‘Convert, leave, or die:’ Iraqi Christians and the dream to return to Mosul


In the summer of 2014, Mosul was for the first time in its history almost totally emptied of Christian civilians. More than 200,000 of Iraqi Christians, who make up the fourth largest indigenous Christian population in the Middle East, were forced to flee the city following invasion by ISIS whose leaders gave them the choice to convert, leave, or die then seized their houses and burnt their churches. It was only recently that the Christians of Iraq started harboring hopes of returning to their homes as Iraqi forces managed to reclaim the city, which was home to one of the world’s most ancient Christian communities.

Reverend Daniel al-Khari, a Chaldean priest who oversees a Christian refugee camp in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan where large numbers of Christians fled, argued that ISIS’s departure from Mosul makes it possible to return, yet not safe. According to him, it is not about ISIS’s physical presence as much the culture the group managed to nurture in the city. “We can go back but it is a question of safety. We are dealing with a new generation bred by ISIS – they have a radical anti-Christian viewpoint and so it would be really hard to go back,” he said, arguing that with the spread of fanaticism he doubts that Muslim and Christian communities can co-exist. Al-Khari particularly referred to ISIS’s recruitment and radicalization of children, who came to be labeled “caliphate cubs” and were instructed to walk around the city armed with knives and guns. “It would be very hard for children here and children in Mosul to get together,” he added. “We really need to work with the children in Mosul to change what ISIS has implanted there.”

Long before ISIS

Romeo Hakari, head of Assyrian Christian political part Bait al-Nahrain, said that the threat to the existence of the Christian community in Iraq started long before ISIS, particularly with the 2003 US invasion of the country. Hakari blames Western countries for encouraging Iraqi Christians to settle outside Iraq instead of supporting them to rebuild their homes and churches and defend themselves. “European embassies in Iraq, especially the French and German embassies, have facilitated the migration of our people,” he said, adding the leaders of the Iraqi Christian communities are holding meetings with EU and US officials to demonstrate the downside of this approach. The Iraqi Christian Relief Council, on the other hand, said that Christians, estimated at 1.5 million before the US invasion, were subjected to systematic persecution as part of the sectarian violence that started in 2003 and continued with the emergence of ISIS so that now the Christian population has decreased by almost 80%.

While admitting that Christians in Iraq were victims of the sectarian conflict the followed US invasion, Joel Velkamp traces their persecution back to the era of Saddam Hussein. According to Velkamp, Hussein used his war with Iran as a pretext for getting rid of as many Assyrian Christians as possible since he felt threatened by their affirmation of their non-Arab identity. “Assyrian Christians found themselves drafted for the war more often than other groups. 40,000 of them never returned from the battlefields,” he wrote, adding that during his war on Kurds Hussein also destroyed 120 Assyrian villages and killed over a thousand Christians, including priests, which drove Christians to flee the country.

Different factions

Iraqi writer Gawhar Audish argues that another problem that would hinder the resettlement of Christians in their hometowns is the current conflict between different Christian factions. “There are several armed Christian groups in the Nineveh plain and each is fighting for its own agenda and I wonder how they’re capable of doing so at such a critical time when they should unite to liberate their towns from ISIS,” he wrote. Audish cited the struggle between the Babylon Brigades and the Syriac Democratic Union as well as attempts by the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, founded by the Assyrian Democratic Movement, at monopolizing power in Christian areas. Audish called the conflict between Christian factions one in which “dwarfs” fight over “leftovers.”

Several Iraqi Christian figures accused the state-sponsored Popular Mobilization Forces of arming warring factions, thus intensifying the conflict. “The struggle for power in Christian areas led the Chaldean Babylon Brigade to storm the headquarters of the Syriac Union in southern Mosul and abduct the leader of the Syriac Eagles Battalion,” said activist Haithan Bakou. Writer Caesar Hermes said that several Christian militias are vying for power in the Nineveh plain. “Examples include Lions of Babylon, Babylon Brigades, the Syriac Children Squadron, Syriac Eagles, and Nineveh Plain Protection Units,” he said, warning that the situation is bound to escalate if heads of different Iraqi churches do not take a unified stance against the conflict that “is bound to have graver consequences than the ISIS invasion,” as he put it.

