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In the Iraq war, Christians pushed to the brink

Iraq’s Christians have been targeted for kidnapping and forced to flee their homes. One advocate says that in a generation, Christians could be gone from the land they’ve lived in for 2,000 years.

By Alice Fordham

11/13/2009 Iraq (Christian Science Monitor) – At the height of Iraq’s sectarian war, Hana Hormoz’s Baghdad neighborhood of Dora became a Sunni Muslim stronghold hostile to him and his fellow Christians. Women were forced to wear hijab; priests were kidnapped for ransom. Their local church was bombed.

“If you didn’t tolerate and accept everything from the Sunnis, you were treated like an American ally,” says Mr. Hormoz, a teacher who moved his three sons and daughter to this northern city in 2006 but still lives in Dora with his wife. “In each street in Dora, there used to be 20 or 25 Christian homes. Now, you might find one or two, and in some places you can’t find Christians anymore.”

Hormoz’s story, which he gave on condition that his real name not be printed, echoes that of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians who have been displaced in disproportionately high numbers. A Nov. 10 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), says two-thirds of Iraq’s Christians have fled their homes – many abroad. And while they made up less than 5 percent of Iraq’s population when the war began (about 1 million), they now constitute an estimated 10 percent of internally displaced Iraqis and 20 percent of Iraqi refugees in neighboring nations.

Those with means are still leaving the country; very few are returning. Father Sabri al-Maqdacy, a priest in the Arbil suburb of Ainkawa, says that almost all have lost hope that they can stay in Iraq, where most follow the Eastern-rite Catholic Chaldean church.

Christians targeted for kidnapping

Though violence affected many Iraqis during the war, the situation was particularly bad for Christians, who lacked a security force. They were targeted by both Sunni and Shiite militias, particularly for kidnapping because they were seen as having money to pay ransoms.

Today, the threat to Christianity in Iraq comes in a subtler guise than fundamentalist violence: a warm welcome from Kurds that is snaring the most vulnerable Christians in dangerous struggles over land, political turf, and ethnicity.

The majority of internally displaced Christians in Iraq have fled to the Nineveh Plain in the northwest, which they see as ancestrally theirs. Political control of the area is disputed between Iraq’s central government and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to the north.

Kurds have welcomed refugees to the territory – but Christians and other minorities allege that the KRG has threatened and bribed them to come swell the ranks of the Kurdish population, strengthening territorial claims.

There are 350,000 Christians now living on the plain, according to former Finance Minister Sarkis Aghajan. Himself a Christian, he spearheaded campaigns to rebuild villages in Kurdistan to provide shelter for fleeing Christians. He also supported KRG funding for Christian security forces in Nineveh Province.

What can keep Christians in Iraq?

HRW recommends more limited political steps, including modifying the Kurdish Constitution to recognize smaller ethnic groups. It also calls on the Iraqi government to investigate killings of Christians in the north.

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