Iraqi Kurdistan: Persecuted Christians Find Refuge in Erbil

651.jpgHundreds of Christian families fled from Baghdad and Mosul after their persecution reached new heights during the last year; many are now settling for good in the city of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan where the situation is more stable.
Alin Sarahat fled Baghdad five years ago with his parents, brother and two sisters after the family received death threats from anti-Christian terrorists.

The warning was scrawled on paper and left on their doorstep. “Leave Baghdad, or we will kill you,” it read.

The family packed their bags, left the same day and headed north.

Mr Sarahat, now 19, and living in Ankawa, a small Christian suburb of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, is one of many Iraqi Christians there who say they have no intention of returning to their hometown. They say they fear the situation will worsen if American troops leave at the end of the year.

“There’s no future here” in Iraq, said Mr Sarahat, who now works in an internet cafe in the town.

Thousands of Iraqi Christians left Iraqi cities amid bombings of churches, kidnappings and murders since the US-led invasion in 2003.

While many left the country, some fled to towns in northern Iraq, such as Ankawa, in Erbil, the city in which the Kurdistan regional government is based.

In this small laid-back district, festive lights in the shapes of Christmas trees and doves line the street throughout the year. Large, picturesque churches stand on streets with off-licences, bars and small shops.

Muslims account for 97 per cent of Iraq’s population. Christian leaders estimate that the number of Christians in Iraq in 2003 ranged between 800,000 and 1.4 million. Now they estimate between 400,000 and 600,000 Iraqi Christians have stayed in the country.

In an attack on the Catholic Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad last year, more than 50 people were killed in a hostage-taking by Al Qaeda-linked gunmen.

Erbil absorbed more than 830 displaced Christian families after the attack, according to the International Organisation for Migration. Many more Iraqi Christians have also moved to Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah.

Christians say they feel safe in Ankawa, but explain they are somehow in limbo, and have now resigned themselves to the fact that there is no hope of returning home.

“You need to have hope and a future for the family,” said Karam Kamal, 27, who left Mosul after he received death threats for being a Christian. He manages a telecoms store in the town.

He said his uncle was murdered in Mosul, shot in a shop near his home. Mr Kamal did not take any chances and left his home, friends and most of his belongings. He has been living in Ankawa for five years, but his plan is to leave the country.

He said he was not sure where he would go, but probably somewhere in North America or Europe.

Nawar Oghanna, 24, a business management student at the University of Kurdistan, who also fled Baghdad, said he would never go back.