In the living room of a cousin’s house, Vivian al-Dahan and her brothers pour out the details of how their father was kidnapped and killed a week ago in Mosul. Their mother, suddenly a widow, keeps trying not to cry.
Adnan Hannah al-Dahan was the first of at least eight Iraqi Christians killed in the northern city in the past two weeks. The murders have led to an exodus of one of the troubled city’s oldest minorities and fears that the attacks will keep Christians from voting in the Iraq election, scheduled for next week.
Iraq's Christian community is one of the world's oldest. But since the 2003 invasion, church bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations have scattered the community. Last year, Human Rights Watch estimated that two-thirds of Iraqi Christians have fled their homes since the war began.
The abduction that ended in Mr. Dahan's death was the second time he had been kidnapped. Two years ago, he was abducted from his corner shop, beaten with a rifle, and stuffed in the trunk of a car. He was kept wrapped in chains under a stairwell until the family borrowed enough money from neighbors to pay a $5,000 ransom.
“They said, ‘you are Christian – you have to pay a tax,’ ” says Vivian. The family didn’t go to the police because they said the kidnappers would have blown up their house.
This time, there was no ransom note and no contact with the men who took him away.
A week after he was abducted, his beaten and scarred body was dumped in the street near their house. Police took his eldest son, Raif, to the morgue to identify him.
Dahan, who had lost the use of his hand after being wounded in the Iran-Iraq war, had been whipped and his shoulder dislocated before he was shot in the mouth.
“We haven’t done anything wrong. Have we done anything wrong? My father wasn’t a policeman or a politician. He was a peaceful man – he loved people and people loved him,” says Vivian.
'Who is going to stay in the land of the prophets?'
The family says they didn’t leave Mosul after the first kidnapping because their father was too attached to the city to move. Mosul is built on the site of the biblical Ninevah, the burial place of the prophet Jonah and home to some of the earliest Christians.
“He said, ‘if all of us Christians leave, who is going to stay in the land of the prophets and pray in our churches?’ " says Darhan's widow, Warda. "He said, ‘we were all born in Mosul and we will die in Mosul.’ ”
Their shop was in a corner of their house on a main road in the Baladiyat district of Mosul. Throughout the war, there has been so much gunfire between insurgents and Iraqi and American forces that their home became riddled with bullet holes. When they couldn’t afford to keep replacing the shattered glass they just covered the windows with plastic wrap, Vivian says.
“Our house was a battlefield,” says Warda, huddled on a corner of the sofa and dressed in a black suit. “We would lie on the floor and we wouldn’t know where the bullets were coming from,” says Vivian. “More than once we thought we were dead.”
Although security has improved in Mosul over the past year, the latest killings and death threats delivered by text message have prompted hundreds of families to leave. Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq has become a haven for thousands of Christians fleeing violence in Mosul, less than an hour’s drive away.
Under Saddam Hussein, Kurds were expelled from their homes in Kirkuk and Mosul to the Kurdish territories. Kurdish peshmerga checkpoints on the informal boundary marking Kurdish territory now keep a tight rein on who comes into the region.
When the Kurdish soldiers saw the framed photograph of Vivian’s father with a black ribbon around it, they gave their condolences and waved them through, Vivian says.
The Dahan family is a dramatic example of the steady exodus of Christians from their homes in northern Iraq, where they have coexisted for centuries with their Muslim neighbors.
Warda’s father was a priest who was injured when a missile landed on his church in Mosul during the Iran-Iraq war. He and her mother and brothers and sisters were given asylum in Sweden, where her father later died. She hasn’t seen her family since then.
Warda’s eldest daughter, Revan, fled to Sweden two years ago after her husband was kidnapped and his shop blown up in Baghdad. He was later released and joined her in Sweden, which now has 100,000 Iraqi refugees.
Vivian is convinced her brothers would be killed if they went back to Mosul. They would like to join their relatives in Sweden, but as is the case with all countries, applications for asylum have to be made outside Iraq and the family has no money to leave. The recently opened Swedish consulate in Erbil issues visas only for business delegations.
“You see those refugees wandering the earth – we’ve become like that in our own country,” says Vivian, who was married just a month before her father was killed.
Pope Benedict XVI, in an address on Sunday from St. Peter’s Square, called on Iraqi authorities to keep vulnerable religious minorities safe. The chief United Nations representative here has also expressed concern about the targeted killing of Christians in the run-up to Sunday’s parliamentary elections.
The killings ahead of the national vote have raised concerns that Christians will be too afraid to go to the polls. The murders are widely viewed as an attempt not only to eradicate the Christian community but to tilt the balance of power in Mosul, where Kurdish and Arab political forces have been battling for control.
The estimated 750,000 Christians who have left or been forced out of their communities since 2003 have left behind businesses and homes that in many cases are still empty.
“The struggles aren’t just about faith – this is a struggle for political power and control of land and resources,” says Anne Ward, a humanitarian worker with the Chaledean Catholic community in Erbil.