A sizable number of Christians, however, seem to be quite hopeful, which was demonstrated in their return to several liberated parts and the cross they raised on top of a hill outside Mosul as they cheered “Victory for those who chose faith and those who return.” According to the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Baghdad Luis Rafael Sako, the erection of this cross delivers a message to the whole world. “Our ancestors were buried in this pure land and we are going to remain to preserve them with all our might and for future generations,” he said. “It is a sincere and great call to return and rebuild.” Sako held the first Mass since the ISIS invasion and described it as “the first spark of light shining in all the cities of the Nineveh Plain since the darkness of ISIS” and reassured the congregation that they are finally back in their land.

The boy who ignited the Syrian revolution


“It’s your turn, doctor,” wrote 14-year-old Muawiyah Sayasneh on a school wall in February 2011 in the city of Daraa, clearly referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, originally an ophthalmologist.

Security forces stormed Sayasneh’s house and arrested him. They did the same with his three classmates that were with him when he wrote that. The people of Daraa took to the streets demanding the boys’ release and did so every single day until they did come back with shocking signs of torture, which angered the people even more.

On March 15, called the “day of rage” by revolutionaries, other cities across Syria joined Daraa in protesting against state repression and the local unrest turned into a full-scale revolution that demanded the ouster of the regime then evolved into a seemingly unending conflict.

While Sayasneh acknowledges the impact of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt on his decision to spray the wall, he admits that he had never imagined an actual revolution would take place in Syria. He actually says that he had never done that before.

“But we were full of anger. Sick of the repression and the torture,” he said in a phone interview with The Telegraph from Daraa on the occasion of the sixth anniversary of the Syrian revolution. Even though what Sayasneh and his friends did seemed no more than a teenage prank, the Syrian regime was aware of its danger at a time when uprisings had started sweeping the entire region.

This explains the severity of the torture to which the boys were subjected at the intelligence headquarters. “They beat me with cables, poured freezing cold water on me and electrocuted me many times. They hanged me by the wrists from the ceiling of the cell,” he explained. “It was very, very hard, I was just a kid.”

The search for Sayasneh was also another indication of the Syrian regime’s concerns over the repercussions of his actions. “They stopped everyone on the streets of Daraa, including children, to know who did that,” he said in an interview he gave on the fifth anniversary of the revolution.

The first arrest

“They first arrested the three who were with me while I managed to hide for three days. Then they knew where I lived and took me from my house.” While Sayasneh had accomplices in the regime’s point of view, he was still conceived as the most dangerous and that is why his release was delayed.

“They released my friends first while I stayed in detention for more than a month and half.” Sayasneh added that the police accused him and his friends of being “spies” and never believed that their action was not part of a bigger conspiracy against Syria.

Already becoming a national hero, Sayasneh joined the protests right after his release and continued to spray anti-regime slogans on the walls of government facilities. He left school and dedicated all his time to organizing demonstrations that were brutally suppressed by regime forces.

This lasted for two years until a major turning point that made him decide to change course occurred. His father was killed by a rocket attack and it was on that day that Sayasneh joined the Free Syrian Army and turned to armed struggle.

This struggle is, however, rife with complications since the group on whose side Sayasneh fights is no longer the only party fighting against the Syrian regime, but is rather becoming a minority group in the midst of the numerous parties currently involved in the conflict.

“Each group is fighting for its own interests and agenda,” he said. “Meanwhile, civilians are living in deplorable conditions and are being bombed by Syrian forces”.

Son of the soil

Sayasneh never left Daraa even though most of his friends are either dead or in jail. He is still in his family’s house, which was damaged by airstrikes and partially rebuilt, with his mother and siblings who all live off a salary he receives from the Free Syrian Army. He said on several occasions that he does not plan on leaving Syria at all and that he will stay there until victory or martyrdom.

“I am no longer a kid. I am a fighter now and I will remain so,” he said. “Victory is coming eventually. I might be alive or dead then, but what I am sure of is that one day I or another Syrian youth would come back to spray the same walls with news of this victory.”

Sayasneh and his fellow-revolutionaries, who all amount to 15, are all part of a group that came to be called “The Daraa Children”. Those children, who followed Sayasneh’s suit and started spraying walls with anti-Assad slogans, are given credit for ridding the Syrian people of their decades-long fear of the regime”.

