It was already late on Christmas Day, 2005, in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, when my friend Luqman Khadir, an ethnic Kurd and non-practicing Muslim, passed along a surprising invitation. A fellow Kurd, one of Iraq's increasingly rare Christians, had asked Luqman whether I'd like to spend a few hours celebrating the holidays with him and his family.
It was a surprising invitation because that year, Iraqi Christians had been targeted in several high-profile attacks, including a bombing in Erbil, usually one of the safest cities in all of Iraq. Increasing ethnic and religious violence had driven Iraqi Christians into walled, heavily guarded compounds. Visitors, even Western reporters, were not welcome.
So I jumped at the chance to see a Christmas celebration firsthand. And I immediately agreed when Luqman laid out the ground rules for my visit: The Christian man and his sons would receive me, but his wife and daughters would not be present; I was welcome to spend a few hours with my host in his home, but I would not be allowed to visit any holiday church services; and we could talk in general terms about Christmas and Christianity in Iraq, but I was not to identify my source.
There were strings of white Christmas lights on the walls of the Christians' compound, and green wreaths on some doors. The decorations were surprisingly subdued considering what I had seen elsewhere in Erbil. In a public square outside my downtown hotel, some enthusiastic Kurds had propped up a garish, nearly life-size plastic Santa. Young Kurds draped their arms over Santa's shoulders and grinned for photos. Light-hearted Christmas décor in a public setting was one thing; boldly marking your home with evidence of your faith was clearly another. For Erbil's Christians, it was best to keep Christmas a quiet, private affair, lest loud celebration draw another attack.
In the three years since my Christmas visit in Erbil, security in that northern city has improved considerably. "Totally safe" is how Joost Hiltermann, a security analyst with the New York-based International Crisis Group, describes Erbil. But in other parts of Iraq, Christians are being targeted by Arab Muslim extremists. Around a dozen Christians were reportedly killed in late September and early October alone, bringing to around 200 the number of Iraqi Christians apparently killed for their faith since 2003. Many more have fled their homes amid growing security fears. For these survivors, this Christmas will be a somber one.
Christians have called Iraq home for more than 1,500 years. Today, the country's Christian population, probably numbering a little over one million, is divided between Chaldeans (who are formally associated with the Roman Catholic Church) and Assyrians (who adhere to similar doctrine but have no formal ties to Rome). Assyrians claim to have one of the highest martyrdom rates of any Christian sect: some two million have reportedly died for their faith over the centuries. The martyrs continue today.
In early October, news and rumors spread like wildfire through the city of Mosul and neighboring towns. After a period of relative peace, word was that insurgents were deliberately targeting the area's small Christian population. The attacks were apparently aimed at driving the Christians out of town — thus "religiously cleansing" what was once one of the most diverse regions of Iraq. This just weeks before Christmas.
It was hard to tell fact from exaggeration and misinformation. Several car bombs exploded in or near Christian neighborhoods around Mosul, but it wasn't clear if the bombs actually targeted Christians or were, in fact, aimed at nearby soldiers. Some observers insinuated that attacks were timed to keep Christians from voting as a bloc in upcoming elections. One Christian woman told a reporter that the attackers wore the blue uniforms of Iraqi police. Amid rising hysteria, an Iraqi general warned against "media exaggeration that gave rise to fear and horror among these families." Even foreign-based security analysts struggled to separate the truth from the rumors. Hiltermann said his sources in Iraq could not get close enough to Mosul to verify alarming reports.
Whether those reports were real or not, Mosul's Christians took the threats seriously. A thousand families piled their belongings into cars and fled. Some went deeper into the self-governing Kurdish region of Iraq, which has long been tolerant of Christians. Others fanned out to remote villages. 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 been forced from their homes by spurts of religious violence in the five years since the U.S.-led invasion; many do not have access to food, water, and shelter as the cold winter approaches.
All this means that this year, Christmas in Iraq will be "low key," in Karadaghi's words.
Iraq's Christians once represented a thriving community that lived in relative peace alongside Muslims in both the Arab- and Kurdish-dominated parts of Iraq. But that was during Saddam Hussein's hard-line rule, when secret police and a powerful army mostly suppressed ethnic and religious tensions.
