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Christian Refugees Fleeing ISIS Grounds Flock To Parish Of Jordan Priest

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A Catholic parish in Jordan has become a home to Iraqi Christians who have fled ISIS. They're among the more than 1 million refugees who have fled ISIS-controlled areas of Iraq. And their host in Jordan is a priest, one who's had his own brush with danger in that country. NPR's Jane Arraf visited the church on the outskirts of Amman.

(CROSSTALK)

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Father Khalil Jaar walks into a classroom of bubbly 6 and 7-year-olds. It's one of the classes he started for refugees after ISIS took over the Iraqi city of Mosul two years ago. They all have new puppets to show him. He bends down to chat to a girl named Miriam with braided hair and pink sneakers.

KHALIL JAAR: (Foreign language spoken).

MIRIAM: Miriam.

JAAR: Miriam.

ARRAF: His St. Mary's parish provides classes for 600 Iraqi and Syrian refugees, both Christian and Muslim. It helps with food and rent for almost 500 families. For children who lost almost everything, Father Khalil has tried to make things as normal as possible.

JAAR: Bye. Bye.

ARRAF: The kids say goodbye and they scramble onto a school bus.

So Miriam is leaning out the window and waving her puppet at me. And for a minute, they just all look like normal school kids anywhere - excited to be going home, excited to have new toys. And you forget that their entire lives have been turned upside down.

But the priest's life has also been turned upside down. He's Palestinian, and his family came to Jordan as refugees in 1967. He explains what happened when he went to Baghdad in 2006.

JAAR: I was kidnapped by a terrorist, OK? And I spent 10 days. It was very, very hard for me, OK? I can assure you during these 10 days, I was crying like a child. And I forget even how to play.

ARRAF: He says for a long time after he was released, he was afraid all the time. He couldn't sleep or bear to watch the news. And now, he says, he can't stand being alone. He says church leaders told him he should leave aid to the aid agencies and just be a normal parish priest. But are these normal times, he asks. He's moved eight of the Iraqi families into his own church hall. And the new mission has reinvigorated his parish.

JAAR: I am very happy in my life. I can tell you that I feel that I am the happiest priest in the world.

ARRAF: The families have created rooms by hanging polyester curtains from ropes as dividers. Many of them move on to emigrate to Canada or Australia. And that's been an issue. Church leaders worried about the decline of Christianity in the Middle East have called on Christians to stay in the region. Father Khalil disagrees.

JAAR: In spite that all the bishops said no, you have to stay here, this is the Holy Land, for me the Holy Land is every land where a Christian can live his faith. The Holy Land is anywhere that we can find good people, not only Christian. It could be Buddhist or Muslim or I don't know. Where good people live, their land is holy.

ARRAF: There are still several hundred thousand Christians hanging on in Iraq. But the ones here say they're never going back. At the church's free coffee shop, dozens of men from Mosul crowd around small tables playing dominoes. Carlos Kamal Elea is a cook from a village near Mosul. He says in Iraq, he was hung by his feet for 45 days after he got into a fist fight with one of the ISIS fighters. He's just come back from medical treatment in Spain.

CARLOS KAMAL ELEA: (Through interpreter) If we go back, we start from nothing. Our houses are destroyed. Who will compensate us? Neither the church nor the state.

ARRAF: No matter what happens in Mosul, Iraq is dead to these Iraqis. But Father Khalil has helped them keep alive their community. Jane Arraf, NPR News, in Marka, Jordan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.