We are Iraqis too, Christian voters insist

HAMDANIYAH, Iraq – Christians turned out to vote in Iraq’s provincial elections on Saturday, overcoming their fears to claim their rights as citizens of the violence-scarred country.

“I didn’t intend to vote, but I came today to send a message to the terrorists who have attacked Christians. We want to tell them that we are citizens of Iraq,” said Sargun Hanna, 53.

“I wasn’t able to vote in 2005 because of terrorism and I had no confidence in the future. But I decided to vote today to prove my existence,” he said at a polling station in Hamdaniyah, in the dangerous northern province of Nineveh.

Amina Abush Bolus, a schoolteacher, voiced similar sentiments.

“We decided to participate… to remove the fear in our hearts and in the hearts of our families. We have been displaced from our land, and we left our homes and work because of this fear,” she said.

“But now I feel the Iraqi government was honest when they said they will ensure the full participation of all the sons of Iraq. This is the first time we Christians feel it.”

For Imad Sami Jaju, an engineer, the turnout was due to improved security and protection, but also “to shout out to the world that we are committed to our land and reject any plans for partition.”

For the provincial elections, Iraq’s first polls since 2005, minorities have had seats reserved in advance. Christians have been allocated one seat in Baghdad, one in Nineveh and another in oil-rich Basra in the south.

As elsewhere in Iraq, security was tight for the vote. There were no early reports of kidnappings or attacks on security forces in Hamdaniyah, police Colonel Rashid Abdullah said.

In the past two months there have been two kidnappings in Hamdaniyah, as well as a car bomb attack on Kurdish soldiers patrolling the town.

Countrywide, more than 200 Christians have been killed since the US invasion of March 2003, with the violence intensifying last October, particularly in the northern city of Mosul.

The government was forced to send police reinforcements to Mosul in October after at least 12 Christians were killed.

Several Christian homes were vandalised and burnt down and threats were made, prompting 2,500 families to leave. At least 700 families fled to Hamdaniyah.

Around 800,000 Christians lived in Iraq at the time of the invasion, but the number has since shrunk by at least a third as members of the various communities have fled the country, according to Christian leaders.

While Christians make up around three percent of Iraq’s 29 million overwhelmingly Muslim population, most of them are now concentrated in the relatively stable Kurdish autonomous region in the north.