The message on the whiteboard inside the Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region bears a message for the hundreds of Christian families driven from their homes by Islamic State militants: "Be grateful. Be alive. Be happy. Be careful.”

But Christianity's central tenet of forgiveness is a hard sell for children who, after living much of their lives in relative peace with Muslim neighbors, find themselves homeless after their families fled when Islamic State militants ordered them to convert or be killed. With Iraq's Christian population dwindling, the daunting task of helping kids cling to the faith of their parents falls to church elders, who have taken in hundreds of families now living in a sprawling complex of tents. 

"It's hard to explain what is happening," Father Daniel Alkhory told in the predominantly Christian district of Ankawa inside the Kurdish capital of Erbil. "I was teaching them the parable of Ishmael and Lazarus, talking to them about Heaven and Hell, so I used that to bring up ISIS. I asked them where ISIS will go and they said, 'Directly to Hell!'"


"I asked them where ISIS will go and they said, 'Directly to Hell!'"

- Father Daniel Alkhory

Alkhory tells the story of a Christian in Mosul who had been living next to a Muslim man for more than 20 years when the Muslim man one day suddenly threatened him, ordering him to leave Mosul within 24 hours simply because he was Christian.

"So the Christian man started to pack his things, but before leaving he said he won't leave without saying goodbye to that neighbor," Alkhory recounted. "His neighbor opened the door and was really angry and shouting at him, 'Why are you here? I told you to leave Mosul!' The Christian man said he wouldn't leave without first saying goodbye. His Muslim neighbor started to cry and promised to protect him."


In the enormous swath of Syrian and Iraqi land now controlled by Islamic State, the homes and churches of Christians have been looted and burned to the ground. Christians in Iraq once numbered around 1.5 million, or about 5 percent of the population. Current estimates hover around 200,000, their numbers depleted by murder, forced conversions and flight -- mostly at the hands of Islamic State radicals. Those who remain refuse to renounce their beliefs, even under the threat of death. One Christian man living at Mar Elia brandished a large tattoo of Jesus' mother Mary on his arm. Like many others, his faith was discovered by militants and he and his family were forced to flee to the safety of the Kurdish region.

More than 100,000 Christians have fled the clutches of the terrorist organization since its advance across the Nineveh Plains in Iraq, home to some of the world's most ancient Christian communities. The Kurdish region has taken in more than 1.5 million displaced people, including Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities, since June – and according to Alkhory, the word "displaced" is crucial terminology.


"Refugees is a bad word and refers to people that don't know each other, but these people here are our family. They are displaced people. We want to take the negative energy out with the words we use," he explained. "And we never call it a camp. It's a center."

"The children are very traumatized. They've lost their hopes and dreams and we try to help them understand that life keeps going," Alkhory said. "But a child is like a flower, we can shape them. We have to take care of them now; otherwise the next generation of ISIS could come from these children. Through all their sadness and depression, they wanted revenge. I knew I needed to build a new environment for them."

That new environment consists of time spent on artistic endeavors such as drawing images and creating shapes in an effort to express their feelings and frustrations, as well as outings to play in the park and dancing. The children recently saw their first-ever 3D movie: "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

"They wore the glasses and were just so happy," Alkhory said.

The center even hosts its very own "Got Talent" and "The Voice" competitions, modeled on the hit American versions, where children can perform for friends and family and win prizes. Mass and Bible study each make up critical components of every day.

The flashpoint of the crisis began for the team at Mar Elia at midnight on Aug. 6, when Kurdish troops cautioned a local bishop in Qarakosh that the Christians had to leave as ISIS was closing in. Church leaders began knocking on doors urging families to immediately flee.

"Fifteen families stayed, as they didn't wake up. Sadly, we don't have any contact with them anymore. At the beginning we did, they were describing the horrors and said they couldn't even turn on a light as ISIS would become suspicious," Alkhory noted.

With no realistic prospect of returning to their homes anytime soon, the thousands of displaced families strewn across the Kurdish region have no choice but to start their lives from scratch in unfamiliar territory.

"Father, when can we go home? When can I see my friends?" one young boy asks the soft-spoken Alkhory. The pastor tells the boy he should make new friends at the center now, and maybe one day he will go home and meet his old friends once again.

But “home” as it stands for some 700 families from Christian villages is now a collection of tents donated by several different organizations and placed on Church grounds. The tents are divided into halves for each family, approximately four persons per half. Some organizations have started donated caravans to families, although land shortage remains problematic.


The children attend school from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the week, with after-school activities running from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. each night.

"I just keep telling the kids you have to forgive. Forgiveness will lead us to so many paths. I don't want them to grow up and be after revenge and be angry," Alkhory said. "We want to make a party for them every day.

"We just want them to be happy and keep smiling," he added. "We just want the children to feel like they are at home."

Mylee Cardenas contributed to this report