For the Iraqi Christians of Qaraqosh, there was never a choice between freedom and faith: God always comes first.
So when Isis blazed into the country’s largest Christian town on August 7, most fled, terrified of the choice they would have to make to renounce their faith or be killed.
In spite of the almost biblical exodus, however, some residents have remained in the area, but they are living in fear of discovery and death at the hands of Isis.
Lara, her husband and their children — a boy aged 6 and two girls, 12 and 13 — are one such family. When word reached them that militants were on the march, they decided they would join the exodus. They were unable to get out, however, before Isis, also known as Islamic State, overran the town. Lara, a devout Christian, made a split-second decision to hide.
She, her husband and their children locked the doors and raced to an inner room where they could not be seen or heard by passersby. They huddled together, held their breath, and waited. Eight days later, they are still there.
Speaking by mobile phone, Lara described the ghostly existence she chose, rather than abandon her faith. She says she does not regret it.
Every night, she and her husband slip out of the house to refill the family’s water supplies. In the distance, black Isis flags fly over the hospital and government buildings. The streets are silent.
They have enough food, but only thanks to the kindness of Sunni Muslims living nearby who have the same faith as the fundamentalist invaders, but who risk who their lives to help those from another faith. One courageous neighbour, a woman, makes covert and enormously risky evening visits to several houses where Christians hide.
She is Lara’s lifeline, and she has told her that her generosity is not just a gesture of defiance to the town’s new rulers, but an attempt to separate her faith from those who wield Islam with violence. “She is trying to show that all Sunni Muslims are not like Daash [Isis],” said Lara. “She is keeping us alive.”
Most of the thousands of Christian families who fled have reached the relative safety of the Christian quarter in Arbil, 45 miles away. There, in the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan, they have been put up by other Christians, or in churches. More than 1.2 million people have been displaced by the Iraqi conflict, hundreds of thousands of them Christians fleeing for their lives, or to avoid forced conversion.
Lara’s father, who lives in Arbil, stays in touch with his daughter by mobile phone. “If they find out who she is, she might get into serious trouble,” he said.
That day may be approaching. Yesterday, militants started looting businesses in Qaraqosh. Lara and her father fear that they may start looting houses too. If they do, they will find her family.
Until that happens, Lara clings to her faith. In Arbil, at the Umm Noor Syrian Orthodox church, Father Matthew al-Banna said he had not heard of any Christians who had chosen to convert.
“Daash took everything — cars, houses, money — but in my congregation, the hundreds of people who come to this church, no one has heard of a killing or a conversion,” he said.
Father al-Banna remains hopeful that, despite the worst fears, the violence that Isis has meted out to Shias and Yazidis will not be inflicted on the Christians who remain.
Lara’s father waits by the phone and prays that Father al-Banna is right.