The Christians of northern Iraq have chosen to defy mounting attacks by extremists by erecting a statue of Jesus modelled on the giant Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.
The sculpture is only a tenth of the size of the 40-metre iconic statue that towers over the Brazilian city but it has become a popular site for visitors in Hamdaniya, the north’s largest Christian town.
“The idea of the statue is not to say Christians were here in case we leave,” said Bashar Jarjees Habash, the city’s co-ordinator of Christian affairs.
“But the idea of building the statue of Jesus opening his arms is to send a message of peace to everyone to say that we want to live in peace with all,” said the 48-year-old.
“The people of this area have always tried to live in peace with everyone, even those who fight and threaten them.”
In February, Human Rights Watch called on Iraq’s government to do more to bolster security and protect Christians after a string of deadly attacks on the community ahead of last month’s elections.
“The statue might be small if we compare it with what Christians did for Iraq over hundreds of years. The statue is stone and can be removed at any time, but the history of Christians cannot be abolished,” said Habash.
“We have a great history, we are very loyal to Iraq,” added the official charged by the church with preserving religious monuments.
The brick and plaster structure is in the middle of Hamdaniya, a city populated by 45,000 mostly Syriac Christians as well as a Kurdish Muslim community that makes up about 10 per cent of the inhabitants.
Its construction was initiated and carried out by two local security guards who also have artistic skills. Using their bare hands, it was a labour of love.
“With the help of 20 volunteers, we built the statue in less than a month and we spent about 150,000 dinars (128 dollars),” said one of them, Alaa Naser Matti.
“It is built to last over 30 years. We painted it white, which is the colour of peace, and we will restore it each year.
“We have chosen to make a Jesus with open arms because it means that the city has been placed under his protection and he wants to spread peace in Iraq,” said the 41-year-old.
Eight Christians were killed in and around Mosul within 10 days in February, and since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, there has been no let-up for the nation’s 550,000 Christians, most of them Chaldeans.
Pope Benedict XVI condemned the violence against them in his Easter message this month, and demanded that the Iraqi authorities do more to protect the “vulnerable” minority.
In late 2008, a systematic campaign of targeted killings and violence saw 40 Christians murdered in Mosul, causing around 12,000 of the community to flee for safety.
“When I pass by here, I cross myself and ask Jesus with all my heart to save us… and all those who kill without mercy,” said Badriah Jedi, 72, who came with her daughter and grandson to light candles near the statue