Iraqi Christians Flee to Safer Ground

AINKAWA, Northern Iraq – Zaid Suleyman, a 34-year-old taxi driver, sits in the administration office of St. Joseph’s, an Assyrian Christian church in the Kurdish-controlled north of Iraq. He and his wife fled the capital, Baghdad, for the comparative peace of this region in September, and have been renting a room from an elderly church member ever since.

But despite the move, Suleyman has not been able to put the violence of Baghdad behind him.

"I have a sister living in Baghdad still, and two months ago her husband was kidnapped," he says.

Regular trips back to the capital to search for his brother-in-law have proved fruitless: "We have no idea what happened to him, even if he is alive or dead. We searched for him in all the hospitals and morgues, but we weren’t able to find him."

Suleyman says that at the time of the abduction, his relative was working as a driver for the al-Kubaisy company, a large Iraqi firm that has received several contracts from the occupation authority. The man was kidnapped along with a dozen other employees of the company, all of whom were released after a hefty ransom was paid.

The reason his brother-in-law was not released with the other staffers, claims Suleyman, is because the man is Christian.

Other members of the brother-in-law’s family have also been the target of kidnap attempts, he adds. "There is a crowd circling around the house all the time. Sometimes they come up to my sister’s children and ask them to get in the car, but thanks to God they always refuse."

This story is not unique.

Across the street from St. Joseph’s, a Christian woman from Baghdad told IPS that her husband, son, and best friend had been kidnapped together in the capital before she fled to northern Iraq. Her son was released after 10 days, she says; but when he returned to his family, it was with the news that both husband and friend had been beheaded.

The woman, who asked that her name be withheld for security reasons, still makes regular trips back to Baghdad to search for her husband’s body.

On Nov. 8, 2004, four churches in Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul were bombed – leaving 11 dead and dozens more injured. Since the beginning of the occupation by U.S-led forces, thousands of Christians have fled Arab areas of Iraq for northern regions, Syria, and Jordan.

Huddled beside a small oil heater at St. Joseph’s, small business owner Nihad Abul-Wahad told IPS that he had left Baghdad with his wife in October.

As with many Assyrian Christians, Abul-Wahad’s extended family lives in the north. However, he had spent his whole life in the el-Habibiah neighborhood, near Sadr City in eastern Baghdad – a district named after the father of radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Al-Sadr has proved one of the fiercest opponents of the Iraqi occupation. Abul-Wahad says that when the U.S. military began attacking al-Sadr’s followers in April last year, conditions for Christians in his neighborhood worsened: "We couldn’t sleep for three months because we were so scared."

His family would have left Baghdad earlier, but he wanted to sell his house before moving. The problem was that few were in the market for property at a time of such insecurity in the capital.

As trying as Abul-Wahad found the conditions in el-Habibiah, they were worse for his wife.

"It’s not so bad for the men, because we can blend in with the Muslims. But the women, they don’t wear Islamic headscarves," he notes.

"So when the American attack on al-Sadr began, people began to come up to my wife and say ‘Why aren’t you wearing a headscarf?’ They said, ‘The Americans are Christian and you are Christian; you are on the same side as the Americans.’"

Both Suleyman and Abul-Wahad plan to stay in northern Iraq indefinitely, along with many others. About 1,300 Christian families have registered with a special bureau of the Kurdish regional government, which helps them secure new jobs and housing.

St. Joseph’s church is trying to find Suleyman a job in the regional administration. Nihad hopes to open a liquor store.

(Inter Press Service)