Christians find sanctuary in northern Iraq

By Abeer Mohammed and Neil Arun/The Institute for War&Peace
The well-dressed man stands at the entrance of a beauty salon, holding a struggling rooster upside down by its feet.
Omar Farooq Jerjis, 28, who moved to this suburb of Erbil three years ago, is preparing to sacrifice the bird in order to ensure the success of his new shop.

Since moving here from Baghdad, where he said insurgents kept trying to kill him, the Iraqi Christian has made a comfortable life for himself.

“I decided to move when I heard my cousin say this place was just like Baghdad in the 1980s,” he said. “Baghdad is my home, but this neighborhood has given me a future I could not have there.”

Ankawa today is a largely Christian town of concrete villas and bustling small businesses on the outskirts of Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous and relatively secure Kurdistan region. Since 2003, its population has expanded dramatically with the influx of refugees fleeing violence in Baghdad and Mosul.

Always diverse, Ankawa has become a microcosm of the Christian dialects and denominations that once thrived all across Iraq. And the newcomers are credited with revitalizing the community.

“The displaced Christians revived Ankawa,” said Jerjis. “It used to be a village of mud houses. Now it is a civilized neighborhood.” Christians have lived in Iraq for more than two millennia. They numbered between 800,000 and 1 million prior to 2003.

In the turmoil that followed the U.S.-led invasion, the Christian population has dwindled substantially. Under attack from criminals and hard-line Islamist militias, tens of thousands fled the country.

Ankawa is an anomaly – one of very few places in Iraq where the Christian community has actually expanded over the last six years.

Security is the main reason, according to the town’s mayor, Fahmy Maty. A former lawyer with a constantly ringing cell phone, Maty also credited the Kurdistan Regional Government with accommodating the Christians’ growing needs.

In the last six years, he said, three new neighborhoods have been built around Ankawa, and land for 4,000 new homes has been set aside. The town’s population has nearly doubled, from 10,000 in 2003 to nearly 20,000 at the latest count.

Despite the rapid expansion, he said, friction with Ankawa’s older Christian residents and the Muslims of Erbil has been avoided.

“The Christians behave compassionately towards the refugees. … We also have no problems with our Muslim brothers,” Maty said.

As in the rest of Iraq, Chaldean Catholics are the largest sect in Ankawa, followed by groups such as Assyrians, Syriac Christians and Armenians.

Between them, they speak a range of dialects and languages, from Syriac and Aramaic to Kurdish and Arabic. Some Christians regard themselves as ethnically distinct from other denominations.

The degree to which they identify with nearby Muslim communities – be they Kurdish or Arab – varies sharply. According to Maty, the displaced Christians from Mosul and Baghdad generally speak fluent Arabic. Ankawa’s older Christian families, meanwhile, speak fluent Kurdish and little Arabic.

While the influx of Christians has helped fuel a vibrant economy, it’s also sent the price of housing sky high. Maty doubts prices will come down anytime soon.

Meanwhile, international aid organizations and major companies are rushing to establish themselves here. The United States maintains a presence inside a heavily guarded consulate.

One thing you won’t find here are the ubiquitous checkpoints that dominate the landscape in most other Iraqi cities. “The police are everywhere – we don’t need checkpoints,” said an American as he entered one of the growing number of shops in the city.

Abeer Mohammed and Neil Arun are reporters in Iraq who write for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict. Readers may write to the author at the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, 48 Grays Inn Road, London WC1X 8LT, U.K.; Web site: For information about IWPR’s funding, please go to