Christian Soldiers

12christian11.jpgBy Campbell Robertson

Jehad Nga for The New York Times

Christian guards outside a church in Qaraqosh/Hamdaniya, a Christian town in Iraq’s northern Nineveh province.QARAQOSH, Iraq–-In a country thoroughly shattered, there is a particular hopelessness here in the Christian towns.

When you arrive in a Sunni area, you’re struck by both a pervasive fear of the Shiite-led government and a fierce sense of pride, a conviction that things ran more efficiently when the Sunnis were in charge (and, implicitly, that things will again when they someday return to power). In the most impoverished and dilapidated Shiite neighborhoods, districts like Sadr City where garbage runs in rivers in the streets, an awareness of newfound power runs strong. They know it’s their time.

But up north, in the small Christian villages that dot the flat plains that run from Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city, into the mountains of Kurdistan, optimism is almost nowhere to be found. The residents seem tired; looking into their empty, often unhealthy faces, you wonder whether the massive exodus of Christians from Iraq—half the population by many estimates—has left only the weakest and least capable behind to look after their homeland.

12christian31.jpgJehad Nga for The New York Times

Iraqi Christians receiving communion at a church in Qaraqosh in northern Iraq.
The Christians here do speak with some pride of their historical claims in Iraq: they were here long before the Islamic invasion, and speak a language, Assyrian, that hearkens to an expansive militaristic kingdom that once left all would-be foes in a state of cold fear. The northern province of Nineveh, where the Christians live, is the Biblical land where Jonah was once sent by God to bring righteousness to a wicked city, after his rebellious sojourn in a whale. That, however, was some time ago.

Now the Nineveh plain is a tense stretch on the faultline that lies between Arabs and Kurds, and seems always on the brink of conflict (the tiredness of the descriptions– “powder keg,” “tinderbox,” etc–has become a sort of dark-humored joke among officials and journalists).

Kurdish security forces have been a presence here since they were brought in by the Americans in 2003, even though the Nineveh plain lies on the Arab side of the boundary dividing the 15 Iraqi provinces administered by Baghdad from the three provinces that form the semiautonomous Kurdish region. Americans worried about the alliance form the very beginning and their worries have been justified: the Kurds now claim the lands as their own and are refusing to allow administration from the provincial government.

12christian62.jpgMarko Georgiev for The New York Times

A Yazidi temple near the town of Lalesh in the northern Iraq province of Nineveh.
While there have been attacks by Sunni Arab insurgents in the region, the presence of the Kurdish forces have largely kept the violence of Mosul from spreading into the plain. But the security comes at an explicit price, say the Christians. They are expected to support annexation of their areas to Kurdistan.

It’s hard to see what would really change. Kurdish flags fly at the entrances to the towns, Kurdish checkpoints dot the landscape and even the words on some of the highway signs have been changed from Arabic to Kurdish. The people of the Nineveh plain, calculating where their best interests lie, are split.Some of the Christians want to be joined to Kurdistan. A few prefer the Sunni Arab government of Mosul.

Many prefer a semi-autonomous region of their own. Still others say Christians have fared best when they have rendered unto Caesar what is his and stayed out of these debates. All seem to be fairly exhausted when addressing the question. They know they’re tools, ultimately, and not bargaining from a position of power.

12christian1.jpgJehad Nga for The New York Times

A defaced Christian church signpost in the Nineveh plain.
Their internal divisions are theological as well as political: Muslims are not the only ones vulnerable to longstanding sectarian conflicts.

Protestant churches that have sprung up since the 2003 invasion—Baptist, Assembly of God, Pentecostal—say that the old faiths, like the Assyrian Catholics, the Chaldeans, the Syrian Orthodox, have frozen them out, blocking their attempts at the necessary government registration to perform weddings and build cemeteries. Using language all too reminiscent of other fights in Iraq, Protestant ministers, sitting in carpeted church offices that would not look out of place in rural Mississippi, say the more established churches are accusing them of being in league with Jews or bankrolled by foreigners.

The old faiths accuse the new Protestants of endangering Christians by proselytizing openly to Muslims, a crime in Iraq. What’s more, and to some Christians what’s worse, they say the Protestants have been poaching from their fellow Christians – the Catholics and Orthodox.

“Instead of focusing on ecumenical issues we are fighting among ourselves,” said Father Bashar Warda, Rector of St. Peter Chaldean Seminary in nearby Erbil.

