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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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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.

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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. •