Iraqi Christians forced to flee homes again after skirmishes between Kurds and central government

The first Iraqi Christians to return home after their village was freed from Islamic State control were forced to flee yet again Tuesday as Iraqi forces stormed the area to confront Kurdish soldiers, a dark turn in what was broadly considered a “success story” of rebuilding in Northern Iraq.

Between 700-1,000 Christian families have been forced to evacuate the village of Teleskof, an Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac Christian town about 19 miles north of Mosul, sources in the region told Fox News.

Peshmerga fighters from neighboring Kurdistan stationed in the village started engaging in a battle with forces from the Iraqi central government. The fighting wounded civilians, including children. People who returned only recently to rebuild their homes have been told to leave the village before the standoff between Kurdish and Iraqi forces reaches a boiling point.

“An emissary from the Iraqi government told the people of the village that they had until sunrise to evacuate,” a source in the region, who asked to be unidentified, tells Fox News. “They were told that the Iraqi army and the Shiite militia have said they will forcibly evict the Peshmerga in the morning.”

Teleskof was only recently liberated from ISIS and was considered the model for rehabilitating minority community towns and villages across the Nineveh Plain region of Northern Iraq earlier this year. The town was recently rebuilt with $2 million in aid from the Hungarian government.

Villagers rushed to leave Teleskof on Tuesday evening after an Iraqi emissary told them to evacuate before sunrise in anticipation of further gunfire.

Villagers rushed to leave Teleskof on Tuesday evening after an Iraqi emissary told them to evacuate before sunrise in anticipation of further gunfire.

A majority of the Assyrian towns in the plain have been left decimated. In some of the other towns, most of the infrastructure has been reduced to rubble; in others, dangerous chemical compounds have been dumped, polluting the ground to toxic levels.

“The one success story in Northern Iraq and it’s about to be destroyed over a pissing contest between the Kurds and Iraqi central government,” sources familiar with humanitarian efforts in the region told Fox News. “The whole thing is a mess.”

Clashes between Iraqi and Peshmerga forces broke out on October 16 in the aftermath of a referendum where the Kurdish people voted overwhelmingly in favor of seeking full independence from the central government in Baghdad.

The already frail Christian population of Northern Iraq has been caught in the crossfire.

“The writing was on the wall when the KRG decided to go through with their premature referendum against the recommendation of world powers,” Juliana Taimoorazy, president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council and senior fellow for Philos Project, which promotes “positive Christian engagement in the Middle East,” told Fox News.

“What we see develop today does not come as a surprise but it brings with it immense heartache for our international Assyrian Chaldean Syriac community, for we watch our already battered family and friends find themselves once again on the run, leaving behind the very little they had started to accumulate since their recent return to their homes in the spring of this year.”

Fr. Salar Kajo of the Chaldean Catholic Church has refused to leave Teleskof.

Fr. Salar Kajo of the Chaldean Catholic Church has refused to leave Teleskof.

An estimated 200,000 Christians remain in Iraq, down from over 1.5 million prior to the 2003 Iraq invasion, the majority of whom were forced to flee Mosul and other parts of the Nineveh Plains to the Kurdish-held north in 2014 as ISIS assaulted in on their land.

Deemed the ancestral homeland of all Christianity, many of these Christian areas in the Nineveh now lie in the disputed areas between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) based in Erbil, and the central government further south in Baghdad.

“This is probably the [Iraqi] Christians’ Waterloo,” a source within the region’s clergy system said to Fox News, also asking to remain unidentified for fear of retribution from Kurdish forces. “This is really the last stand.”

The source added, “Christianity could be wiped out from the region come tomorrow morning.”

Sources also say that some clergy as well as other men, who are being led by Fr. Salar Kajo of the Chaldean Catholic Church, have refused to leave Teleskof.

Officials from the KRG released a statement late Tuesday, in which they acknowledged the firefight in Teleskof and called for Iraqi forces to stop the skirmish and recognize their recent referendum vote.

“Attacks and confrontations between Iraqi and Peshmerga forces that started on October 16, 2017, especially today's clashes, have caused damage to both sides and could lead to a continuous bloodshed, inflicting pain and social unrest among different components of Iraqi society,” their statement read. “Certainly, continued fighting does not lead any side to victory, but it will drive the country towards disarray and chaos, affecting all aspects of life.”

The KRG also asked that Baghdad issue an immediate ceasefire and halt all military operations in Kurdistan as well as freeze the results of the referendum.