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Iraqi Christians' fear of exile

By Jim Muir
BBC News, Tellkeyf

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Many Christians in Iraq say they are living in fear for their lives

Camping with her two youngest children in a room at one of the churches in Tellkeyf, Ikhlas Matti bursts into tears when she tries to describe what has happened to her family.

"My children are scattered all around," she says.

"I haven't seen my older daughters for two months. I had to leave one of my sons with an aunt. My sister Nadia is somewhere abroad, and I haven't seen her for 15 years."

Ikhlas is one of an estimated 12,000 Iraqi Christians who fled the northern city of Mosul earlier this month following a wave of murders and threats targeting their community.

Although some have started to return after the Iraqi government took steps to increase security, Ikhlas says she cannot go back.

'Hatred rooted'

"I'm going to stay here in the church. People in Mosul have become so hostile to one another.

"Hatred has become rooted. There is fear in our hearts 24 hours a day. They can come and kill us at any moment."

A Christian boy in the back of his family car after fleeing Mosul on 13 October 2008
Up to 12,000 Iraqi Christians fled the city of Mosul this month

While some of the fearful Mosul families fled across the border to Syria or Turkey, most took refuge in the Christian hinterland on the plain of Nineveh, to the north and east of the city.

They were given shelter in churches, schools and private homes.

Although it lies outside the three provinces currently recognised as autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, the territory is disputed, but comes under the de facto security control of Kurdish peshmerga forces.

The Kurdistan regional government joined Christian, Iraqi government and international organisations in providing relief and support to the displaced Christians.

Dark suspicions

But that was not enough to prevent dark suspicions being voiced by some quarters, that Kurdish groups may have been involved in the campaign to frighten the Christians out of Mosul and into the hinterland, for reasons obscurely connected with the provincial elections due to be held at the end of January.

The other most-named suspects were Sunni fundamentalists in the mould of al-Qaeda, who have been blamed for many sectarian attacks in the past, both in Mosul and elsewhere.

Displaced Iraqi Christians receive food aid from Christians in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk on 24 October 2008
A big relief operation has swung into operation for the displaced Christians

The Mayor of Tellkeyf, Bassem Bello, who was among the first to ring alarm bells over the exodus of the Christians, said investigations suggested elements of the security forces on the ground - the 8th Brigade of the Iraqi Army's 2nd Division - were involved.

The brigade is said to be largely Kurdish in composition. But security forces are also alleged to be heavily penetrated by former Baathists, for whom Mosul was always a stronghold.

So the identity and motivation of the culprits remain for the time being shrouded in mystery and conjecture, though the Iraqi government has said it will make public the findings of the investigation it has set in motion.

Concerted campaign

But the results are beyond doubt - the murder of at least a dozen Christians, death threats to others, the demolition of houses and other pressures to force the Christian flight.

It was the most concerted campaign so far against the Christians, although they have had their share of fallout from the Iraqi upheavals that followed the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime.

There have been numerous attacks on Christians and churches in Mosul, as in Baghdad and elsewhere.

In March, the city's Chaldean archbishop, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was abducted and murdered.

Iraqi Christians pray during a Mass in Baghdad, Iraq on 19 October 2008
Since 2003, Iraq's Christian population is believed to have fallen by 300,000
Even though many of the thousands who fled the latest campaign may return, the net result is certain to be a further reduction of the community.

And fears persist that more trouble may lie ahead.

"There are definitely many doubts and fears," said Gabriel Tooma, the Chaldean Abbot at al-Qosh monastery, north of Mosul.

"We hope the current concern about the Mosul killings and threats will make this the last tribulation of the Iraqi people.

"But we don't know if the future will surprise us again. We can't foretell the future, but we hope and pray for the best."

Since the 2003 invasion, Iraq's Christian population is believed to have fallen from around 800,000 to about 500,000, with many emigrating for good.

They come from some of the world's oldest Christian communities, including Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syrian Orthodox and others.

Some of their languages, both liturgical and everyday, go back to biblical times, including variations of the Aramaic spoken by Jesus Christ.





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