children to never give up, to not just relive the pain of the older generations, but to grow strong, to be leaders in society and to have the courage to believe that they can make an impact.”
“Christians are the salt of any society,” Father Douglas concludes. “We are few, but we can make an impact. We can make a difference. As long as we invest in our children, there is a future for Christians in Iraq.”