No Cheer for Iraqi Christians

iraqchurch1.jpgBy SAM DAGHER
Eros Hoagland for The New York Times Iraqi Christians attend the last Sunday Mass before Christmas at St. Joseph Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad.

QARAQOSH, Iraq — It was another bad year for Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority.

Although they were granted more representation in Parliament under the new election law that was finally approved in early December, they continued to be besieged on many fronts, especially in northern Iraq. In December, churches were bombed twice in Mosul, and Christians were still singled out for killings or kidnappings. And as the year drew to a close, new threats loomed, paradoxically this time from another minority group.

The depth of the crisis facing Iraq’s Christians — and what little anyone, including the American military, can do — was on display here on Christmas Eve.

At the offices of a local television station, about 25 somber-looking women dressed in black sat patiently on plastic lawn chairs. In a room upstairs, about 50 rowdy and restless children tried to do the same. They were all members of Iraqi Christian families who escaped the violence and mayhem in Mosul over the past five years to the relative safety of this predominantly Christian town. They had gathered to wait for some holiday cheer from American soldiers bearing Christmas gifts.

Their stories were a catalog of grief and loss.

One woman was standing next to her husband when gunmen stormed into a dental clinic and riddled him with bullets in 2004. Another lost two of her brothers within several months in 2005. An elderly woman lost her son in February 2008 when gunmen shot him and two others accompanying Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, who was kidnapped and later found dead. Another woman lost both her husband and son within one week in September 2008 during a wave of attacks against Christians in Mosul that forced thousands to flee.

Even as the families waited, the bad news trickled in from Mosul: a cellphone text message from a relative announced the death of Basel Isho Yohanna, 23, shot at point-blank range in front of his home on Christmas Eve. It happened one day after a bomb placed in a handcart blew up in front of the Church of St. Thomas in old Mosul, a Syrian Catholic church, killing two people and damaging the ancient church. The old quarter is a warren of narrow alleyways, and I remember passing by this very same church last Christmas to reach another ancient church next to the last remaining convent in Mosul where I shared breakfast with its three remaining nuns.

That year, a wave of attacks against Christians in Mosul left 40 dead and displaced more than 12,000, according to the United Nations. Although many have since returned to Mosul, the attacks against Christians and their churches have continued.

At least three other Iraqi Christians besides Mr. Yohanna were murdered in Mosul this month. In one attack, the assailants asked their victim whether he was Christian before shooting him in his driveway, according to witnesses.

In Mosul, a Christian man was shot and seriously wounded on Wednesday, and a Christian female university student was kidnapped on Monday according to, a Web site dedicated to news about Iraqi Christians.

A recent report by Human Rights Watch said that Christians and other minorities in Nineveh Province, which includes Mosul, faced “a full-blown human rights catastrophe.”

Christians believe different things about who is behind the attacks. Some say it is Sunni Muslims. Others are convinced that Kurdish political parties are behind the violence in order to force them to leave Mosul altogether and settle in the Nineveh Plain, a territory claimed by the neighboring semiautonomous Kurdistan region and now under its de facto control.

Kurdish authorities have vehemently denied the allegations, arguing that they have provided safe havens for Christians both inside the Kurdistan region and in disputed territories like the Nineveh Plain. In fact, places like Qaraqosh are now virtual fortresses after a series of devastating bombings over the summer that singled out minorities in the area. A trench circles the town. Access is possible only through a handful of military checkpoints.

On Christmas Eve, the displaced Christian families in Qaraqosh wanted to forget about all of this as they waited for the American soldiers and gifts. The soldiers arrived late but, protected by a helicopter, a convoy arrived including one truck carrying three large boxes filled with soccer balls, winter coats, backpacks, flip-flops and bright yellow Crocs. This was the second stop after a gift handout to orphans inside the office of Mosul’s mayor.

As two soldiers started to unload the truck, the commander of troops in Mosul, Col. Charles E. Sexton, went in along with other soldiers including one dressed as Santa. News of the visiting American Santa spread through Qaraqosh. Parents and their children poured into the television station, clamoring for gifts.

Corporal Blaine, from the Army’s 346th Psychological Operations Company, based in Columbus, Ohio, started handing out Beanie Babies and backpacks emblazoned with “We all love Iraq.”

On Christmas Day, long after the Americans were gone, residents of Qaraqosh woke to more bad news. This time it was not from Mosul but from neighboring Bartella, another predominantly Christian town that is also home to Shabaks, members of a minority ethnic group. Most Shabaks, though, are Shiite Muslims, who make up the majority in Iraq now.

Five people were wounded in clashes between a group of Shabaks and Christian guards outside a church over the removal of banners commemorating Ashura, a solemn Shiite religious occasion, and their replacement with Christmas ones.

In the southern predominantly Shiite city of Basra, Christians opted not to celebrate Christmas altogether in deference to Ashura.

The situation got so serious in Bartella that a curfew was imposed for several hours, and both Nineveh’s governor and the commander of Iraqi forces stationed in Mosul rushed over to calm tensions. Even Kurdish forces known as pesh merga went on high alert, fanning out on the highway near Bartella along with pickup trucks mounted with machine guns.

It is worth noting that the Kurds are boycotting the Arab-led provincial government in Mosul and that they have forcefully prevented the governor from entering areas in Nineveh under their control. Christians, Shabaks and other minorities have long complained about being victims of the Arab-Kurd struggle and of extremist groups like Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia who exploit this rift by targeting minorities. But the incident in Bartella pitted two minority groups against each other.

Imad Habib, a resident of Qaraqosh, said that nothing made sense anymore and that it was time to pack up and leave Iraq for good to join his two brothers and their families in the United States.