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Kirkuk (Iraqi) Christians Fear Rising Violence


Sectarianism and growing Islamic power concerns Christians in this ethnically mixed city.

By Samah Samad in Kirkuk (ICR No. 177, 17-May-06)

Fadi Alyas, 13, was playing with three friends in front of the Church of the Virgin Mary in Kirkuk when the bomb went off.
Inside the Chaldean Christian church, the ground shook as worshippers, including Fadi’s grandmother, were praying quietly. They ran outside to find the air filled with smoke and shards of metal from the exploded car scattered around the church.
Fadi lay on the ground in a pool of blood. He died later in hospital.
“I can’t get his voice out of my mind,” said his brother Nasim Alyas, 23, his eyes welling up with tears. “I saw him drenched in his own blood, breathing his last at the hospital.”
Fadi was one of three people killed in late January when five car bombs targeted churches and the Vatican embassy in Kirkuk and Baghdad .
The anti-Christian violence shook this community in Kirkuk , many of whose members fear rising sectarianism and growing Islamic influence amid the violence that has followed the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The coordinated attacks in late January took place during the controversy over cartoons run in a Danish newspaper that ridiculed the Prophet Mohammed. They were the first major attack against a religious group in 2006, a year that has proven bloody for Iraq ‘s many religious groups and sects.
Christians in the ethnically and religiously mixed city of Kirkuk are still practicing their religion, albeit more cautiously and quietly. While some said that they maintain friendships with Muslims, others said sectarian divisions and discrimination were creeping in even before the bombs exploded.
The Christian community now accounts for an estimated three per cent of Iraq ‘s population, down from about five per cent during Saddam’s regime. The United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees reported last year that of the 700,000 Iraqis who took refuge in Syria between October 2003 and March 2005, 36 per cent were Christians.
Kirkuk ‘s Christian population is estimated to be about 12,000 in a province of more than one million. There are eight Christian sects in Kirkuk , but most are Chaldean and Assyrian – two closely related groups who use the Syriac language.
Behra Toma, a 45-year-old housewife and mother of two, said coexistence between Muslims and Christians in Kirkuk has deteriorated since the fall of Saddam’s regime.
“My son complains that he has been insulted and harassed by his classmates more than once because he is Christian and doesn’t belong to their ethnic group,” she said. “This has a huge affect on the psychology of children because they will grow up with those ideas.”
Kirkuk archbishop Louis Sako, 56, said Christians, like other Iraqis, fear kidnappings and sectarian violence because of the breakdown of law and order.
He said Christians are suffering as Islamic parties take power in Baghdad and as Iraq ‘s Islamic character, largely oppressed by the Baathist regime, expands.
“The Christians don’t feel affiliated to [ Iraq ], because they live in a country dominated by the Islamic religion,” he said.
Sako said many Muslims regard Christians as “non-believers”. “Hostile feelings against Christians in Iraq have emerged recently, and now they live with threats to their lives,” he said.
As a result, the archbishop said, many want to migrate to majority-Christian countries.
Odisho Stefan, 42, a father of three and guitarist at the Kirkuk Legendary Church , said he fears Islamic rule could take over Iraq . He said he already feels restricted as a Christian and believes he cannot practice his religion openly.
Like many other Christians in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries, Stefan has family abroad which could make it easier for him to leave.
“I will be forced to migrate with my family if the situation gets worse,” he said.
Sako said that because of the bombings in Kirkuk , Christians feel insecure about attending church and have started to guard their own churches because police aren’t providing security.
A source in Kirkuk ’s police force said it is doing its best to ensure security and does not discriminate against Christians. “We do our best to provide security for everyone,” he said.
While there is widespread fear of violence among Christians and other groups in Kirkuk , not everything is worse than it was three years ago. Under Saddam, churches were protected, but there was no freedom to set up Syriac schools or formally teach the language. Assyrians were obliged to study in Arabic and were considered to be Arabs.
Eva Lazar, a 29-year-old Christian civil servant, said fundamentalist Islamic groups which regard Christians as unbelievers have existed for decades, but they were held in check by the Baathist regime.
She said that in some ways, life has improved for Kirkuk ’s Christians. “There didn’t use to be many jobs, but now there are opportunities,” she said. “And our official language [Syriac] is taught in schools.”
Even though he lost his younger brother, Nasim said he has faith that Muslims and Christians can live together in Kirkuk . There are tight bonds between the communities, he said.
“Most of the people who attended my brother’s funeral were Muslims.”
Samah Samad is an IWPR trainee journalist in Kirkuk .