In Mosul, a battle for Christians

Small community has a long history in Iraq, but many wonder what the future can hold here after coming under a spate of violence recently
By Gary Marx | Tribune correspondent
11:53 PM CST, November 23, 2008
MOSUL, Iraq — A month after thousands of Christians fled this northern Iraqi city in terror, many of the refugees have returned home, but some fear a new wave of sectarian violence, church leaders say.

Iraqi police now guard churches throughout this tense, battle-scarred city, where once-dominant insurgents have lost ground in the face of a large-scale offensive by U.S. and Iraqi security forces.

While parts of Mosul appear normal—men dine outdoors at a kebab restaurant, shoppers browse for fruit and vegetables at a market and children playfully stroll home from school—a few miles away, multistory buildings lie in ruins, the streets are empty and most stores are shuttered, their twisted metal facades riddled with bullet holes.

But the battle in Mosul, a city of 1.8 million, is not just against Al Qaeda and other extremists who continue to lay deadly mines and carry out car bombings. It also is a conflict among the nation’s religious and ethnic groups for dominance as provincial elections, scheduled for January, approach.

A small but ancient community, Iraq’s Christians appear powerless against greater forces, and the community in Mosul is divided between those who believe they still have a place in Iraq and those who fear their days here may be numbered.

Even those Christians who returned home to Mosul after the latest attacks are keeping a low profile.

“We normally have about 200 to 300 people attend mass,” said Rev. Peter Gethea, a priest at the Seda al-Bashara Assyrian Catholic Church in Mosul. “Last Sunday we only had about 20 people. People are still scared.”

Neither Christian leaders nor U.S. military officials in Mosul are certain who is behind the attacks, which received widespread international attention and were condemned by the Vatican.

The outcry from abroad has put pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, and other officials to end the bloodshed. He ordered an investigation into the killings and sent a special envoy to Mosul to meet with Christian leaders.

Rumors and theories about who targeted the Christians range from Islamic extremists bent on extinguishing Christianity in Iraq to Kurds conspiring to control the Christians in a bid to expand Kurdistan, an autonomous region in northern Iraq. Kurdish officials vehemently deny any involvement in the violence.

Mosul Mayor Zuhair al-Aaraji blamed the attacks on Al Qaeda. “Their goal is to make Iraq unstable,” he said.

Also in dispute is the exact number of dead. This month, a U.S. military officer in Mosul said that only four or five Christians had been killed, but one church leader put the death toll at 16, including two women who were shot dead Nov. 12.

In addition to the two women, those slain include two physicians, a pharmacist, a construction worker and a blacksmith, said Rev. Rony Bakos, a priest at Mosul’s St. George Chaldean Catholic Monastery.

The violence comes as Iraq’s government this month approved an election law that reserves only six of 440 seats on provincial councils for Christians and three smaller minority groups. The legislation angered Christian leaders, who said it failed to give their community sufficient representation.

Iraqi Christians have a long and difficult history, and hundreds of thousands of them have fled to neighboring countries and the West since the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Experts say the outflow of Iraqi Christians has accelerated in recent years as the insurgency gained strength.

Iraqi Christians now make up about 3 percent of the country’s 28 million people, and most live in northern Iraq.

In February, Paulos Faraj Rahho, the archbishop of Mosul’s Chaldean Catholic community, was kidnapped; his body was found weeks later. Bakos said eight Christian priests have been slain in Mosul since 2003.

First Lt. John Nimmons of the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment, whose platoon operates in areas with a significant number of Christian families, said the recent wave of violence began after a car drove around, warning Christians to leave or die.

The attackers also approached individuals and ordered them to hand over their Iraqi identification cards, which contain information about religious affiliation. “After they saw they were Christians, they killed them,” Nimmons said.

Maj. Adam Boyd, an intelligence officer with the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment, estimated that 1,400 Christian families fled the city after the attacks. About 70 percent of the refugees have returned, the two priests said.

Standing in the parking lot of his walled-in church compound, Gethea pointed to three tidy homes within view. “That family now lives in Turkey,” he said. “That family went to Jordan. And that family went to Qaraqosh,” one of several predominantly Christian villages just east of Mosul where many took refuge.

One member of Gethea’s congregation who returned to Mosul is Yousif Khalil, a 21-year-old university student who fled the city with his parents, brother and sister after the attacks began in October.

Khalil said his family returned to Mosul two weeks after Muslim neighbors guaranteed their safety.

“My neighbors are very good. I grew up with them,” Khalil said. “They said that if you need anything, we will help you.”

But Gethea is less sanguine. Fearing for his life, he now removes his clerical collar whenever he leaves the church grounds.

“I can’t wear it,” he said. “They would do this to me.”

Gethea then ran his thumb across his throat.,0,5939012.story