12christian71.jpgMarko Georgiev for The New York Times

A man walks through a Christian-Yazidi graveyard in the town of Tall Kayf in northern Iraq.
Their disputes are at least verbal. Far more dangerous threats come from outside the Christian community, in the form of insurgent gunmen and bombers.

To try and halt this attrition Thabid Daoo and hundreds of his fellow Christians have stood as sentinels in their towns since 2003, a form of defensive Christian militia watching for Arab extremists who have bombed churches, and killed Christians—and still are killing them–in the nearby city of Mosul.

“We are protecting the whole city, not the churches only,” said Mr Daoo, one of the thousand so-called church guards in Qaraqosh, an area also known as Hamdaniya. “We are the people of our city, so we know the strangers who are coming from outside.”

But as they stand guard against outside enemies, the de facto church militias are saddened by their community’s internal squabbles.

12christian21.jpgJehad Nga for The New York Times

A police car bombed by Arab insurgents in the Christian town of Qaraqosh in Nineveh province.
Christians suffer the same bombings and instability as their fellow Iraqis, he said. But being smaller, the Christian community cannot absorb the same levels of attrition as the much larger Sunni and Shiite populations.

For those who stay, he said, there is the risk of being caught up in the land dispute between the Kurds and Arabs, who both covet the land for its agricultural and strategic value.

“We are in the middle of this situation. It’s messed up. On one side we have the Kurds and other the other we have the Arabs over there. If we say we are Kurdish maybe we be harmed from the Arab cities around here, and if we say we are Arabs maybe the Kurds will stop the people who work in Erbil from going there.”

Mr. Daoo’s Christian protection force has, up to now, operated outside the government, though Nineveh’s new Sunni Arab-led leaders are trying to change that. The force is funded, members say, by charity. But it has been one specific charity. And it was created by one man, an Assyrian Catholic politician from Kurdistan named Sarkis Aghajan, who more than anyone personifies the great game being played with the Christians here.

12christian51.jpgMarko Georgiev for The New York Times

A Christian monastery near the town of al-Qosh in Northern Iraq.
His patronage is evident not only in the guards. Carved into the side of a mountain overlooking the ancient Christian town of al-Qosh is the nearly 1,400-year-old monastery of Rabban Hormuz.

Sections of it have been renovated recently, as have parts of the 150-year-old monastery at the foot of the mountain. Everyone knows who is paying for it. Priests receiving money from Mr. Aghajan encourage their congregations to support Kurdish annexation, residents of Alqosh said. A sign outside the monastery in Alqosh gives credit to the Kurdistan Regional Government (K.R.G.) for the renovation.

“Nobody has helped us like Sarkis,” said Father Dankha Abdalhad, who oversees the monasteries. Mr. Aghajan has even been decorated by the Pope for his efforts.

But Mr. Aghajan’s motives are a little suspect. For one thing, until recently, Mr. Aghajan was the minister of finance for neighboring Kurdistan. The money for all these projects—which lie outside of Kurdistan–doesn’t come from nowhere, and there is no such thing as a free parsonage.

12christian41.jpgJehad Nga for The New York Times

Christians during a church service in Qaraqosh in northern Iraq.
In an interview last summer at his home in a Christian suburb of Erbil, Mr. Aghajan discussed his plan for a separate province for the Christians and other minorities of Ninewa plain, one with its own parliament, cabinet and budget. Whether that province would fall under the administration of Baghdad or Erbil, he said, depended on which gave the most support.

“If Baghdad grants us autonomy we will be happy to be with Baghdad,” he said. “If the K.R.G. grants autonomy for our people we will be happy to be with the K.R.G.”

Few Christians in these towns, even those who support Mr. Aghajan, believe that.

Last fall, after a wave of violence aimed at Christians in Nineveh’s capital, Mosul, Mr. Aghajan did the strangest thing of all: he disappeared. He has show up in the months since on television in Europe, but he has not returned to Kurdistan. Rumors have flown: he was chased out for corruption, some say. Others say he has been attending to health issues. Still others say his campaign on behalf of Christians went dangerously too far.

Whatever the case, Mr. Aghajan’s story makes him like so many other Christians here: at some point, he left.

“In the long term I think Iraq will be very good,” said William Warda, a Christian human rights advocate in Baghdad. “But when this time comes the Iraqi Christians will be finished. Our identity will be gone.”