AFP: Christians seek safe haven in Iraq’s Kurdish region

sdsd.jpgARBIL, Iraq (AFP) — Threats by Islamists followed by a car bomb that wounded her brother forced Lina Behnan and her family to seek haven in Iraq’s Kurdish region along with thousands of their Christian compatriots.

But the price of safety is steep, and the Behnans, like many other Christian families in Iraq, hope they will eventually return to their homes in embattled Baghdad and other violence-riddled regions or even travel abroad.

“We come from Dora in Baghdad. It is very dangerous,” said Lina, as she prepared the family dinner in a house they are renting for 400 dollars (275 euros) a month.

“First the Islamists threatened my brother, a barber, warning him against shaving men,” she said. Fundamentalist Islamists believe beards are a sign of faith.

“A woman neighbour was kidnapped, and then this,” said Lina, holding up a photograph of her 18-year-old brother Nasser, an arm slung in a cast and his face peppered with wounds he suffered when a car bomb exploded outside his school.

“That was the last straw. We got into a car and drove non-stop to Arbil,” she said.

According to the Chaldean bishop of Arbil and Amadiyah, Monsignor Rabban al-Qas, “more than 70,000 Christians have fled to Iraqi Kurdistan,” settling in villages abandoned or destroyed in the late 1980s, during attacks on Kurds by the regime of the late dictator Saddam Hussein.

“More than 200 villages that were abandoned or destroyed in 1987 and 1988, during Saddam’s offensive against the Kurds, have been rebuilt. Some are renting houses, while others have built on land they owned,” he said.

In Arbil’s Christian neighbourhood of Einkawa, Christian families such as the Behnans have had to roll up their sleeves and work hard to be able to pay the rent.

Agnes Yaqub is also from the flashpoint southern Baghdad neighbourhood of Dora, and her family was among the last to leave the area.

“It is so much better here. We can go out, we can breathe easily again,” said the 38-year-old as she shopped at the Habib family-run grocery near the offices of Ishtar Television, Iraq’s Christian channel.

“With so many people coming here from everywhere, prices are shooting up. Of course that’s the price we have to pay for security, but we won’t be able to do it for much longer,” she said.

Fellow shopper Fawzya Benjamin, 50, agreed.

The mother of 12 fled neighbouring Mosul five months ago and has had to send her older children out to work in order to help pay the 600 dollars they need every month to rent the large house the family found in Einkawa.

In Mosul “we no longer had a life. Each time my youngest daughters left to go to school I was afraid I would never see them again.”

“This will not last for long. As soon as things calm down in Mosul we will have to go back,” she said.

Bishop Qas said that 20 Christian families have left Einkawa in the past week, complaining that life had become too expensive for them in the Kurdish region of Iraq.

So they packed up and returned to their homes in Baghdad and Mosul, where churches and priests have also fallen prey to the deadly violence.

“Three priests have been killed in Mosul. Churches have been set ablaze, blown up or shot at. And 20 days ago, two priests were abducted and set free only after a ransom was paid,” said the bishop.

He blamed such attacks on “fanatical fundamentalists and some of the 600,000 criminals who were released from prison by Saddam before he was ousted” by the US-led invasion of 2003.