Exiled Iraqi Christians await polls with fear, frustration (Feature)

Middle East Features
By Shereen El-Gazzar and Abdelghani Yehia

Mosul – Fifty three-year-old Umm Farah, a mother of three, had no choice but to flee from Mosul to Baghdad on a wintry night. Like many others, she says, she was subject to death threats simply because she is a Christian.

As the country heads into an election period widely hoped to deliver stability and greater democratic representation, Iraq’s Christian community is barely emerging from a wave of sectarian murder and intimidation.

Despite a reduction in violence in previously incendiary provinces such as Anbar, Mosul had become a locus of al-Qaeda militant activity by late 2008.

‘Although Iraq’s security had improved, we are still living through brutal days. We have lost our safety and security forever,’ said Umm Farah.

Mosul is home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, the Chaldean. Between September and November of 2008, dozens of Christians in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul were murdered, seemingly only because of their ethnic identity.

More than one million Christians are believed to have fled the country since the US-led invasion of 2003, an event which has unlocked unprecedented sectarian hatred in the region.

Against the violent backdrop, Iraqi Christians go into this election period also in frustration at the machinations of Baghdad politics.

Early drafts of the Provincial Election Law, passed in late 2008, would have seen Christians and other minorities guaranteed greater representation in the provincial councils, under Article 50 of the text.

However, the element was removed by parliament through the pressure of majority parties.

The UN Special Representative to Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, appealed against the removal of Article 50, saying that it had been an indication of ‘a nation ready to protect the political rights of minorities as founded in the constitution.’

In the event, the Iraqi parliament eventually voted to decrease minority quotas in the councils, leaving Christian candidates with three seats – one each in Mosul, Baghdad and Basra.

The compromise solution has not appeased the Christian population, however.

‘We are thousands in Mosul, we certainly deserve three seats in our local council instead of one,’ Tawfiq Saiid, a Christian journalist, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

‘We thought that political leaders would cure our wounds after what we’ve been through in Mosul, but instead of compensating us they decreased our representation in this country,’ said Nada Khunda, a Christian teacher.

Despite the blows they have suffered, Christians around Mosul say they see the elections as the best way forward. Most say the troubles of the last few months will not discourage them from participating in the historic vote.

In this election, which employs a so-called open-list proportional representation system, voters do have the opportunity to choose local independent candidates, in contrast to previous systems which only allowed the selection of a party, the candidates having been chosen by those blocs themselves.

Expectations for Christian turnout in Mosul are accordingly high.

‘I think that great numbers of Christians will turnout at the elections, but decreasing the Christians’ quota is stripping them of their rights,’ said Hanam Attallah, a university professor in Mosul.

‘We will certainly vote in the coming elections. Our right to be represented cannot be taken away,’ said Nada Khunda.

However, while many Christians intend to participate, the fear remains that the poll could in fact be used as a way to legitimize their under-representation and marginalization.

‘We are terrified. We wonder if our right as a minority is part of Iraq’s plan,’ Khunda said.

In addition, the threat of election-day violence remains.

‘It is difficult if not impossible for Christians to turn out at ballots and vote freely in Mosul,’ said a Christian merchant who, having fled from the city, spoke to dpa on condition of anonymity.

Diaa Botros, secretary general of the National Chaldeo-Assyrian Council, a Christian representative group, told dpa that movements had been organized in Mosul to intimidate Christians so that they would not vote. Others have tried to buy the Christian vote.

In face of the danger and frustrations, Christians like Umm Farah, who fled from Mosul, still support the polls. Umm Farah, having fled her home town, said ‘I am not registered to vote in Baghdad, but my sister and her husband are listed here. I will urge them to vote.’.