By Aqeel Hussein in Baghdad and Colin Freeman
Iraqi Christians who fled a district of Baghdad that declared itself an al-Qaeda caliphate have returned home to celebrate their first Christmas in two years.
Known as the “Vatican of Iraq”, the small but long-established Christian enclave in the mainly Sunni Muslim district of Doura suffered constant terror at the hands of al-Qaeda gunmen who tried to impose a Taliban-style rule.
Churches were car-bombed, women were threatened for not wearing Islamic headscarves, and families had to pay monthly “protection” money to local mosques to keep them safe from kidnap gangs.
Now, in a significant success for the US troop surge, al-Qaeda has been rooted out of Doura and the hundreds of Christian families who left the area are returning. On Christmas Day, they will congregate in battle-scarred St Mary’s Church, where part of the crucifix on its tower is still missing after being shot at by Âterrorists.
“We closed the church two years ago because of all the trouble,” said the priest, Father Younadim Shamoon, 45, who has decorated its bullet-cratered walls with modest fairy lights. “But many people are coming back after word got around that the local Muslim people were welcoming us again. We thank God and hope that we can live together again as brothers.”
Overlooking the River Tigris on Baghdad’s southern outskirts, Doura was home to 4,000 followers of the Chaldean Catholic and Assyrian Orthodox churches, which count one million Iraqi worshippers between them. The neighbourhood has churches, monasteries and convents; the Christian residents’ homes stand out because of their neat gardens, which could belong in an English suburb.
Cordial relations with their Muslim neighbours, however, began to fray in late 2004 when al-Qaeda zealots joined forces with local Sunnis fighting the US occupation.
Soon Doura became one of Baghdad’s most notorious al-Qaeda strongholds, with the movement designating it part of a new self-declared Sunni Islamic state of Iraq. The Christian community was an easy target for the insurgent gangs’ fundraising activities. Al-Qaeda-backed cells would frequently kidnap them for money, claiming the victims were “crusaders” or US allies.
advertisementBy the middle of this year, half the community had left, part of a wider exodus that saw hundreds of thousands of Baghdad-based Christians head for Syria. Those who stayed in Doura had to pay monthly tithes of 15,000 Iraqi dinars (Â£6) as “protection money” to Sunni mosques.
Nine months into the US troop surge, though, local Sunnis have been persuaded to reject al-Qaeda’s influence. Last week, Sheikh Samir al Jibouri, a local Sunni cleric, visited Fr Shamoon to give him his personal guarantee that his flock would be safe.
“He has also told us that we don’t have to pay protection money any more,” said Fr Shamoon. “He said he had been forced to take the money from us by al-Qaeda, and that he would work for the rest of his life to make up for it.”
Major Kirk Luedeke, a spokesman for the US Army’s 1st Infantry Division, confirmed that Christian families were returning. “What is more important is that the Muslim tribal leaders are openly showing support for their Christian neighbours,” he added.
Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, says that America should be able to withdraw about 20,000 of its 158,000 troops from Iraq by the middle of next year, thanks to security gains achieved by the surge.
While the Christians have come back in their hundreds, many Shias who fled are still afraid to return – sceptical, perhaps, about the sincerity of Sheikh al Jibouri’s welcome, given his previous apparent willingness to act for al-Qaeda.
Nevertheless, this Christmas is likely to be happier than last. Abu Firas, a Christian father of three who had taken his family to Syria, arrived in Doura on Friday after a call from Fr Shamoon. His house had been used by an al-Qaeda gang while he was away, and is riddled with bullet holes. But a hug from a Muslim neighbour made up for it. “I can fix the doors and the windows, that is easy,” he said, smiling. “The most important thing is that I came back home to live among my people.”
Christians have lived in what is now Iraq for about 2,000 years. Most are Chaldeans, Eastern-rite Catholics who are independent of Rome but who recognise the Pope’s authority.
They originally numbered about one million, and worked as doctors, teachers and academics. But the prosperity they enjoyed made them targets for kidnappers in lawless post-war Iraq. As of last year, Iraqi Christian leaders claimed that up to 500,000 had fled abroad.