Thursday, October 30, 2008

Iraq's Christians Flee 'Religious Cleansing,' and Arm Themselves

War is Boring: Iraq's Christians Flee 'Religious Cleansing,' and Arm Themselves
By: David Axe
World Politics Review Exclusive

In early October, news and rumors spread through the city of Mosul in northern Iraq that insurgents were targeting the area's Christian population. The attacks were apparently aimed at driving the Christians out of town -- a sort of "religious cleansing."

The anti-Christian campaign reportedly began in September, with "death threats through letters, SMS and e-mails," according to Mustafa Gundogdu, a researcher from the U.K.-based Kurdish Human Rights Project. (Iraq's minority Kurdish population, concentrated in self-governing Kurdistan, includes many Christians, although not all Iraqi Christians are Kurds.)

Gundogdu told World Politics Review that the threats were signed by a group calling itself "Al Mujahideen," a generic Arabic term for "freedom fighters." "After such threats, twelve Christian people were killed and three houses belonging to the Christian community were burned."

As panic flared, it became hard to tell fact from fiction. Several car bombs exploded in or near Christian neighborhoods around Mosul, but it wasn't clear if the bombs actually targeted Christians or were aimed at nearby soldiers. One woman told a reporter that men wearing the blue uniforms of the Iraqi police were killing Christians, echoing a trope that began at least four years ago with reports of police "death squads" in southern Iraq.

Amid intensifying rhetoric, an Iraqi general warned against "media exaggeration that gave rise to fear and horror among these families." Some foreign-based security analysts advised calm as they tried to sort truth from misinformation. One, Joost Hiltermann, from the New York-based International Crisis Group, said his sources in Iraq could not get close enough to Mosul to verify alarming reports.

By late October, as many as 13,000 Christians had fled Mosul, according to several news reports. The flight has exacerbated what Pary Karadaghi, an official at the U.S.-based Kurdish Human Rights Watch, calls an "epic" humanitarian crisis for Iraq's Christians.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled their homes in the five years since the U.S.-led invasion, some fleeing religious violence, others displaced by the ongoing insurgency. Thousands do not have access to food, water and shelter as the cold Iraqi winter approaches. Even those who do have basic necessities struggle to integrate into the predominantly Kurdish communities where they have sought refuge. Many Christians from the Mosul area do not speak the Kurdish language, so their children cannot attend school.

Christians have called Iraq home for more than 1,500 years. Today, the country's Christian population, probably numbering a little over a million, is divided between Chaldeans, who are formally associated with the Catholic Church, and Assyrians, who follow similar doctrine but have no formal ties to Rome. Assyrians claim to have one of the highest rates of martyrdom of any Christian sect: Some two million reportedly have died for their faith over the centuries. If the violence against Iraqi Christians indeed is religiously motivated, then today the martyrdom continues.

Hiltermann says U.S. forces are too focused on security in Baghdad to devote much effort to securing Mosul and other parts of Iraq where Christians are threatened. Defeating Mosul's extremists is a task that has fallen to the Iraqi army, a far less effective force that often endangers the very people it is supposed to protect. Early this year, the Iraqi army deployed tanks and other armored vehicles in operations around Mosul, and Christians got caught in the crossfire.

"There were also lots of raids going on in their communities," Karadaghi says of Mosul's Christians. "When the Iraqi government is looking for terrorist groups, they come to those neighborhoods. Their houses get searched. And once they get searched, terrorists see them as collaborators. So they are hit twice."

Now, instead of relying on Baghdad to protect them, some Christian neighborhoods are taking security into their own hands, forming unofficial militias that set up roadblocks to screen for weapons and strangers. Some of the Christian militias are getting support from the Kurdish Regional Government and its security forces, according to Karadaghi.

With refugee populations swelling and tensions mounting as Christians arm themselves, this year Christmas in Iraq will be "low key," Karadaghi says, instead of the traditional boisterous celebration.

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