Fearful Christians flock to Irbil: Thousands from Dora neighborhood pour into relatively safe Kurdish region in Iraq

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By Bay Fang | Tribune correspondent
IRBIL, Iraq—By the time he decided he would almost certainly be killed if he stayed, Rev. Tematius Eshasawa believed he was the last pastor left in Dora, the biggest Christian neighborhood in Baghdad. His flock had fled the area over the previous six months, leaving homes and lives behind, and he had received numerous death threats.

“There were seven churches in Dora,” he said, soberly recalling the days before he departed. “The last church was mine.”

A tall man with a dark beard, wearing the black robes and white collar of the Assyrian priesthood, he sits in his new home in the Ainkawa district of Irbil. Over the past year, thousands of Christians forced out of Dora and other parts of Baghdad have settled here in the relatively safe, semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

Many were drawn to this traditionally Christian neighborhood just outside the Kurdish capital of Irbil, where rents have been driven sky-high by Christians pouring in from the south; some houses are crowded with as many as four or five families.

While a few Christians have reportedly tried in recent weeks to return to Dora, based on hopes that the security situation has improved, those in Eshasawa’s new neighborhood say they would not consider it yet.

Today, one church in Ainkawa, St. Elias, has been set aside by municipal authorities for Christians from Baghdad. Eshasawa conducts mass from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m., and four other churches from Baghdad hold services in the building throughout the day.

‘Existential crisis’ for Christians
The municipal government estimates that nearly 2,000 Christian families from Baghdad have settled in Ainkawa. Iraq’s Christian minority—divided into several ancient sects, the most numerous of which are the Chaldeans and the Assyrians—numbered approximately 800,000 before the U.S. invasion in 2003.

While the United Nations estimates that hundreds of thousands fled the increasingly violent country over the past few years, and many have sought refuge in the Kurdish north as well, the thousands from Dora only began pouring into this neighborhood this year.

“The Christian population in Iraq is facing an existential crisis. There is a question whether they will even be able to maintain a presence in Iraq at this point,” said Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and a commissioner with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “Many went north, or left the country, and the vast majority are probably not planning on returning any time soon.”

One church in Dora that had been shuttered a year ago reopened last month, according to The Associated Press, which reported that a few Christian families had returned to the area.

In early December it hosted a special mass given by the first Iraqi cardinal, Emmanuel III Delly, who was just ordained by Pope Benedict XVI in November. But, while the same mass held later in the week in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood in eastern Baghdad attracted more than 200 worshipers, only a handful showed up to see the new cardinal at the church in Dora.

Attacks against the Christian community began in 2004, with militant groups targeting churches and liquor stores, and Christian professionals were some of the first refugees to flee the country, according to aid workers. But residents of Dora, a mixed neighborhood in southern Baghdad, said that while last year saw widespread sectarian cleansing of Sunni neighborhoods by Shiites and Shiite neighborhoods by Sunnis throughout the city, their neighborhood had remained largely out of the fray.

Then this spring, a fatwa, or religious edict, was issued by Sunni insurgents who had taken over a mosque in Dora. It said Christians had to convert to Islam or leave their houses within 24 hours, taking no possessions, or be killed.

Ramsiya Marwan, a round-faced woman wearing a pink headband, said she decided to flee the neighborhood with her 15-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son when gunmen began asking if any families in the area had young daughters. Gunmen had already taken over their house, blown up their church and kidnapped or killed many of their friends and neighbors, she said.

Marwan had pulled her children out of school, but when she started hearing about young girls targeted for kidnapping, Marwan and her children shared a car with friends and fled north, leaving her husband behind in Baghdad.

They now live in a two-bedroom house here with another family from Baghdad. For $600 a month, high by Iraqi standards, she and her children share a small room stuffed with three beds, over which hangs a carpet depicting the Last Supper.

The couple they share the house with are Zabet Youniya, a 32-year-old with wavy brown hair, and her husband, who sit in the dark around a small folding table covered by a plastic cloth.

The house she left in Baghdad was so huge, Youniya said, they could have parked their car inside it. There, she worked for the mobile telephone company Iraqna, but now the only work she can find is as a cleaner at an American company.

They miss their old life in Dora, where the community was close and they didn’t have to worry about money. In Irbil, they cannot take their monthly food ration from the government because it is connected to their residence in Baghdad. The church gives each person 25,000 dinars per month, or about $20. It used to be more, but when so many families began arriving the allowances were lowered.

Though the Kurds have generally been welcoming and the new residents appreciate the refuge, they say they feel like outsiders. “They are not our people,” said Youniya. “But still, life may be hard here, but at least we feel free.”

Parish mostly from Dora
The two families are part of Eshasawa’s parish of St. Shmoni, which once comprised 350 families in Dora. When they go to mass on Sundays, they run into former neighbors from their own and other parishes.

“Most of the families that go to our church are from Dora,” said Marwan. “And there are more coming every day.”

Eshasawa estimates that by the time he left, there were only 50 Christian families left in the neighborhood. American soldiers patrolled the area, but former residents told stories of masked Iraqi gunmen coming to the houses that the Americans visited, asking each family what the Americans asked and what they answered. One by one, they took over all the houses, using the roofs as sniper positions to target American soldiers.

Eshasawa stood last month outside his new church, St. Elias, next to a Christmas tree with neon stars behind it. He plans to stay in Ainkawa until Baghdad becomes safer but does not think that will happen for another year or two. He blames the Americans for the situation he and his flock are in.

“Before the end of last year, we thought the American Army was good for Iraq,” he said. “But after they came inside the country, we lost everything. We are paying for [the Americans’] mistake with our blood.”

bfang@tribune.com