“Pray for Christina’s family, still under shock to see their baby again. It was a true miracle, a new birth and a new life”
On the night of 6-7 August 2014, the Islamic State (IS) occupied the historic regions of Nineveh Plains and emptied it of Christians, its original inhabitants, who were deported to the Kurdistan region. A large number of people however were trapped there. Some of them were able to break free afterwards, but hundreds remained imprisoned by the Islamic State and have not been heard of since. Among those who stayed after the Islamic State took over the region were Mr. Khouder Ezzo, his wife, Aida Hanna, and their daughter Christina – who was three years old at that time.
On 22nd August 2014, after robbing them of their money and gold, the Islamic State allowed the family of Christina and others to leave “Bakhdida” (Qarakosh) to Erbil. One of the IS soldiers however snatched Christina from the safety of her mother’s arms. As the non-Iraqi IS fighter carried the crying and scared baby Christina on his shoulder, her mother begged him to release her to be able to leave with her family. He did not respond but instead gestured to the mother to board the bus or she would be slaughtered! The mother fearfully complied. That was the last time she saw her daughter, that is, until last Friday 10th June.
In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Father Ignatius Offy, Syrian Catholic priest in Ankawa, speaks with Maria Lozano, Head of Press of the pontifical foundation (ACN), about Christina’s return.
Father Ignatius, how did you come to know the family of Christina?
Christina’s family and I are from the town of Bakhdida (Qarakosh). The families in our region know each other and we all have close social ties. In addition, I am a priest, and since the beginning of our forced displacement from our region on the night of 6-7 August 2014, I have been tracking people captured by the Islamic State. I have submitted the list of persons whose fate is still unknown to many individuals, organizations and associations. Among these names, of course, was Christina – the youngest of them all.
How are you feeling after her miraculous return?
What happened with Christina and with her family and with us is a ‘divine miracle!’. In my humble opinion, this is the fourth birth of the child Christina. The first time when she was born to her parents, the second time was at her baptism, the third time was when a Muslim family adopted and took care of her during the period she was lost, and finally yet importantly when she returned to her family and her Christian community. Christina was given a new life. We thank God for His work with her, with her family, and with all of us.
Do you know where Christina was hidden during these three years?
Christina’s father explained to us after the kidnapping: “We kept asking the people who remained in the region about our daughter. The last phone call we had was with one of our relatives who assured us that Christina was fine and was seen with one of the IS soldiers near the mosque. All communications were cut off after that”. Five months after her abduction, Christina’s family was informed by one of their acquaintances that the baby was well and living with a Muslim family in the Al-Tanak area in Mosul. At that time, the Muslim family had taken Christina from a mosque in Mosul; they took her home and treated her like one of their own. They ultimately wanted to reunite the baby with her own family but they feared for her safety. So in the meantime they decided to keep, protect and take care of her.
A team from ACN met Christina’s parents two years ago during our visit to Ankawa, at this time there was no news of her. It was heart breaking but it was amazing to see their faith. Did they always keep this faith in her return?
For two years, Christina’s family heard bits and pieces of news about her but could not communicate directly with her. Many foreign and Arabic news agencies and satellite channels that met Christina’s family and wrote about her abduction spread the story widely. Her parents and family toiled in their search for her and published her photo. Her father prayed the rosary each day for her return. He kept the pictures of saints next to Christina’s image on the inner walls of the caravan where they lived during their involuntary exile. Many believers shared prayers with the family for the return of the little child and of all the other missing persons.
How was it now made possible for her to be brought back to her family?
After the fighting erupted in the south of Mosul, the Muslim family which had adopted Christina moved to a safer place. The adoptive father called a person who knew Christina from Baqofa and asked for the cellular number of a member of Christina’s family. He got hold of Christina’s elder brother’s number and called him late on the night of Thursday June 9, 2017. He asked if they could meet in Kojli district in Mosul to return his sister.
On the morning of the next day, Friday, 10th June, Christina’s family went to the rendez-vous point and the two families met. Christina was handed over to her real family. She was in good health. Her parents thanked the Muslim family who took care of her during the last three years. Christina was finally reunited with her real parents, her family, her relatives and her people.
How is Christina now? She must be very confused…
Today, she is almost six years old. Christina still shocked and scared. She has forgotten her real father, her mother, her brother and sisters. She has also forgotten what she had learned of her Syriac mother tongue. She could only speak Arabic. She speaks very little with her family and with the guests that come to visit. Sometimes she smiles at them and sometimes she doesn’t. She plays with the gifts people give her when they visit the family to see how she’s doing.
And how would you describe the reaction of the parents, the family – the whole community praying and waiting for her for so long time?
The mother was really emotional and the tears of joy filled her eyes. She describes her baby’s return as a “miracle”. She is shocked to see how much she has grown and changed and did not recognize her. “We thank God that He saved her from Daesh (IS),” said the father. As for her brothers and sister, they simply couldn’t explain their feelings about the return of their youngest sister. The community welcomed Christina home with music and dancing. They threw her a little party at the compound where the family lives. A special thanksgiving prayer was held for her and for the missing people still held by the Islamic State. The compound is still welcoming people coming to congratulate the family for the return of their daughter.
As you said, Christina is not the only case of Christian and Yazidi children abducted by IS, do you know about other cases of return?
I do not know of any other children, other than Christina, who have been liberated and returned to their families. What I know is that we have many Christians who were captured by the Islamic State but have not been heard of since, including little children, teenagers, men and women, young and old.
Do you know about the future plans of the family?
Christina’s family home in Bakhdida (Qaraqosh) is destroyed. They currently live in a camp for the Christian refugees in a small two-room caravan. Her older brother, who works in an Erbil bakery told us: “Honestly, we do not have any future in Iraq. Six months ago, we applied for a visa to migrate to France but have not got any response yet. This caravan is small and life is hard.” I pledge all the organizations and associations which take care of children to help Christina’s family and offer the young, still-in shock, Christina psychological support and help her reintegrate with her family and community.
Do you have a message for all the friends and benefactors of our organization around the world?
My message is like a prayer: “We thank the Lord for his great blessing and miracle that He gave us. We thank the Muslim family that took care of Christina. We thank all who made an effort towards her return. We pray for Christina for a new start in getting to know her real parents and family and reintegrate with her Christian community. We pray for Christina’s family, still in shock to see their baby again. It was a true miracle, a new birth and a new life. We pray for whoever lends a helping hand for her and her family in any way possible. We pray for the return of all the captives, prisoners, and abducted persons still held by the Islamic State and other factions. We also pray for peace, security and stability to prevail in our wounded Iraq, and the whole world. Amen.”