But that's not to say that Iraq was ever a truly safe place for Christians and other religious minorities. Christians — who at their peak accounted for around 5 percent of Iraq's 25 million people — have fared better than, say, Iraq's now-extinct Jewish community, but Christians have been "depleted over time," Hiltermann says. Rising Islamic extremism and ethnic tensions in the 1980s and '90s gradually forced many Christians out of the country. Then the war beginning in 2003 opened the floodgates for refugees. Today, there are some 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria alone — many of them Christians, Karadaghi says. (The Syrian government has put pressure on refugees to return to Iraq, and recently sealed the border to prevent new refugees arriving.) Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians are internally displaced, having fled their traditional homes for communities they perceive to be safer.
In years past, many Christian refugees were displaced by Hussein's campaign to seize land from Iraqi Kurds, an ethnic group that largely opposed his rule and forcibly ejected the Iraqi army from the northern quarter of the country. The oil-rich city of Kirkuk lies just south of the so-called Green Line that marked the northernmost reach of Hussein's army. To ensure that the Green Line did not creep south to encompass Kirkuk and its oil, Hussein launched the Enfal initiative, which stripped Kurds of their land and transferred it to Arab Muslim families loyal to Baghdad.
Enfal was officially long over by the time Hussein's government fell to U.S. troops, but it was only in the invasion's aftermath that many displaced Christians returned to Kirkuk to reclaim their land. Bitter legal battles resulted — battles that Christians are not favored to win. "Most of the files have been sent to Baghdad, and the government has systematically lost them," Karadaghi said. "Christians are having difficulty finding anything relevant to their property."
Fed up with violence and unlikely to win back seized land, "they come to the north, bringing what they have," Karadaghi says. "Pretty soon their money is gone. They can't get jobs." For those who speak Arabic instead of the north's dominant Kurdish, the language barrier keeps their kids out of school, thus perpetuating a cycle of disenfranchisement and poverty.
Baghdad has a multibillion-dollar budget surplus thanks to high oil prices, but services for refugees, Christian or otherwise, remain scarce. "Why they're not spending that money on Iraqi refugees, I don't know," Karadaghi says.
Caught in the crossfire
Hiltermann says U.S. forces are "preoccupied by Baghdad" and so are unlikely to devote much effort to securing Mosul and other parts of Iraq where large numbers of Christians are threatened. Defeating Mosul's extremists is a task that has fallen to the Iraqi army, a once-ragtag force that has rapidly improved in the last couple years. Early this year, the Iraqi army deployed tanks and other armored vehicles for operations around Mosul. Christians got caught in the crossfire.
"Not only are they being attacked by terrorist groups, but there are also lots of raids going on in their communities," Karadaghi said 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, sometimes on the same day. It's not easy."
Instead of relying on Baghdad to protect them, some Christian neighborhoods are taking security into their own hands. This fall brought reports of Christians banding together to form unofficial militias. Armed men are setting up checkpoints around their communities to screen for weapons and suspicious strangers.
Meanwhile, Christian neighborhoods in Kurdish-dominated areas have appealed to the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) for extra protection, Karadaghi says. The KRG responded by sending men from its fearsome peshmerga force. So-called "pesh" fighters, armed with rockets and machine guns, were responsible for ejecting Hussein's army from northern Iraq in the 1980s and '90s. They continue to patrol northern Iraq under the KRG's auspices — and have even clashed with the Iraqi army in towns that both Baghdad and the KRG claim as their own.
Mosul is one of the last major battlefields in Iraq as the U.S. and Baghdad exert their control over the country. Christians — targeted for their faith and ethnicity, vulnerable because of historical oppression — are at the heart of the fighting. For them, Christmas 2008 will be marked by uncertainty, economic hardship, and even mortal danger. With pesh fighters and neighborhood militias taking measures to secure Christian communities, there is some hope that next year will be better.
But there is no guarantee, and there may be many more Christmases like the one I experienced in Erbil three years ago: quiet, fearful, and fortified.
David Axe is a freelance writer based in Columbia, South Carolina. He blogs at warisboring.com.
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