Mosul Christians find faith tested: Trials, tribulations for the pious

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By Sahar Al-Haideri
MOSUL, Iraq – They have been threatened because of their religious faith, their distinctive clothing and their success in business. They have been killed because of a Danish cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammad.

Many have sought safety by fleeing to the countryside, north to Kurdish-controlled territory or abroad to Syria.

They have seen their churches bombed, their clergy murdered and community members threatened with kidnappings.

The Christians of Mosul, once a substantial and predominantly middle-class community, have suffered the same fate as most Iraqis.

Christians are hardly the only religious minority under attack, as witnessed by this week’s coordinating bombings against members of the Yazidis community, which left more than 250 dead.

But their religious faith has made them especially vulnerable in a city where the rule of law is non-existent and Islamic militants intimidate and kill with impunity.

“Life has become difficult in Mosul,” said Ilham Sabah, a Christian attorney who conceals her faith by wearing a veil. “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,” she said.

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

Christians “are the weakest of the weak,” said Joseph Kassab, executive director of the Chaldean Federation of America, a nonprofit organization based in Detroit. “The extremists there are highly active . . . they want to empty Mosul of Iraqi Christians.”

There were thought to be between 800,000 and 1 million Christians in Iraq in 2003. A U.N. report in 2005 found that most lived in Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province, although many also lived in Baghdad.

By last year, the U.N. reported that 24 percent of Iraqi refugees living in Syria were Christians.

“Life was better under Saddam,” said a 35-year-old Christian businessman in Mosul who asked not to be identified. “I used to go out socially and was well respected, but not anymore. In the past, there was law and order, but now nothing stops the extremists or criminals.”

Christian religious services in this city that once boasted 23 churches have all but stopped. Those intent on continuing to practice their faith do so in secret.

Many Muslims here say they are outraged by the disappearance of the city’s long history of religious and ethnic tolerance.

“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.

Kassab, of the Chaldean Federation, said the lawlessness in Mosul today makes it hard to know who is responsible for the violence and even whether Christians are being specifically targeted.

Since the overthrow of Saddam in 2003, the Nineveh Plains, where Mosul is located, has become something of a refuge for many minorities fleeing the violence in other parts of the country, including Assyrians, Turkomen and Shabaks, in addition to Christians and Yazidis.

“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 Michael Youash, project director for the Washington-based Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project, an organization that advocates on behalf of religious minorities in Iraq.

Some fear that the latest U.S. offensive, intended to provide security in Baghdad and other provinces near the capital, has only served to drive insurgents, including members of al-Qaeda of Iraq, into more remote areas, such as those surrounding Mosul.

Unless security can be provided for everyone, many fear the Christians of Mosul will disappear entirely.

“Most of us have fled abroad, and this is a serious concern,” said Mosul resident Afram Abdul-Ahad, a Christian who was forced to shut down his small restaurant. “We’re worried about the future of Christians in Iraq.”

Sahar al-Haideri, a reporter for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, was murdered in Mosul in June. Additional reporting was provided by IWPR Middle East editor Tiare Rath and other IWPR reporters in Iraq.