Iraqi Christians seek sanctuary in ancient homeland

Saddam Hussein uprooted Assyrian Christians from their ancient homeland in northern Iraq. Now militants in Baghdad are forcing some to flee again.

“Some Muslims see us as infidels. We are targets. They’ll eat us alive,” said one of dozens who are planning to move from Baghdad back to villages in the north as soon as possible.

Saddam moved the Assyrian Christians, as he did Shiites and Kurds, to break down any opposition to his rule. Fighting between Kurds and the Iraqi government in the north also uprooted members of the sect.

In the security vacuum that emerged from Saddam’s downfall, a sporadic wave of violence has targeted Christians, putting them on the defensive again.

Synchronised bombings struck churches in Baghdad and Mosul last month. Officials blamed Al Qaeda ally Abu Musab Al Zarqawi. Another car bomb hit a Baghdad church on Sept. 10.

Some Christians, like Iraqis of all faiths, have left for Syria and Jordan to escape the violence.

Others want to return to their ancestral homeland in the north, where they have homes and villages they want to rebuild.

“I want to practise my religion. Since they bombed the churches I haven’t even driven past a church, let alone prayed in one,” said one Christian, who like others was too scared of being targeted to give his name.

He wants to take his family to Sharanesh, one of more than 120 Christian villages needing reconstruction in the north.

“There’s not a single Muslim living there,” he added. The village nestles in a region where the ancient Assyrian civilisation was centred.

Iraq’s Assyrian Christians claim descent from the ancient Assyrians, whose capital Nineveh lies next to Mosul. Assyrians make up the majority of Iraqi Christians, speak Syriac and see themselves as a distinct ethnic group from Arabs and Kurds.

“When I move back to the village, there will be nobody living around me except my relatives. It’s better than living among strangers,” said another Christian, whose family was forced from Sharanesh to Baghdad in 1986.

He has already put his factory up for sale and is ready to move tomorrow. “We have lands. We’ll farm them,” he said.

William Warda, information officer at the Assyrian Democratic Movement, said the church attacks had made many Christians more aware they were targets.

“The situation has become clear. Before, one Christian would be killed here, two there,” he said. “The church explosions threw a lot of light on what is going on,” he said.

Prior to the church bombs, which killed 11, violence against Christians had mainly comprised attacks on alcohol sellers and hairdressing salons.

“Many have preferred to go to more secure areas so they can practise their religion with more freedom,” Warda said.

The ministry of displacement and migration does not know how many have left Iraq, but says the figure is not significant.

Fear of attacks on Christians prompted one Baghdad television worker to move his entire family to Syria in June.

“The government has not established itself. It is not strong enough to protect the minorities,” he said. He still works in Baghdad to support his wife, two sons and daughter.

“I rarely visit my family, once every one or two months. The conditions force you to protect your family,” he added. He will decide next June on whether to bring his family back to Baghdad.

Christian leaders say most Christians who have left Iraq in recent months have only travelled to avoid summer heat and frequent Baghdad power cuts. Most will come back after the summer, they say.

“There may be some who have left, but not that many. Never more than 100 families,” said Yonadam Kanna, head of the Assyrian Democratic Movement. “There were a lot of rumours that people fled. Maybe that was the aspiration of our enemies.

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This post was last updated: Friday, December 8, 2017 at 8:11 PM, Central European Time (CET)