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A New Genesis in Nineveh

Iraqi Christians find safety in the Kurdish-controlled north

“I saw injustice in Mosul. I want to start a new life here,” says Salam Talia, a 23-year-old Iraqi Christian. The young man sits on a sofa between his middle-aged parents in their newly built apartment in Hamdaniya, a historically Christian town about 20 miles southeast of the city of Mosul. On one of the living room walls hangs a large image of Jesus surrounded by photos of family members killed in the war and the sectarian violence that has ravaged the nation for the past eight years.

Despite the trauma they suffered in their native Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city and capital of the Nineveh Governorate, the Talia family considers itself fortunate and even expresses a measure of happiness with their new lives in Hamdaniya. They no longer fear practicing their faith and attend church regularly. They have made friends and are settling into their new home.

Hamdaniya lies in the Nineveh plains, a region east of the Tigris River. It takes its name from the Assyrian city mentioned in Genesis. The ruins of ancient Nineveh nestle on the river’s eastern bank directly across the water from Mosul. Still today, many residents of the Nineveh plains are Assyrian Christians.

The Nineveh plains are among several disputed territories in northern Iraq. Iraqi Christians increasingly view the area as the future homeland for the country’s Christian community, and many now demand it become a semiautonomous region.

Iraqi authorities also claim other territories in the north, particularly parts of the oil-rich Kirkurk Governorate, currently controlled by Kurdish authorities in the adjacent autonomous region of Kurdistan.

At the end of the first Gulf War, Allies established a no-fly zone in the Iraqi region of Kurdistan to protect the country’s Kurds, who had been persecuted by Saddam Hussein. Though the majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslim, they are not Arab but a distinct ethnic group of Indo-European origin and speak an Iranic language.

In Hamdaniya, the Kurdish flag flying over the main gate and the pro-Kurdish graffiti on the outer walls indicate that for now at least Kurdish authorities control the town.

Local security forces prefer to collaborate with the better armed Kurds rather than allow for the region’s many violent extremists to infiltrate Hamdaniya and terrorize its inhabitants. They operate more than a dozen checkpoints and have erected blast walls and deploy around-the-clock armed guards outside the town’s government offices, social service institutions as well as churches and other places of worship.

“If there is a foreigner in town, everybody knows right away. Residents usually report the person,” says Bhnan Abo, president of the town’s refugee affairs committee.

More than 95 percent of Hamdaniya’s 45,000 residents are Christian. This includes some 15,000 displaced Iraqis.

Many of these displaced families have fled from predominantly Arab Sunni Muslim areas of the Nineveh Governorate. In the last decade, the governorate has become a stronghold for Al Qaeda-affiliated militant groups. These extremists have consistently targeted the region’s Christian minority, whom they view as infidels and collaborators with the West. Killings, death threats, kidnappings and attacks on churches, Christian institutions and homes are rampant.

Mosul serves as the nerve center for the region’s extremist activities. Though historically a Sunni metropolitan area, the city and its surrounding villages were for centuries also home to an array of vibrant minority communities, including Christians, Kurds, Turkomans, Mandaeans and Yazidis. And until the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, these diverse groups coexisted more or less peaceably with one another and the Sunni majority. But as militant groups gained control of the city in the war’s aftermath, violence against these communities escalated.

Most Christians have left in recent years. In 2008 alone, more than 2,600 Christian families fled the city following a string of violent attacks on the community.

Salam Talia and his family know all too well the hardships of living in a post-Saddam Hussein Mosul.

“In Mosul, a cleric pointed at both Christians and Kurds, calling them infidels,” says the young man. “But the Kurds are powerful and able to protect themselves. We are not.”

Fearing for their lives, the family kept a low profile in the city for years. They never disclosed their Christian identity and actively disguised it. The family refrained from attending church. Mrs. Talia and her daughter-in-law began to cover their heads, following Muslim practice. And while a student at Mosul’s fine arts academy, Salam Talia expressed interest in Islamic calligraphy, often choosing passages from the Quran as the subjects of his paintings.

These efforts, however, were in vain. Salam Talia narrowly escaped two separate kidnapping attempts. And while he was riding a university bus, a roadside bomb blew up the bus driving directly behind his. Finally in November 2007, tragedy struck the family. The eldest son, a police officer, died in an Al Qaeda attack on a police station. Just weeks later, extremists raided the daughter-in-law’s family home, slaughtering the young woman, her parents and a brother. Devastated and terrified, the Talia family hastily moved to Hamdaniya.

Hamdaniya’s residents take great pride in the contributions Christians have made to the country’s civilization. People openly and proudly remind friends and neighbors that it was a Christian who built the first school in Iraq and that Christians introduced the clock and printing press to the country.

The origins of Christianity in Iraq are shrouded in mystery, but most credit the apostle Thomas with the evangelization of the region’s Jewish communities on his way to India. For two millennia, Christians have flourished in the region. As late as 2003, Christians belonged to Iraq’s professional middle and upper classes. Some held high-ranking government positions.

