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IRAQ : Violence Now Corners Christians, by Mohammed A. Salih

By Mohammed A. Salih

Iraq (For the full story, go to IPS) – For Janet Petros’s family it all started when the al-Mahdi militia of the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took control of their mixed neighbourhood Hay Muwasalat in Baghdad last year.
That was after long fighting between Shia and Sunni armed groups for dominance in the area.
One summer morning, Janet’s younger daughter Maha Faiq, 26, was hit in the leg by a bullet as she slept. She was lucky it was no worse.
It was not an accidental shot. Janet’s family, the only Christian family in that district, had been harassed and threatened by the militias on both sides for long to follow their imposed Sharia rules.
“It was a very bad situation in Baghdad ,” said Sahar Faiq, 28, Janet’s elder daughter. “We couldn’t mix with the neighbours any more and were so afraid.” Sahar quit her job with a British security company after being threatened by militias.
Last February, Janet’s family decided to move to Arbil, in the relatively safe Kurdistan region in the north. “After what happened, I was afraid that someone will come in and do something bad to my daughters,” Janet, 55, told IPS in her two-room house in Arbil’s Christian district Ainkawa.
Christians, who have lived in peace with their Muslim neighbours for years are today badly hit by the rising tide of religious extremism.
About 2,800 Christian families have moved to Arbil, and another 1,550 to Zakho on the Iraqi-Turkish border, according to the Hizel Cultural Centre, a Christian group that offers aid to displaced families.
Father Sabri al-Maqdasi, a priest in Ainkawa’s largest church Saint Joseph believes that given the continuous flow of refugees, accommodation will be extremely hard to find. The group Hadyab Financial Aid for Refugees offers 100 dollars a month to each Christian family coming to Arbil, but that money does not go far.
With attacks and pressure rising, there are attempts by some leaders to create a Christian zone in the historically Christian populated areas of Nineveh and Dohuk provinces in the north.
But there is no agreement on this. Some are asking for an autonomous territory within Kurdistan region where Christians will have their own regional government and parliament. Others demand a self-rule arrangement where Christians control the local administration and police force in the areas they constitute the majority.
Father al-Maqdasi says a separated homeland will isolate Christians from the rest of Iraq and would “destroy our mission of building bridges and relations with other religions.” Instead, he encourages a plan for Christians to have self-rule in effect as in Ainkawa in Arbil, where the local administration is run by Christians.
The wounds caused by the ongoing violence against Christians are not going to be healed easily. The suffering has given rise to a sense of alienation and detachment among many.
“The only dream we now have is to leave Iraq ,” Janet told IPS. “We don’t feel that we belong to this country any more.”