By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
BAGHDAD, IRAQ (BosNewsLife)– Friends expressed relief Wednesday, July 16, after five Christians, including two nuns and three orphans, were released in Iraq by Islamic militants, but concern remained about the future of Iraq’s dwindling Christian community.
Sister Miskintah and Sister Atur Joseph were held with three orphans near the city of Mosul, Christians said. The five went missing on June 28 from Mosul and were held until Monday, July 15, activists and church officials confirmed.
The two nuns were running a foster home for orphans near Mosul when fighters of the The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) entered the region. The sisters were initially able to safely move all of the children out of Mosul to Dohuk in the Kurdish controlled region of Northern Iraq.
However “Sister Atur made quick visits to Mosul to check on the house and retrieve some of the girls’ belongings and work and study kits,” the Ankawa news site said. “The two nuns disappeared on 28 June along with three of the young orphans who accompanied them on one of these brief visits to Mosul.”
Church authorities reportedly began behind-the-scene negotiations involving religious leaders of Mosul’s Sunni community, eventually resulting in their release.
“The nuns and the children were kept in a house, they were given food and were not treated badly,” said Patriarch Louis Raphael I. “No ransom was paid for their release, the foster home, however, was ransacked and their car confiscated,” he added in published remarks.
While there was joy over their relief, advocacy group International Christian Concern (ICC) warned of a rocky road ahead for Iraq’s dwindling number of Christians. Before 2003, some 1.2 million Christians lived in Iraq, but that number has been reduced to roughly 400,000 amid ongoing attacks against Christians, according to church officials.
ICC said the latest kidnapping of nuns also underscored concerns over ISIL’s extreme interpretation of Islamic rule in Mosul, and the land they control, spanning from central Iraq to northwestern Syria.
Hundreds of thousands have been driven from their homes by ISIL fighters. Access to drinking water, food and sanitation is creating a humanitarian crisis for those displaced from their homes, according to ICC investigators.
While, “We rejoice at the safe return of Sisters Atur and Miskinta and the three young people with them, we remain extremely concerned about the fate of Iraq’s Christians,” said Todd Daniels, ICC Regional Manager for the Middle East.
“As a religious minority they are facing threats from both sides in the conflict and ensuring their survival is a burden that the international community cannot afford to ignore,” he told BosNewsLife in a statement.
The future of the nuns was not immediately clear. However, “In all these terrible years for our country, Sisters Atur and Miskinta have done a great job, without ever abandoning Mosul and allowing the girls to study,” Sister Luigina Sako was quoted as saying by Fides, a Catholic news service.