On the night of 6 - 7th August 2014, Islamic State (IS) occupied the historic regions of the Nineveh Plains and emptied it of Christians, its original inhabitants. The Christians who fled sought refuge in the Kurdistan region of Northern Iraq. A large number of people however remained trapped there. Some of them were able to break free afterwards, but hundreds remained imprisoned by Islamic State and have not been heard of since. Among those who stayed after Islamic State took over the region were Mr. Khouder Ezzo, his wife, Aida Hanna, and their daughter Christina – who was three years old at the time.
On 22nd August 2014, after robbing them of their money and possessions, the Islamic State allowed the family of Christina and others to leave Bakhdida (also known as Qarakosh) to Erbil. One of the IS soldiers however snatched Christina from the safety of her mother’s arms. As the non-Iraqi IS fighter carried the crying and scared baby Christina on his shoulder, her mother begged him to release her. He did not respond but instead gestured to the mother to board the bus or she would be slaughtered! The mother fearfully complied. That was the last time she saw her daughter, that is, until Friday 10th June.
In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Father Ignatius Offy, a Syrian Catholic priest in Ankawa, spoke with Maria Lozano, from the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), about Christina’s return.
(Fr Ignatius Offy, a Syrian Catholic priest in Ankawa with Christina © I. Offy/Aid to the Church in Need)
Q) Father Ignatius, how did you come to know Christina’s family?
A) Christina’s family and I are from the town of Bakhdida (Qarakosh). The families in our region know each other and we all have close social ties. In addition, I am a priest, and since the beginning of our forced displacement from our region on the night of 6-7 August 2014, I have been tracking people captured by the Islamic State. I have submitted the list of persons whose fate is still unknown to many individuals, organizations and associations. Among these names, of course, was Christina - the youngest of them all.
Q) How are you feeling after her miraculous return?
A) What happened with Christina, her family and with us is a ‘divine miracle!’. In my humble opinion, this is the fourth birth of the child Christina. The first time when she was born to her parents, the second time was at her baptism, the third time was when a Muslim family adopted and took care of her during the period she was lost, and finally when she was returned to her family and Christian community. Christina was given a new life. We thank God for His work with her, with her family, and with all of us.
Q) Do you know where Christina was hidden during these three years?
A) Christina’s father told us that after the kidnapping he kept asking the people who remained in the region about their daughter. The last phone call he had was with one of their relatives who assured them that Christina was fine and was seen with one of the IS soldiers near the mosque. All communications were cut off after that. Five months after her abduction, Christina’s family was informed by one of their acquaintances that Christina was well and living with a Muslim family in the Al-Tanak area in Mosul. At the time, the Muslim family had taken Christina from a mosque in Mosul; they took her home and treated her like one of their own. They ultimately wanted to reunite the baby with her own family but they feared for her safety. So in the interim they decided to keep, protect and take care of her.
Q) A team from ACN met Christina’s parents two years ago during a visit to Ankawa in Northern Iraq. At the time there was no news of her. It was a heart breaking story but also amazing to witness the faith of the parents. Did they always have this faith that their daughter would return?
A) For two years, Christina’s family heard bits and pieces of news about her but could not communicate directly with her. Many foreign and Arabic news agencies and satellite channels that met Christina’s family, wrote about her abduction and spread the story widely. Her parents and family maintained their search for her during this time. Her father prayed the rosary each day for her safe return. He kept the pictures of saints next to Christina’s image on the inner walls of the caravan where they lived during their involuntary exile. Many believers shared prayers with the family for the safe return of their daughter and for all the other missing persons as well.
Q) How was it possible for Christina to be reunited with her family?
A) After recent fighting erupted in the south of Mosul, the Muslim family which had adopted Christina moved to a safer place. The adoptive father called a person who knew of Christina and asked for a mobile number of a member of Christina’s family. He got hold of Christina’s elder brother’s number and called him late on the night of Thursday June 9, 2017. He asked if they could meet in the Kojli district of Mosul to return his sister.
On the morning of the next day, Friday, 10th June, Christina’s family went to the rendezvous point and the two families met. Christina was handed over to her real family. She was in good health. Her parents thanked the Muslim family who took care of her during the last three years. Christina was finally reunited with her real parents, her family, her relatives and her people.
(Christina reunited with her mother after being returned to her family © I. Offy/Aid to the Church in Need)
Q) How is Christina now?
Today, she is almost six years old. Christina is still shocked and scared. She has forgotten her real father, her mother, her brother and sisters. She has also forgotten what she had learned of her Syriac mother tongue. She could only speak Arabic. She speaks very little with her family and with the guests that come to visit. Sometimes she smiles at them and sometimes she doesn’t. She plays with the gifts people give her when they visit the family to see how she’s doing.
Q) How would you describe the reaction of the parents, the family and the whole community that had been praying and waiting so long for her return?
A) The mother was really emotional and tears of joy filled her eyes when she was reunited with her daughter. She described her baby’s return as a “miracle”. She was shocked to see how much she had grown and changed. At first she did not recognize her. Her father was very grateful and thanked God that He saved her from Daesh (IS). As for her brothers and sister, they simply couldn’t explain their feelings about the return of their youngest sister. The community welcomed Christina home with music and dancing. They held a little party for her at the compound where the family lives. A special thanksgiving prayer was said for her and prayers were also offered for the missing people still held by the Islamic State. The compound is still welcoming people coming to congratulate the family for the return of their daughter.
Q) As you said, Christina is not the only case of Christian and Yazidi children abducted by IS, do you know of any other cases where children have been returned?
A) I do not know of any other children, other than Christina, who have been liberated and returned to their families. What I do know is that we have many Christians who were captured by Islamic State but have not been heard of since, including little children, teenagers, men and women, young and old.
Q) Can you tell us about the future plans of the family?
A) Christina’s family home in Bakhdida (Qaraqosh) is destroyed. They currently live in a camp for the Christian refugees in a small two-room caravan. Her older brother, who works in an Erbil bakery told us: “Honestly, we do not have any future in Iraq. Six months ago, we applied for a visa to migrate to France but have not had any response as yet. This caravan is small and life is hard.” I ask that all organizations and associations which take care of children to help Christina’s family and offer the young, still-in shock, Christina psychological support and help her reintegrate with her family and community.
Q) Do you have a message for all the friends and benefactors of Aid to the Church in Need around the world?
A) My message is like a prayer: “We thank the Lord for his great blessing and miracle that He gave us. We thank the Muslim family that took care of Christina. We thank all who made an effort towards her return. We pray for Christina for a new start in getting to know her real parents and family and reintegrate with her Christian community. We pray for Christina’s family, still in shock to see their baby again. It was a true miracle, a new birth and a new life. We pray for whoever lends a helping hand for her and her family in any way possible. We pray for the return of all the captives, prisoners, and abducted persons still held by Islamic State and other factions. We also pray for peace, security and stability to prevail in our wounded Iraq, and the whole world. Amen.”
Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.
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