By Damien McElroy in Karamlis
Civilians in Christian villages in northern Iraq have established their own security in an attempt to deter murders, abductions and would-be car bombers Photo: AP
In the five years since the Anglo-American invasion of 2003, murders and abductions have driven about half of the 800,000 Christians who once lived in Iraq to flee the country.
Checkpoints manned by civilians armed with heavy machine guns and assault rifles have received official backing in Christian villages on the Ninevah plain in northern Iraq, where their presence dates back to the missions of St Thomas the apostle.
Father Yusuf Yohannes combines the duties of parish priest with overseeing security from a converted post office in the village of Karamlis, 10 miles east of the local capital, Mosul. Informal patrols by his parishioners started last year but the effort is now a fully-fledged operation, with 250 employees and official approval from the US army base in Mosul.
“We are facing the threat of wipe-out,” he said. “I have not left this town in three years because of the danger. The situation here was like a bowl without a base for Christians, we were just tossed around. By establishing our own security we have the chance to stand steady again.”
Radios supplied by the US-led coalition keeps the command post in touch with guards in Karamlis and three hamlets nearby. A heavy machine gun protrudes from the guardpost on St Barbara Street, pointing towards a road shared with Sunni Muslim neighbours. The gun’s purpose, said Saleem Yusuf, the checkpoint commander, is to deter would-be car bombers. “We have not used it in anger yet. Thank God,” he said.
Iraq’s most senior primate, Cardinal Emmanuel Delly, made a public plea for military assistance for “defenceless” Christians in March. The persecuted minority was at it lowest point, reeling after loss of the political protection it had enjoyed from previous regimes over the last century, ranging from British colonial authorities to Iraq’s monarchy and Saddam Hussein’s government.
But local politicians in Mosul opposed the obvious route to Christian self defence – the creation of militias, equipped and armed by the coalition, a model pivotal to the dramatic drop in violence elsewhere in Iraq.
These objections have now been dropped, but Christian village guards are still only authorised when they act as auxiliaries to the Iraqi police. Consequently, the guards in Karamlis are paid only Â£100 a month, compared with the Â£150 given to militiamen elsewhere in the country.
But the patrols have already had an impact. New buildings are going up in Christian areas and there is a renewed willingness to resist the demands of Muslim radicals. “Why should Christians face arrest for not fasting in Ramadan?” asked Fr Yusuf. “Why is it that women should cover their faces if God loves all human beings? We reject these things and want the right to our own culture.”
Cardinal Delly was able to travel to Karamlis for an ordination last Friday. The man he raised to the priesthood symbolises the ordeal of Iraq’s last Christians. Yusuf Rabat assumed the title “Father Paulos” in tribute to the late Archbishop of Mosul, Paulos Farai Rakha, who was kidnapped and murdered four months ago. Pictures of the dead Archbishop are pasted on lamposts across Karamlis.