Russian airstrikes allegedly against Islamic State (ISIS) targets in Syria have forced airports in northern Iraq to close, stranding hundreds of Christians waiting to leave for Europe.
The Christians found refuge in the Mar Elia church in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, for the past 15 months. The community formed a strong bond, sharing the “common experience of hardship after arriving at the camp.” They were ready to leave for Slovakia, but the closure have prevented them from doing so.
“Russia is said to be sending missiles to several targets and therefore the airspace needs to be ‘free,'” explained Father Douglas, the leader of the Mar Elia church. “My people are a little bit disappointed, but they have been waiting for 15 months already and so two days does not make much difference.”
Nisan Hekmat and his family are part of the group bound for Slovakia.
“They told me that travel is delayed for 48 hours,” he said. “In Iraq this is not unusual. In other countries it may be different but here it’s ‘normal’ to hear good news and bad news all at the same time.”
He added: “It is difficult for us all. Friends and family came to say goodbye and now the journey has been put on hold. We have everything packed and we’ve given away things (that we can’t take with us) like rice and oil that other families will need.”
Father Douglas hopes the people can leave and reach safety as soon as possible.
“My people want to have a future,” stated Father Douglas. “I’m not trying to give them a future, but I am trying to provide a path for them to have a future. No one is forced to leave, no one is forced to stay. It is a personal decision.”
Since Russia began the airstrikes, northern Iraq airports have experienced numerous closures and re-openings. On November 23, the Iraqi government asked Sulaimani and Erbil airports to close due to the Russian airstrikes.
“We have been informed by Baghdad to halt the flights because of Russian jets attacking Daesh (ISIS) in Syria. This is for the safety of travelers,” clarified Talar Fayiq, head of Erbil International Airport.
The officials asked the Sulaimani and Erbil airports to close again on December 6. Fayiq provided Rudaw with the exact same statement.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) announced these “airport closures are a new crisis for the region.” The closures mean loss of money and travel disruptions.
“Since October 23, 2015 the Iraqi civil aviation authority has repeatedly ordered a halting of flights from Erbil and Sulaimani international airports on the justification of Russian missiles against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria crossing through the region’s airspace,” stated the government. The KRG encouraged the fight against ISIS, but does not think the airstrikes “should not affect aviation in the region.”