Iraqi Christians cling to last, waning refuges

Al Qaeda-linked militants and Kurdish ultranationalists are both pressuring Iraq's largest Christian enclave.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Enclave: Christian families file into Sunday mass at Saint Elias church in Ainkawa, one of the largest enclaves for Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan.
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    Believers: Father Ayman Danna stands below a portrait of Sarkis Aghajan, an Assyrian leader recognized for his work on behalf of Iraqi Christians.
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    In Talkeif, many Christians who fled Baghdad's violence have found struggle brewing in their historic homeland.
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The bullets lay on the desk amid Bibles and rosaries. They're for two pistols owned by Father Ayman Danna.

"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.

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In a sign of how grim the situation has become, Paulos Faraj Rahho, archbishop of the Chaldean Catholic Church in nearby Mosul, was kidnapped last Friday and three of his companions were killed.

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.

He later called the priest, according to the resident, and told him who he really was and demanded that he pay the tax, but the priest refused. Now, heavily armed men stand guard all around Karamles.

The men are members of a new militia called the Church Guards and they are present in many villages in Nineveh Plain and are being funded by Sarkis Aghajan, a multimillionaire Assyrian Christian businessman who is also the minister of finance for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

"We have no government, it's all thanks to master Sarkis," says Father Danna of the Bartella church, which on a recent visit was ringed with a contingent of these guards. "All I get from the American officials, who visit me, is empty talk and souvenirs."

Mr. Aghajan's portrait is on the wall of the church recreation center. He has spent millions of dollars in Nineveh Plain and inside the Kurdish-controlled region on churches, homes for the displaced, and on community projects, says Danna.

Aghajan has strong ties to the top leaders of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which has established outposts in nearly every town and village in the plain. These compounds are frequent targets of car bombs. Government forces in the area are dominated by Kurdish peshmerga, an elite Iraqi fighting force, and KDP intelligence officers. Kurdish flags and banners praising KDP leader Massoud Barzani are everywhere.

The squeeze from Kurds

To the east of the Nineveh Plain, Kurdish nationalists are pressing hard for the area to join the adjacent semiautonomous KRG. The fate of the area, and whether it would become part of Iraqi Kurdistan, is to be decided in a referendum in accordance with Article 140 of the Constitution.

The community itself is bitterly divided over what they should do. Many see joining the Kurds as a move for self-preservation and some semblance of autonomy in being part of an area where many Christian enclaves already exist in relative peace. Others say this level of independence can be achieved via Baghdad.

Danna says the Kurds have promised autonomy and special status to the Christians if they join Kurdistan.

"We are protecting them from terrorist attacks," says Muhammad Ihsan, Kurdistan's minister of extraregional affairs, about the heavy Kurdish presence in the Nineveh Plain, adding that Christians and Kurds have always had "great relations" and that his government would "respect" the ultimate wishes of the people.

The Plain is home to other minorities like the Shabak and the Kurdish-speaking Yazidis, who suffered devastating attacks last summer in another part of Nineveh. Places like Bahzani, Basheeqa, and Sheikhan, where Yazidis dominate, are already de facto part of Kurdistan.

"No doubt our future is more secure inside Kurdistan," says Romeo Hakari, a leader of a political party that joined a special council formed one year ago and backed by Aghajan to promote this vision.

But not everyone agrees. The strongest opposition comes from the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM).

Shmael Benjamin, a former party leader based in Ainkawa, says Kurds, Assyrians, and other minorities all suffered from Saddam Hussein's policy of resettling Arabs in northern Iraq known as "Arabization." Now the Kurds, close allies of Washington, seem to be doing the same thing with "Kurdification."

The ADM's power base in the plain is in Talkeif, the westernmost town nearest Mosul, which has a significant Sunni Arab population as well. Young men in military fatigues carrying AK-47s guard the party's headquarters next to the main church.

Johnny Khoshaba, a blogger in Talkeif, was arrested last month and taken to a prison inside Kurdistan for speaking out against Aghajan, Kurdish practices, in the area, and the alleged corruption of church figures. He says he was released only after signing a pledge to stop his writing.

"This scream is for my church and our liberty," says the blog's banner.

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