Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Mosul Christian Community Dwindles

Many go abroad to escape the threat of violence, while others seek refuge in the countryside around Mosul.
By Sahar al-Haideri
They have been threatened because of their Christian faith, their distinctive clothing and their success in business. They have been killed because of a controversy over a cartoon. They have fled to wherever they can find a minimal amount of safety - to Iraqi Kurdistan, abroad to Syria, or just to the countryside outside their city.



The Christians of Mosul can recite one horror story after another. Once a solid, middle-class community in this northern city, thousands of them have fled their homes under threat from militants. Their churches have been bombed, their clergy murdered, and community members regularly face threats and kidnappings.



The story of Mosul's Christians is not dissimilar to that of millions of other Iraqi citizens who live in a state of fear. But their religion makes them especially vulnerable, in a city where governance and the rule of law are non-existent, allowing criminal gangs and Islamic militant groups such as al-Qaeda to intimidate and kill with impunity.



"Life has become difficult in Mosul," said Ilham Sabah, a Christian attorney who wears the veil because she fears she would otherwise be killed. "The militants threaten Christian women. They set them on fire or kill them if they refuse to wear Islamic dress as Muslim women do.



"We only have one choice, and that is to flee Mosul and the hell created by the militants."



Mosul is the capital of Nineveh province, and has been home to Christians of the Assyrian, Chaldean, Armenian and Catholic churches for more than millennium. Now they are being driven out en masse.



Christians "are the weakest of the weak", said Joseph Kassab, originally from Mosul and now executive director of the Chaldean Federation of America.



“The extremists there are highly active… they want to empty Mosul of Iraqi Christians," he said.



There are no accurate demographic statistics for Iraq, but most estimates indicate there were between 800,000 and one million Iraqi Christians in Iraq in 2003. A 2005 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, on non-Muslim religious minorities in Iraq said that most of the Christians were from Nineveh province, although substantial numbers lived and worked in Baghdad.



UNHCR reported last year that about 24 per cent of the Iraqi refugees in Syria, which borders Nineveh province, were Christians. In addition, about 1,720 Christian families have fled Mosul for the relative safety of the Nineveh Plains outside the city, according to a Christian human rights advocate in the province who requested anonymity out of concern for his security. Thousands of Christians from Baghdad and other parts of Iraq have also fled to the plains.



Christians, many of whom were successful entrepreneurs and professionals, were some of Iraq's first refugees.



Community leaders in Nineveh province have faced increased threats in the wake of the furore created by a Danish newspaper’s publication last year of caricatures making fun of the Prophet Mohammed and linking Islam with terrorism. A controversial speech by Pope Benedict XVI in September 2006, which many Muslims perceived as anti-Islamic, also made Christians a target.



By mid-October, a bomb had killed nine people in an Assyrian neighbourhood of Mosul, and Syriac priest Paulos Iskandar was beheaded after being kidnapped by a militant group. His abductors demanded at least 250,000 US dollars in ransom and also that he post signs on his church apologising for the Pope's remarks, according to the Assyrian International News Agency. They killed him two days after his abduction.



The murder sent shock-waves through Mosul's Christian community,



The violence has not abated since Iskandar's gruesome murder. Father Ragheed Ganni, a Chaldean Catholic priest at the Church of the Holy Spirit, and three of his deacons were gunned down in Mosul in June following a Sunday service. Ganni had been threatened and his church bombed prior to the attack.



The four were shot dead when their vehicle was pulled over by armed gunmen. The militants then rigged the car with explosives, and it took several hours before a bomb-disposal unit arrived to defuse the charges.



Less high-profile kidnappings, threats and killings of Christians rarely make the news, but they occur almost daily. The Assyria National Assembly tracks violence against Assyrian Christians in Iraq, and the daily online log of murders and other violent acts includes a plethora of kidnappings targeting Mosul’s Christians.



Many Christians are kidnapped for ransom because they are successful businessmen, although most have fled or shut down their operations in Mosul since 2003.



In one case last month, the assembly reported that Dawood Qoryaqos Hermis Farfash, a father of five, was carjacked and abducted in Mosul's al-Tahreer district. Earlier this year, Dawood was kidnapped in the same area and released after his family paid a ransom of 3.5 million Iraqi dinars, or about 2,800 dollars.



