Turkish koranic school, Berlin
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, in April 2003, more than 5.000 Christian families living in the big Iraqi Arab cities -- Bagdad, Basra, Mossoul -- have taken refuge in Kurdistan.
Paradoxically they have returned to the cities and the villags they fled 30 years ago. All tell the same story: they hope to escape the pervasive insecurity, car bombs, kidnappings, and more precisely the persecution of the Christians, by fanatic Islamist groups.
It is probably in Basra that this hemorraghe is most striking: out of the 2,000 families who lived in the big southern city in 2004, only 400 are left, according to Mgr Gebrail Kassab, the Chaldean bishop. Those who stay are the poorest, people who cannot afford to flee. Christians who ran the shops selling alcohol were the first targets of the Islamists, then the Syrian catholic church of the city was burned after Pope Benedict XVIs statement on Islam, which quoting medieval text, made certain disparaging remarks.
Mgr Raban, bishop of Amadia and Erbil, says: "Christians are the easiest targets, they have no militias to protect them". He adds: "Christians are the victims of the kidnapping trade organised by criminals liberated during the last days of Saddam Hussains regime. And also of fanatic terrorists who are proceeding to a real religious cleansing in their desire to change the demography. It is disaster for all Iraq". Mgr Raban was personally threatened telephone by individuals who called him on his mobile telephone to warn: "Either you collaborate with us, or else ".
Tension rose during the summer after the successive kidnapping of three Chaldean priests who were liberated after payment of a ransom. However the subsequent abduction of a Syrian orthodox priest ended tragically.
Father Paulos Iskandar disappeared in Mosul on 9 October. His kidnapping was claimed by an unknown Islamist group, which asked for a ransom of $350.000. Four days later, his beheaded body was found in an eastern suburb of Mosul. He was buried the following day in the presence of all the regions bishops. This drama terrified the Christian community and accelerated its northbound flight.
Paradoxically, the exodus is welcomed by the local Christians and Kurdish authorities. Christian villages, razed in the 1960s and the 1970s, live again. The bishops of Kurdistan, who deplored the "desertification" of the region, are delighted by this influx of new parishioners. "It is a real new spring in my diocesis", confides Mgr Petros Harbole.
All over north Iraq, in this mountainous region of Kurdistan around the cities of Zakho, Dohok and Amadia, along the Turkish border, the Christian villages destroyed by the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein are being rebuilt by the Kurdish government of Massoud and Nechirvan Barzani, under the supervision of Sarkis Aghajan, minister of finances, a Nestorian Christian, who allocates $18.000 on construction of a three-room house.
Sharanesh, near the Turkish border, is one of the newly rebuilt villages. Twenty new houses are already inhabited, and 50 more are under way. "Here it is peaceful. I can visit my neighbours, and I will be able to go to school", says Nermin, aged 16. Fleeing the violence of Bagdad Jedida (New Bagdad), she arrived at Sharanesh last July with her mother, Hannah, her father Akram, a TV antenna installator, and her two brothers and one sister. While their house is being finished, they camp in the houses of relatives, moving from one to another one each month to avoid being too much of a burden. They are supported financially by relatives living in the US, and also get a monthly allocation from the Kurdish government -- about 100.000 dinars per family ($16).
"Here, we are all relatives, we are all Christians", observes Mgr Petros Harbole. The church of Sharanesh has not been rebuilt yet. "For me, it is more important than a house", laments Hannah.
The return of these Christians is not without problems. Nazhat, 20, was an English teacher in Bagdad. She is now a refugee in the village of Levo, her family birthplace but she bitterly misses the "beautiful life" in the capital. "Bagdad is a dream city", she says, "I loved shopping, eating at restaurants, and going to theaters with my friends. If the situation becomes normal again, I will be the first to return, on foot if necessary".
There is a more acute problem, the land issue. In some villages, like Pechkabour, Deir Aboun or Karaoullah, land abandoned by the Christians was occupied by Arabs after 1975. Then, after the Gulf war in 1991, by Muslim Kurdish tribes. At that time the Christians did not show any inclination to return.
Today, the Kurdish government encourages Muslim Kurds to evacuate these villages, offering each family about $10.000 to help them resettle in their native village. But some Kurds refuse to move, in Pechkabour in particular, where the Miran tribe enjoys strong support in the local governement (one member of Massoud Barzanis Kurdistan Democratic Partys political bureau belongs to the Miran tribe).
While older Christians enjoy the life in these villages, the younger ones who come from Bagdad speak only Arabic and Sureth (the language of the Iraqi Christians) and complain they cannot attend Kurdish speaking schools. All these refugees have problems communicating with their Kurdish neighbours, especially in rural areas, where few Kurds speak Arabic.
Finding employment is also problematic. While the professionally-trained Christians -- doctors, engineers, technicians -- find work easily, it is difficult for those who were doing untrained work in Bagdad, which includes the majority of the refugees, who survive thanks to the assistance of the Kurdish government and relatives living abroad. In the US only, there are 250.000 Iraqi Christians in Michigan, 50.000 in Arizona, and 30.000 in California.
Isolated linguistically, traumatised by the persecutions they witnessed or suffered, the Christian refugees in Kurdistan must also cope with the propaganda of the US-based Assyrian nationalist movement which tries to give a new life to the myth of the Assyrian nation.
"We, the Christians, we have a history", says a Christian from Bagdad, now a refugee in the village of Arraden, near Amadia. "Two thousands years ago there were no Kurds here. We, the Christians, we were 30 million. Today we are not 1 million. What happened to the others ? The Kurds claim the land belongs to them". And he concludes : " The Christians have no future in Iraq, even children will tell you so. Today, the Kurdish chiefs build houses for us... but extremists will come, like in Basra, creepingly, insidiously. We cannot control the influence of extremists, we cannot stop it".
Asked about the motivations of the Kurdish leaders, Mgr Petros Harbole says one should not underestimate the desire of the Kurdish leadership to facilitate the settlement of people by principle hostile to Islamist propaganda. A Kurdish official adds that these Christian refugees are welcome in Kurdistan because their community includes an elite -- doctors, engineers, lawyers, technicians -- that is lacking in Kurdistan. He admits that this assistance also aims at undermining the propaganda of the Assyrian nationalist movement.
And, with a typically Kurdish humour, he concludes the Kurdish chiefs can only benefit from the presence of a minority that is unlikely to stage a coup détat.
(The Middle East magazine, January 2007)
Droits de Reproduction strictement reserves © Chris Kutschera 2012