“Bombings that target Daraa are always interpreted as the regime’s retribution against the children of Deraa. Every year on the anniversary of the Syrian revolution, their story is told and the commemoration of the revolution is at times referred to as “a tribute to the Deraa children.”

Does Egypt’s print press need a ‘Washington Post revolution’?


The transformation print press in Egypt has undergone in the past few years is too radical to go unnoticed and too ominous to be overlooked.

A sizable number of middle class households went from buying at an average of three newspapers a day-at least two official and one independent, to not buying any or keeping one official, usually for the obituaries.

Newspaper stands started dwindling and the image of early morning readers gathering around them has become a scarcity except maybe of a few from the older generations. And if print press is about to be laid to sleep, there is little doubt its electronic rival would be the perpetrator.

The question remains whether Egypt would really witness the disappearance of a decades-long tradition of reading newspapers on daily basis.

While the decline of paper press in Egypt has been ongoing for a few years, the devaluation of the pound in November 2016 is expected to be the beginning of the end.

According to Salah Eissa, secretary general of the Supreme Council of the Press, the entire printing and publishing industry would be affected, in reference to the 150% increase in the prices of paper and ink.

“Newspapers can in this case decrease the numbers of their pages, cut down on production costs, or raise newspaper prices,” he said, noting that while the last option might seem the easiest, it is not in the best interest of newspapers on the long run. Eissa found it unlikely for the state to support affected newspapers.

“This is not feasible under the current financial crises, plus the fact that state support is confined to official newspapers, which are already losing now.”

Head of the Journalists’ Syndicate Yehia Qallash argued that state support is bound to save paper press.

“If the state realizes that newspapers are strategic commodities and part of national security, they can save paper press,” he said. “Access to knowledge is a basic right and that is why countries like France and Germany support newspapers.”

Qallash also noted that the state needs to bear in mind the consequences of closing down newspapers on unemployment rates. “The numbers of journalists, technicians, and workers who can lose their jobs is extremely alarming.”

Journalist Mohamed Habousha objects to linking the fast deterioration of paper press to financial crises and rather attributed it to the power of new media. “Youths under 30 constitute 65% of the Egyptian population and all those get their news from the internet,” he wrote.

“Added to that is the fact the paper press lacks the professionalism and creativity required to attract readers.” Habousha noted that electronic newspapers offer more attractive material through not only featuring news, but also in depth analysis of hot topics and quick updates.

“Paper newspapers cannot also rival electronic ones in their ability to reach readers’ cellphones.”

Adel Sabry, editor-in-chief of Masr al-Arabiya website, argued that readers no longer look for news in paper newspapers. “They get the news from electronic websites,” he said.

“They rather look for studies, reports, and investigative journalism. The problem with newspapers is that in 2017 they are still working in the same way they did before the internet.”

A matter of trust?

Sabry added that readers now trust websites more than print newspapers. “Laws in Egypt restrict free circulation of information and create of many newspapers propaganda machines for the regime, thus defeating the purpose of journalism, which is serving the people.”

According to writer Farida al-Nakkash, the different stages through which a printed newspaper goes through are closely linked to each other so if one fails the others follow suit. “When people stop reading print newspaper and the prices of printing material increases, circulation decreases, which in turn leads to less advertisements, thus a huge loss for those papers,” she said.

“Advertisements are a major source of profit for papers and they determine to a great extent the success of each paper.” Nakkash added that businessmen who own newspapers are gradually finding out that they are hardly yielding any profit and are, therefore, expected to shut them down soon.

“However, despite the disastrous situation through which print press is going, I still believe it will not disappear.”

Journalist Ahmed al-Samani argued that print press in Egypt would never survive if it does not follow Western models such as “the Washington Post revolution,” as he called it.

“The 138-year old newspaper was on the verge of ending its paper publication until Amazon and Jeff Bezos purchased it in 2013 and changed the entire strategy,” he wrote.

Samani explained that Washington Post reversed the traditional equation of the electronic website being subordinate to the paper publication. “The newspaper developed its website so that it becomes the primary source of information with the majority of journalists working there instead of the paper publication,” he explained.

“Some of the content of the electronic newspaper is then chosen to be included in the print issue.”

With much of the content available on the website being accessible through subscription, the paper managed to make profits that compensated for its losses in paper issues.