The frequent attacks on churches and clergy have kept many away from services. Mosul used to have 23 churches, but many are no longer open and Christians often opt to practice their faith in secret, according to the human rights advocate.



"Life was better under Saddam," said a 35-year-old Christian businessman in Mosul who asked not to be named because he feared retaliation by militant groups. "I used to go out socially and was well-respected, but not any more. In the past, there was law and order, but now nothing stops the extremists or criminals."



This man, a lifelong Mosul resident, lives in a neighbourhood where Christians are in a minority, and says most of his friends are Muslims. His brother left Mosul after his child was kidnapped and he himself was threatened earlier this year.



Mosul's long history of religious and ethnic coexistence has not, however, disappeared because of the violence.



"I and many of my friends and colleagues hurt just as much when a Christian is murdered as when a Muslim is killed," said Salim Abdul-Wahad, a Muslim teacher in Mosul.



Kassab and the Christian rights advocate both said the security problems stem from a lack of government control over the province as a whole and Mosul in particular. Kassab said the province is so chaotic that it is often unclear who is attacking whom, or why. Christians may be specifically targeted by Islamic extremists, he said, but the perpetrators could also be criminal gangs or militias affiliated with political parties.



"Everyone is subject to violence," said Kassab. " [The security forces] can't function, they can't provide safety and security very well in general. So how are they going to safeguard a minority in the community?"



He said the security forces were "busy protecting themselves, protecting their establishments. It's hard to protect everyone in that area, and they don't have the resources, either".



Michael Youash, project director for the Washington-based Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project, which advocates on behalf of Iraqi religious minorities, says the United States has not done enough to defend minority rights in Iraq even though many of the smaller religious groups supported the US-led overthrow of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.



"America has shown with abundant clarity that it’s not willing to lift a finger on this issue," he said.



Christians from Mosul and other parts of Iraq such as Baghdad have fled in droves to the Nineveh Plains, which many Assyrians consider their homeland. There are other minority groups - Turkoman, Yazidis and Shabaks - living in this area, which consists of the Tel Kaif, al-Hamdaniya and al-Shikhan districts to the southeast, east and north of Mosul. The area borders on the Dohuk and Erbil provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan.



"The Nineveh Plain is a bit of an oasis in terms of safety, and the main reason is because the communities really do know each other," said Youash. "Even with the new arrivals, they tend to know each other."



The number of internally displaced persons, or IDPs, seeking refuge in the Nineveh Plains rose to more than 10,000 families five months ago, including 1,000 from the Shabak community. Nineveh province has nearly 90,000 IDPs, the second-largest for any province in the country, according to a July report by the International Organisation for Migration.



The largely agrarian plains have remained fairly safe for Christians and other minorities. They are partially controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, which is dominant in Erbil and Dohuk.



Assyrians claim the Kurdish government and the KDP have discriminated against them, including confiscating land and disenfranchising Christian voters in the 2005 elections. The Kurdish government would like to incorporate much of the Nineveh Plain into its area of rule, but many residents want to create a special administrative area of their own there.



"There isn't necessarily a special solution for Christians, because any solution needs to address all political, security and economic concerns through Iraq," said the human rights activist. "But Christians want their own autonomous region with the Shabak and the Yazidis in the Nineveh Plains."



Youash agreed, saying,"This is what's needed to save these people."



Advocates for a special territory run by minorities on the Nineveh Plains cite the Iraqi constitution, which guarantees administrative rights for minorities such as Turkoman, Chaldeans and Assyrians.



If momentum gains for a minority-run area in Nineveh, it will probably be fiercely opposed by the Kurds and perhaps other political groups.



Still, Youash and other Assyrian advocates are lobbying for US support for the plan and more support for the plains region. The over 82,000 Assyrians living in the US have formed a formidable lobby.



The US Senate is currently considering a bill that would give 10 million dollars in aid to help religious minorities in the Nineveh Plains. It has already passed in the House of Representatives.



Unless they have security backed up by strong governance, the Christians of Nineveh fear they will disappear altogether.



"Most of us have fled abroad, and this is a serious concern," said Mosul resident Afram Abdul-Ahad, who lost his small restaurant and some family members because of targeted violence against Christians. "We're worried about the future of Christians in Iraq."



IWPR correspondent Sahar al-Haideri was murdered in Mosul, her home city, in June. IWPR Middle East editor Tiare Rath and an IWPR correspondent who did not want to be identified contributed additional material to this report.