AN IRAQI priest, who started to train as a doctor but found himself working with traumatised Christian children who had fled Islamic State (IS), met officials from the UK Government this week.
Fr Daniel Alkory, aged 27, a priest serving at St Mary’s, Ankawa, in Erbil, and St John the Baptist’s, in Kirkuk, in the Ancient Church of the East in Northern Iraq, went to Downing Street on Wednesday to deliver a petition organised by the organisation Open Doors, and signed by nearly 800,000 people worldwide. It calls on international leaders, including the UK Government, to ensure that Christians in the Middle East, and other minorities, “enjoy the right to equal citizenship, dignified living conditions, and a prominent role in reconciling and rebuilding society”.
On Tuesday, he described how 1600 Christians who were fleeing IS arrived at the Mar Elias shrine, in Erbil, over the course of two days in August 2014 (News, 1 August 2014). He estimates that about 70 per cent have returned home (News, 24 February). The remainder are not ready, he says, “because they say that ‘those neighbours in one day betrayed us. . . When we fled, they started to steal our furniture and our property; so how do you want us to go back and live again with those people?’ There is a lack of trust between the two sides.” Some people wanted to leave Iraq permanently, he said: “We call it the bleeding of migration.”
In the aftermath of the referendum on Kurdish independence (News, 29 September), he reports that Christians are reluctant to choose sides: “If we are going to stand with the Kurds, we are going to be punished from the centre government; if we are going to stand with the central government, we are going to be punished from the Kurds; so we are always victims of these conflicts.”
It is estimated that the number of Christians in Iraq has fallen from up to 1.5 million in 2003 to fewer than 400,000. “I think we must give a chance of rebirth to Christianity in Iraq,” Fr Alkory said. This would require support from the international community, he said, including help with rebuilding its infrastructure. But it would also require some governments to “stop supporting the radicalism in Iraq”.
At Mar Elias, he saw for himself the potential for a cycle of violence: when asked to draw their dreams for the future, many children chose joining the army to kill members of IS. Recognising that “that was something dangerous”, he acted immediately, and, after six months of work, the children were choosing to be teachers, doctors, and engineers. He was relieved, “because I removed this ideology from their brain, like killing the other and not giving the chance to others”.
The son and grandson of priests (both of whom refused to leave Iraq, despite facing threats), he began to train as a doctor, but felt the call to the priesthood after facing a barrage of questions from Muslim fellow students. His message to the UK is a request for prayer, and also a plea for unity. It should not have taken the threat of IS, he says, for Churches in Iraq to start to work together. “Please, whenever there is peace, let’s be united. . . As long as we are still free and we still can do that.”
In October, the Minister for International Development, Lord Bates, told the House of Lords that the Government had, this year, provided £40 million in aid to Iraq, and more than £25 million to the UN’s “stabilisation efforts”.