Mosul’s Christians make timid return after killings

getarticleimageservlet.jpgA US army patrol stops to talk to members of an Iraqi Christian family in Mosul

UNHCR said that some Christians were starting to return.

Imad Hanna was among thousands of Iraqi Christians who fled Mosul last month after a wave of killings in the northern city. Now he is back because he cannot afford to live anywhere else.

For one month the unemployed car mechanic and his family lived in the safety of the nearby village of Qaraqosh but the rent of 125 dollars a month was eating into his meagre savings.

“We couldn’t stay in Qaraqosh any longer, so last week we came back home, although we’re very frightened,” said the 52-year-old father of four.

The family’s homecoming was marred by the murder on November 12 of two Christian sisters slain by gunmen who broke into their home and wired it with bombs.

The intruders killed Lamia and Walaa Sabih and wounded their mother before booby-trapping the house. When police arrived a bomb went off, wounding two of them.

“At night we are terrorised,” said Hanna.

“We used to have two guns at home but the peshmerga (Kurdish militia) took them away last year,” added Hanna as he stroked his youngest daughter’s hand.

“If the killers come back…” he said, stopping short from voicing his worst nightmare — that his family could be next on the hit-list of the killers.

More than 2,000 Christian families fled Mosul in October after a wave of killings in Iraq’s third largest city, which US and Iraqi commanders consider the last urban bastion of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The Iraqi government sent police reinforcements to Mosul in October after at least 12 Christians were killed, and Christian houses vandalised and burnt down and others households threatened.

— Mosul is the cradle of eastern Christianity —

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said last week that some Christians were starting to return, with around one-third of the families in one district having come back to their homes.

According to Hanna, “most of the neighbours refuse to return” to Mosul, although he said that some do come to the city to work during daytime only.

“The wealthy can afford to wait but the poor, like us, have no choice” but to come back, he said.

Church leaders in the city’s Nineveh province have been urging Christians to return to Mosul since the end of October and say that around 700 have so far gone back home.

“We must avoid at all cost a final exodus,” said Father Georges Basman of the Mar Afram Church, which is guarded by two police trucks mounted with machine-guns.

“Mosul is the cradle of eastern Christianity. We have always had good relations with our Muslim brothers and it must continue, otherwise the terrorists will win,” he added.

Since the US-led invasion of 2003, more than 200 Iraqi Christians have been killed across Iraq and a string of churches attacked, with the violence intensifying in recent months, particularly in the north.

Around 800,000 Christians lived in Iraq at the time of the invasion, but the number has since shrunk by around a third or more as members of the minority community have fled the country, according to Christian leaders.

Iraqi army commander Shaqer Ali said his troops are patrolling Mosul’s Christian quarters day and night to protect the community.

“Thirty-four Christian families have returned over the past 12 days and other said they are on their way back,” Ali said, pointing to a list of names written in a school notebook.

“We go visit them to welcome them back,” he said.

An armoured military vehicle is parked on the sidewalk near the Hanna home.

“It is good to have them here. If they leave, anything could happen,” said Hanna.