Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan Say They Will Not Return to Baghdad

By Deborah Block
Zakho, Iraq

In Mosul, in northern Iraq, Islamic militants continue to target christians_tv_15sep08_1901.jpgChristians, forcing them from their homes. Several months ago, an archbishop in Mosul was kidnapped and killed. In Baghdad, after being threatened by insurgents in 2004, thousands of Christians left the Iraqi capital. Many fled to neighboring countries, but others have settled in Iraqi Kurdistan where it is safer. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

People pray for peace at this Christian church in Zakho, Iraq
People pray for peace at this Christian church in Zakho in Iraq’s semi autonomous Kurdish region. Many came from Baghdad after Islamic insurgents set churches on fire, destroyed property and kidnapped and killed Christians.

Christians are a small minority in Iraq. Most are Chaldean Christians who are members of an autonomous Catholic Church.

Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein largely tolerated Christians, but he did not allow them to build new churches. After Saddam’s ouster, Islamic extremists targeted Christians in Baghdad, threatening to kill them if they did not leave their homes.

Many fled to a cluster of villages in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Yousef Toma lived in Baghdad most of his life, but in 2006 returned to the Kurdish village Enshke where he was born. He says it was too dangerous for his family to remain in the Iraqi capital, “We couldn’t go to church,” Toma said. “We couldn’t stay at home or they would kill us.”

yusef_tv_15sep08_1902.jpgYousef Toma
Some Christians have gone to the village of Sharanish on the Iraq-Turkey border. This girl from Baghdad says she has seen enough suffering and is now in a safer place, but there are no opportunities for her in the village.

She says she has no money and no work, and she cannot continue her high school education because there are no schools.

Christians in the village of Qarola came back to their ancestral homeland to start a new life and they built a new church. A Kurdistan government office helps build homes in Qarola and gives each family a small monthly stipend for living expenses.

Samir Yousif owned a home and a shop in Baghdad. He says his wife’s brother was killed by Shi’ites in Baghdad in front of his own daughter. The child still shows sign of shock and cannot speak. Yousif says he had to leave his possessions behind after militants threatened to kill him.

He says there are no jobs in the village, and he cannot take care of his family.

Many Christians here rely on small plots of land to grow food. These men make a meager living selling fruits and vegetables. Years ago, after local Christians went to Baghdad seeking better opportunities, Kurds took over much of the land. Now they refuse to return it.

Salem Matti, also in Qarola, owns a car but says he cannot afford the gasoline to drive to work in the nearby city of Zakho.

He says, nevertheless, he has no plans to go back to Baghdad.

He says if he can find a job in Qarola and the villagers can get their lands back, he will stay.

With better security in Baghdad in recent months, Christian areas have also become safer. But after a priest was killed in a drive-by shooting in April, some Christians wonder if the security will last.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki wants the Christians to return to their homes in Baghdad and he has pledged more security for them. Humanitarian groups say it is not safe enough yet for them to return.