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Kurds give Iraqi Christians a refuge

Christians head north to live uneasily among another minority.


Iraq (For the full story, go to the St. Pete Times) Through prickly weeds, past old tires and the rusty skeletons of long-discarded chairs, Father Zaya Shaba makes his way to the home of his newest parishioners.

“They are very grateful,” he says, “to obtain such a dirty place.”

Not so long ago, Wafaa Dankha Hena and her family lived in a fine house in Baghdad . Five bedrooms. A huge kitchen. And a threat scrawled on the front gate: “Wanted: Christian Blood”

And so they fled to northern Iraq , to a one-room hovel where mice scurry at night and snakes slither by day. In this largely peaceful region controlled by the Kurds, thousands of Chaldean Catholics and other Christians have found a safe, if not always comfortable, refuge from the mayhem and persecution elsewhere in Iraq .

“Because of the Kurds, we survive,” says Sabah Shamaya of the Chaldean Culture Center in Irbil . But he warns:

“If the situation keeps going like this, it will be a disaster for Christians in this country.”

At least 500,000 Christians are thought to have fled the country, joining the nearly 1.5-million other Iraqis now living abroad. But those who don’t want — or can’t afford — to leave Iraq are heading to the north, where Christians have long lived peacefully with another minority group, the Kurds.

“Here there is a chance of work,” says Josephine Hurmoz Oraham. “Here people will help.”

Until December, Oraham and her family were among the many Christians in Dora, an area of Baghdad increasingly under the sway of an anti-American Shiite militia. Her son and four daughters were alone in the house one day when U.S. soldiers swept through the neighborhood, followed by militants who threatened the girls with guns.

“Why did the American troops come to your house?” the men demanded of Oraham when she got home from work. “Did they enjoy their time with your girls?”

Terrified, the family packed a few clothes and drove four hours north to Ainkawa, a Christian village outside Irbil , the Kurdish capital. So many other refugees were there it took Oraham 20 days to find a place to rent.

For $800 a month, she and her children now share two rooms and a kitchen with two other Christian families – 17 people in all, most of them female. The only furniture is a makeup table covered with bottles of Rapsodii nail polish.

“No TV, no computer, no money,” Oraham says. “Everything here is so expensive.”

She works as a cleaner in Irbil , but makes so little that her husband kept his job at a power plant in Baghdad . He visits his family once a month, bringing food. When in Baghdad , he sleeps at his office because he is afraid to stay in their house.

For the first time in four years, however, Oraham and her family are not afraid to attend church. Ainkawa, with a prewar population of 17,000, has three churches and a nunnery that runs a kindergarten. Many of the children are refugees from other parts of Iraq . So are some of the nuns and priests.

Mayor Fahmi Solqa says more Christians are arriving by the day, joining the 1,500 or so families already here. Newcomers must register, making them eligible for small monthly stipends from the church and Kurdistan Regional Government. Townspeople donate food, furniture and clothing.

“Of course, receiving such a big number of families is making problems,” Solqa says. “But our president, Masoud Barzani, is encouraging people to come. There is not much difference between Christians and Muslims. Kurdistan is for everybody and we have to live like brothers.”

The Kurds of northern Iraq are non-Arab Muslims who have been semiautonomous since the 1991 Gulf War, when U.S. fighter jets began protecting the area from Hussein’s Arab army. Both Kurds and Christians are highly critical of the central government in Baghdad . It is dominated by Shiite Muslims who, critics say, have done little to curb the carnage that is forcing Christians to flee.

But some Christians say the Islamic violence against them has been exaggerated.

“There’s nothing against Christians — they are facing the same problems as Muslims,” says Father Rafael Benyamen Yousif, a Chaldean priest. “How many mosques have been bombed?”

Still, Father Yousif hasn’t been to Baghdad in years.

“Why should I go? I’m a priest – they would kill me.”