In the Iraq war, Christians pushed to the brink

Iraq’s Christians have been targeted for kidnapping and forced to flee their homes. One advocate says that in a generation, Christians could be gone from the land they’ve lived in for 2,000 years.

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    Service: Iraqi Christians attended a special mass in Baghdad in August. Most of Iraq’s Christians are members of the Eastern-rite Catholic Chaldean church.
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    Lalish temple is the holiest religious site for Yazidis and is located in the disputed territories in Nineveh. The coned structures of their sites are unique to the Middle East.
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    Siham Alhad (r.) and her daughter-in-law are both widows from the campaign of violence that targeted Christians in Mosul in late 2008.
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At the height of Iraq's sectarian war, Hana Hormoz's Baghdad neighborhood of Dora became a Sunni Muslim stronghold hostile to him and his fellow Christians. Women were forced to wear hijab; priests were kidnapped for ransom. Their local church was bombed.

"If you didn't tolerate and accept everything from the Sunnis, you were treated like an American ally," says Mr. Hormoz, a teacher who moved his three sons and daughter to this northern city in 2006 but still lives in Dora with his wife. "In each street in Dora, there used to be 20 or 25 Christian homes. Now, you might find one or two, and in some places you can't find Christians anymore."

Hormoz's story, which he gave on condition that his real name not be printed, echoes that of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians who have been displaced in disproportionately high numbers. A Nov. 10 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), says two-thirds of Iraq's Christians have fled their homes – many abroad. And while they made up less than 5 percent of Iraq's population when the war began (about 1 million), they now constitute an estimated 10 percent of internally displaced Iraqis and 20 percent of Iraqi refugees in neighboring nations.

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Their displacement not only threatens to end Christianity's 2,000-year history in Iraq, it also deprives the country of a huge swath of middle-class professionals at a critical time. Since no Christian was able to have a government job under Saddam Hussein, university graduates became lawyers, doctors, and engineers. Crucial to Iraq's recovery, they are now scattered, afraid to return.

"The scale of the problem is total, and it has created an existential crisis," says Michael Youash of the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project, who campaigns on behalf of Iraqi Christians. "It may be that in 20 years there could be no more Christians in Iraq."

Those with means are still leaving the country; very few are returning. Father Sabri al-Maqdacy, a priest in the Arbil suburb of Ainkawa, says that almost all have lost hope that they can stay in Iraq, where most follow the Eastern-rite Catholic Chaldean church.

Mr. Maqdacy estimates that some 40,000 Christians have come to Ainkawa. Inside each big house live several refugee families who have fled cities such as Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, where militant Islamic groups target Christians and clergy with attacks, kidnappings, and bombings. Mosul "is very bad now," he says. Refugees from Baghdad say churches have been targeted and it would be impossible to build new ones without them being attacked.

Christians targeted for kidnapping

Though violence affected many Iraqis during the war, the situation was particularly bad for Christians, who lacked a security force. They were targeted by both Sunni and Shiite militias, particularly for kidnapping because they were seen as having money to pay ransoms.

Today, the threat to Christianity in Iraq comes in a subtler guise than fundamentalist violence: a warm welcome from Kurds that is snaring the most vulnerable Christians in dangerous struggles over land, political turf, and ethnicity.

The majority of internally displaced Christians in Iraq have fled to the Nineveh Plain in the northwest, which they see as ancestrally theirs. Political control of the area is disputed between Iraq's central government and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to the north.

Kurds have welcomed refugees to the territory – but Christians and other minorities allege that the KRG has threatened and bribed them to come swell the ranks of the Kurdish population, strengthening territorial claims.

HRW's new report suggests that Kurds are supporting Christians and other groups by offering inducements to move north while "simultaneously wielding repression in order to keep them in tow." The aim, it concludes, is to build a large local population prepared to register themselves as ethnically Kurdish – even if they're not – and vote in support of Kurdish claims to control the plain.

"Kurdish authorities have been reshaping the reality in Nineveh province," says the report, detailing the pervasive presence of Kurdish political parties and security forces in areas officially under Baghdad's control. KRG money has left its mark across the region in refurbished churches, aid distribution, new houses, sports clubs, and cultural associations for Christians.

There are 350,000 Christians now living on the plain, according to former Finance Minister Sarkis Aghajan. Himself a Christian, he spearheaded campaigns to rebuild villages in Kurdistan to provide shelter for fleeing Christians. He also supported KRG funding for Christian security forces in Nineveh Province.

The resentment was palpable in one village, Sheuss, in the Dohuk region of Kurdistan, where 136 Christian refugee families live in rudimentary houses built under the direction of Mr. Aghajan.

"They are jobless," says Father Kyriakos Miko Abdul Ahad, a local priest, who says they had been relatively prosperous in Baghdad but have little but shelter here. "Are they going to eat the walls?"

Local Jalal Hanna Toma acknowledges the security provided by KRG police and soldiers, but adds, "What does security mean for us if we have no job and no medicine?"

What can keep Christians in Iraq?

To salvage their ancient population in Iraq, Aghajan and others call for Christian autonomy on the Nineveh Plain, complete with a security force. Mohamad Ehsan, the KRG's former head of human rights, dismissed this as impractical, since Baghdad and the KRG wouldn't support it.

HRW recommends more limited political steps, including modifying the Kurdish Constitution to recognize smaller ethnic groups. It also calls on the Iraqi government to investigate killings of Christians in the north. •

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