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‘ISIS brides’ will return to Sydney

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An Iraqi soldier helps a family carry their child to cross from an Islamic State-controlled part of Mosul to an area controlled by Iraqi forces during the battle for Mosul in 2017. Photos: CNS photo/Goran Tomasevic, Reuters
An Iraqi soldier helps a family carry their child to cross from an Islamic State-controlled part of Mosul to an area controlled by Iraqi forces during the battle for Mosul in 2017. Photos: CNS photo/Goran Tomasevic, Reuters

In 2014, Archbishop Amel Nona was visiting a parish in the plain of Nineveh, outside of Mosul in Northern Iraq, when he received a phone call. It was a representative of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Archbishop Nona was told he and the Christian population of the city had four choices: convert to Islam, pay the jizya tax to fund the new Caliphate, leave the city, or be killed.

He never re-entered Mosul, where he had been made Archbishop in 2010 after the kidnapping and murder of his predecessor, Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho.

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ISIS then issued an ultimatum online to Christians: leave the city within 24 hours. That night, 120,000 people left one of the ancient homes of Christianity for towns in the plain of Nineveh.

This was only a fraction of the once-thriving Christian community; many had already fled in preceding years, as religious violence ripped through Iraq in the wake of the US invasion of 2003.

“People there were sleeping in the churches, schools, classrooms, gardens. We thank God it was summer, not winter.”

A month later, as ISIS advanced, they were forced to flee again, this time into Kurdistan.

“Few people were killed. We thank God for that,” Archbishop Nona told The Catholic Weekly.

“It was very difficult: 120,000 people without anything. We opened all the churches there [in Kurdistan], all the Christian schools.

“People there were sleeping in the churches, schools, classrooms, gardens. We thank God it was summer, not winter.”

With the help of Aid to the Church in Need and other international organisations, assisted by donations from Chaldean Dioceses in western nations, the refugees built camps in which they lived for almost a year.

Archbishop Amel Shamon Nona, head of the Chaldean Catholic Eparchy of St Thomas the Apostle, sits at home in Sydney during an interview with The Catholic Weekly. Photo: Adam Wesselinoff
Archbishop Amel Shamon Nona, head of the Chaldean Catholic Eparchy of St Thomas the Apostle, sits at home in Sydney during an interview with The Catholic Weekly. Photo: Adam Wesselinoff

Some left for Jordan, Syria or Turkey, with others migrating to Australia, Canada and the US.

Around 61,000 Assyrians and Chaldeans now call Australia home, with three-quarters living in the City of Fairfield in Western Sydney.

Yet shortly they may be living alongside their persecutors; the Albanese Government has proposed to repatriate 16 women, relatives and wives of former ISIS fighters, from detention camps in North-East Syria where they have been living since ISIS’s final defeat by Kurdish forces in 2019.

The so-called “ISIS brides” are Australian citizens, and would be repatriated along with 42 children, some of whom were born in detention overseas. At least a dozen Australian men who fought for ISIS are also in detention overseas.

Some have expressed remorse and wish to return to Australia, but no plans for their repatriation have been announced.

“I can’t understand it, really … If these people choose to go there, to combat, and to do whatever – it was their choice. That was their choice.”

Some of the women have relatives in Western Sydney, and may resettle in suburbs in which Assyrians and Chaldeans live.

“It’s not easy for us to live with people who persecuted us, who forced us to leave everything and killed our people,” Archbishop Nona said.

“I can’t understand it, really. From one side we talk about the free choice of everyone, in our Western society … If these people choose to go there, to combat, and to do whatever – it was their choice. That was their choice.”

He heard about the government’s proposal from media reports, and told The Catholic Weekly on 10 October that his community had not been forewarned or consulted about the decision.

“There should be justice, should be respect for other people – the victims,” Archbishop Nona said.

An Iraqi man inspects al-Tahira al-Kubra church near Mosul on 15 November 2016 after it was liberated from the Islamic State group. PHOTO: CNS

“There should be someone who can say sorry to the victims, and more importantly, if they come back – yesterday, even, I heard that they want to put them in Western Sydney … It is a very bad decision, and we will talk about that if they do that.”

The de facto spokesperson for the women, “ISIS bride” Mariam Dabboussy, claims she and her husband were tricked by her brother-in-law into going to Syria to join ISIS.

Ms Dabboussy told The Australian earlier this year that her youngest daughter Aisha, whom she took to Syria at 18 months old and is now aged nine, has spent a third of her life in prison camps.

Some of the women likewise claim they were coerced, forced to remarry when their husbands were killed, and suffer from degrading conditions in the Syrian refugee camps.

The decision to repatriate them has come after a secret investigation by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) in Syria, and the women have reportedly agreed to be detained upon arrival in Australia.

“Small kids, of course they did nothing: they’re victims also … But adults? I think they must ask them about what they did.”

They have also volunteered to submit to control orders before release into the community.

Archbishop Nona said that the women must be prosecuted if they have broken Australian law, and should not be excused because they were only the spouses of ISIS fighters.

“About the children, I am 100 per cent with them. Small kids, of course they did nothing: they’re victims also,” he said.

“But adults? I think they must ask them about what they did.”

Whatever the government’s decision about resettling former members of ISIS in Sydney, Archbishop Nona said Christians cannot return to Iraq – and few Australian Chaldeans would want to.

“We are a small minority there, and after many, many years and decades of persecution it’s difficult for our people who are now here to think about that land, their homeland,” he said.

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