Iraqi Christians cling to last, waning refuges
Al Qaeda-linked militants and Kurdish ultranationalists are both pressuring Iraq's largest Christian enclave.
The bullets lay on the desk amid Bibles and rosaries. They're for two pistols owned by Father Ayman Danna.Skip to next paragraph
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"The only solution left for our people is to bear arms. We either live or die. We must be strong," says the Syriac Catholic priest at the Church of Saint George in Bartella, a northern Iraqi town in a swath of fertile land called the Nineveh Plain that now has the largest concentration of a dwindling Christian community.
The Christians who fled sectarian persecution that followed the US invasion in 2003 are now battling to hold onto one of their final refuges. They are increasingly besieged by Sunni Arab militants on one side and by Kurdish ultranationalists on the other – both of whom have different agendas for the area.
On Tuesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said everything must be done to secure Archbishop Rahho's release, days after Pope Benedict XVI described his abduction as "abominable." Sources in the Nineveh Plain say the kidnappers are asking for $1 million in exchange for Rahho's release.
Rahho is among nearly a dozen priests who have been kidnapped in Mosul since 2003. Many more ordinary Christians have been abducted. In most cases, a ransom was paid to free the priests, the sources say. Three priests were assassinated.
System of extortion
Christian churches in Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Mosul have been bombed throughout the war. Now, priests and others in Nineveh Plain say they pay large sums of money to Al Qaeda-linked militants in Mosul, the provincial capital, in exchange for protection for themselves and their churches.
This system is akin to the special tax that Christians in the region used to pay under the Islamic caliphate centuries ago. Muslims in the city say the "tax" is extorted from wealthy merchants as well, regardless of their faith.
The "tax" on Christians supposedly safeguards the nearly 2,000 students who commute from the Plain to college in Mosul on buses, according to Ryan Negara from the town of Al Qosh.
Still, according to Mr. Negara, the extortion has not kept Christians safe. He says one of his friends, an engineering professor, was kidnapped with nine students last year and released only after ransom was paid.
On a recent Sunday, families gathered in the courtyard of the Saint Elias Church in Ainkawa, a Christian town inside the semiautonomous Kurdish region. Nearly every one had a heart-wrenching story to tell about kidnapping, extortion, and displacement at the hands of Islamic extremists intent on driving Christians from the region.
"I had a choice: Convert to Islam, pay the tax, or give away one of my daughters," says a man originally from Baghdad, who was kidnapped two years ago and released only after his family paid a hefty ransom. Now, he's trying to leave Iraq for good.
The current joint US-Iraqi military operation in and around Mosul – that has been said to be the decisive battle against Al Qaeda in Iraq – has not done much to hem in militants here.
One resident of the village of Karamles, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described in chilling detail how a notorious Mosul-based Al Qaeda in Iraq operative nicknamed Abu Huthaifa managed to slip into the Nineveh Plain area two weeks ago, posing as a needy Christian, and met with the local priest.