Syria Crisis

Iraqi Christians Who Fled ISIS Invasion Return Home

After two years of occupation by terror group ISIS, the largest Christian city in Iraq, Qaraqosh, was recently freed by government forces.

Priest of the ruined Immaculate Church in Al Hamdaniyah
Priest of the ruined Immaculate Church in Al Hamdaniyah
Sylvain Tesson

QARAQOSH — Last year, Monsignor Gollnisch celebrated Easter mass in one of the refugee camps of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. He blessed a Catholic Syrian soldier who was on his way to the front line the next day. Then, in front of Assyrians and Chaldeans, Gollnisch said, "Next year, we will celebrate mass in Qaraqosh."

Qaraqosh is the largest Christian city in Iraq. At that time last year, terror group ISIS claimed 130,000 square kilometers of territory having driven out Christians from their villages. Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi promised "rivers of blood" and summoned Muslims from around the world to join him.

A year and a half later, this past October, Monsignor Petros Moshe, the archbishop of Syrian Catholics, returned to the Cathedral of Qaraqosh. The city had just been freed by the Iraqi army with the help of coalition airstrikes and ground support. On an altar of stones and protected by just a few guards, Moshe held mass.

"We are back here, we will continue despite what happened," Moshe said after mass, in reference to the al-Tahira cathedral that had been vandalized by jihadists.

Qaraqosh contained more than 50,000 inhabitants, 90% of whom were Christian, when ISIS invaded the Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014. Two months later and 30 kilometers away, the Kurdish peshmerga military force that was supposed to protect Qaraqosh did not fight ISIS jihadists. Instead, they took refuge in the Kurdistan region and abandoned Christians.

On the night of Aug. 6, 2014, Christians began their exodus from the plains of Nineveh, where they had lived for 2,000 years. Families joined the refugee camps of Erbil, where thousands of Iraqi Yazidis, Shabak people and Shiites were gathered, in addition to 200,000 Syrians who had been thrown out of their country by ISIS.

Iraqi Army soldiers — Photo: Berci Feher/ZUMA

Moshe recently strolled through the rubble in Qaraqosh. He contemplated the burned arches, raised a piece of debris, fixed the blackened columns. In the courtyard of the archbishop's palace, the colonnades were riddled with bullets thanks to a shooting range that had been installed there after the city had been invaded.

"Our ancestors gave their blood for our presence. We don't want to leave the country. But will we have the audacity to come back to live with our neighbors? These neighbors with whom we once lived on good terms but who became our looters?" Moshe asked. The whole problem of the post-war period is in the question raised by the archbishop — Will the Christians expelled in 2014 repopulate their homeland? Do they really want to?

In 1960, the Algerian National Liberation Front had offered a vicious choice to the piers noirs ("black feet"), the French nationals born in Algeria whose ancestors were European settlers — "the suitcase or the coffin." Christians in the Middle East have the possibility of returning but are subject to two conditions. First, it will be necessary to secure the territories Islamists have scattered with mines, explosive devices, and anti-tank traps. Demining units can overcome this problem. Second, people of different ethnicities and religions need to be able to live together again. This is the more difficult task.

With the entry of ISIS, the cauldron exploded, opening the fractures of civilizations. Too much blood was poured on Mesopotamian soil. Christians have become too distrustful of Kurds who did not defend them in 2014, and too wary of Muslims who did not always condemn the advent of ISIS.

"An international protection will be necessary so that our youth will no longer choose emigration," said Moshe.

Will Qaraqosh need intervention like the Balkans after the 1990s wars where the United Nations was deployed? Perhaps it will be necessary to have land divided into autonomous regions for religions and ethnicities like Sunni, Shia, Kurdish and Christianity. Would it be the start of "Christianistan"? For now, at least, the priority is to reconstruct religious symbols and places of worship that were destroyed.

The armored vehicles of the Iraqi army crossed the city to go to the frontline about 15 kilometers away. The battle was in full swing in Mosul. Some 5,000 Islamist fighters were taking refuge behind the human shield of millions of civilians still present.

Kado, a captain at the Protective Units of Nineveh (NPU), an armed Christian group financed by the U.S. and integrated into the Iraqi army, and that's deployed exclusively in Christian villages, leads a batch of fighters on to the roof of the Saint John church in Qaraqosh. The city is desolate, pounded here and there by the coalition, plundered by the Islamists, burned by the fighters.

"Our civilization has built all this from nothing. We will be able to recover from the ruins," said Kado. A soldier, perched on top of the bell tower of Saint Jean, tinkered with the yoke of the bell and tied an electric cable. An NPU recruit seized it, and sounded it. The men relaxed, drunk with joy, proud to beat bells that were silent for two years in the plains of Nineveh. Soldiers fired Kalashnikovs into the sky to celebrate.

Ruins of the Saint John Church, Al Hamdaniyah — Photo: Berci Feher/ZUMA

These Christian units have prevented looting but have not fought on the front lines against ISIS jihadists in Mosul. Their forces are too weak to do so. But in Qaraqosh, they helped liberate Saint Paul church, which jihadists had turned into a mosque.

These units were created by General Behnam Abbouch, a former Saddam Hussein air force officer with blue eyes and palpable pride.

"I had the idea to create these militias the night of the arrival of ISIS. The peshmerga was fleeing. The Islamists were at the gates. Our children wandered in the night. I had to do something," he said.

In two years of efforts, Abbouch gathered and trained 500 men. Their equipment was brand new, their weaponry light. Some American volunteers came to supervise their training.

"Some believe me to be the enemy of Muslims. It's a mistake. I have nothing against individuals nor against their faith, but I have carefully read the Koran in Arabic and there I have found the exact justification of the acts that were committed here," he said. The general is not unlike Italian writer Gabriele D'Annunzio — the martial dream, the dry nervousness. A few armed men escorted him.

Abbouch walked the devastated streets to reach his burned house. All the rooms had been looted. "Here, my daughters room," he said in front of a charred room. He picked up a picture of his mother from the rubble that hadn't been seen by jihadists.

Not far from the general's house, two old women who weren't able to flee spent the two years of occupation locked up in their rooms. Their old age protected them from sexual slavery. ISIS jihadists kept the two Christian women alive after making them spit on the cross.

"We can only bring our families back here once the entire area is cleared and secured," said Abbouch.

How will world powers agree on what to do when ISIS is overcome? For now, ISIS being a common enemy has inspired a sacred union between countries.

U.S. President Barack Obama wants to free Mosul before he vacates office to score a military victory. Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to defend his strategic and economic interests, and his historic links to Syria. Turkey, not invited to the battle of Mosul, is attacking Syrian Kurds and continues its ambiguous game with ISIS. The national government of Iraq, worried about the prospect of the country being partitioned into autonomous provinces, wants to show the world that the Iraqi army is no longer riddled with corruption. Iraqi Kurds want to strengthen themselves and push their advantage toward Kirkuk and, perhaps, toward independence.

What about Christians? What will they reap from the fall of Mosul? There were a million Christians here a decade ago. Today, there are no more than 300,000 in Iraq. They have prayed for 2 millennia in Mesopotamia. History is ironic. Islam, the last of the monotheistic revelations that appeared in this part of the world, is now the only one that's ruling in this part of Earth.

Christians in the Middle East turn their gaze toward Europe and ask why we are so indifferent to our heritage. Are we only concerned about it when it's threatened by extinction?

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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