“The first Iraqi government had six Christian ministers,” recalls Bashar Gorgis Habash, who heads an agency serving displaced Christians.

Today, more than two-thirds of Iraqi Christians are Catholic and belong to the Chaldean Church — which maintains the traditions of the Church of the East while in communion with Rome. The remaining third belong to the Armenian, Assyrian and Syriac churches.

Once estimated at one million strong, Iraq’s Christian community has dwindled since the U.S.-led invasion. Though no reliable statistics exist, most experts believe less than 300,000 Christians remain in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands have sought refuge in Jordan and Syria; a small number live in Lebanon and Turkey.

Those unable to leave the country have fled to Kurdistan and Kurdish-controlled territories in the north. According to the Kurdish government, more than 10,000 Christian families from all over Iraq have settled in Kurdistan since 2003.

One man, Sarkish Aghajan Mamendo, has made it his life’s work to develop Hamdaniya and over a dozen other predominantly Christian towns and villages in the region. Kurdistan’s former finance minister and an Assyrian Christian, he has financed the construction of 306 apartment buildings, 10 churches and dozens of other projects in Hamdaniya alone. Many displaced Christians, such as the Talia family, now live in these new apartments.

In August 2006, Pope Benedict XVI named him a knight commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great for his generosity and activism on behalf of Iraq’s Christians.

Mr. Aghajan’s seemingly endless financial resources have raised a few eyebrows.

“We are not talking about thousands of dollars,” says Romeo Hakari, chairman of the Bet-Nahrain Democratic Party, an Assyrian Christian political group. “We are talking about millions of dollars spent on Christians. Dozens of villages have been built. I don’t think all of this income belongs to one single person.”

An active member in the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Mr. Aghajan no doubt benefits from close ties to its leader and Kurdistan’s current president, Massoud Barzani.

A staunch U.S. ally, President Barzani has earned an international reputation for his commitment to protecting Iraq’s religious minorities, particularly its Christians. In February 2011, the Italian Atlantic Committee and the Italian delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly awarded him the Atlantic Award for his role in promoting peace and religious tolerance in the region. The president also met with Pope Benedict XVI, who commended his leadership in advancing religious tolerance.

Voices calling for the creation of a semiautonomous Christian region in the Nineveh plains have grown louder in recent years.

“We have support from people in the U.S. and Europe who would invest if we have our own region,” says Ziya Petros, head of the political party, Chaldean National Congress. “Our people would no longer have to abandon the country.”

Ano Abdoka, a prominent Christian journalist, lives in Ankawa, an affluent mostly Christian neighborhood outside Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital and largest city. He believes Iraqi Christians have reached a crossroad.

“Either we follow the Jewish model and leave the country altogether,” he says, sitting at one of the neighborhood’s trendy cafes for professionals and diplomats, “or, we follow the Kurdish model and resist to the last point.”

Since 2003, Iraqi Christians have found unlikely allies among their Kurdish compatriots. As tens of thousands of Christians flooded Kurdistan in search of refuge, local residents and Kurdish authorities have for the most part warmly welcomed them. A number of Christians also hold important offices in Kurdistan’s government. And among Iraqi leaders from other ethnic and religious communities, only Kurds have ever indicated support for a semiautonomous Christian region.

“Kurds and Christians are on the same side,” says Mr. Hakari. “Relations between Christians and Kurds have improved as much as the distance between the sky and earth.”

As the Christian politician’s remark suggests, relations between the two communities have not always been so tight. In March 1918, Smko Shikak, a powerful Kurdish tribal leader, and his militia assassinated Catholicos-Patriarch Shimun XXI Benyamin of the Church of the East and murdered 150 of his bodyguards.

The tribal leader’s militia later massacred thousands of Assyrian Christians in the cities of Khoy and Salmas.

While some Iraqi Christians may bitterly remember these darker days, most have set aside whatever ill will they harbor and prefer to greet the alliance with a sense of relief and hope. “I am sure they mean it when they say they support us,” continues Mr. Hakari. “For their reputation in the U.S. and Europe, it’s a great philosophy that they support other communities, particularly Christians.”

However, not everyone shares Mr. Hakari’s confidence in the Christian-Kurdish partnership.

“Neither the Iraqi government nor the Kurdish one pays enough attention to us,” says Bashar Gorgis Habash, head of Hamdaniya’s agency for displaced Christians. “Baghdad does nothing and the Kurds see it as something beyond their administrative control.”

Displaced Christians in Kurdistan and Kurdish-controlled territories live in comparative safety. A surprising number even have managed to get on with their lives. Most, however, struggle. Many have experienced horrific violence and, as a result, suffer posttraumatic stress disorder.

Some grieve for the lives they once knew. In fleeing north, they abandoned their homes and other properties and they have little hope of recovering them. When families first arrive, they rarely have the resources to support themselves, much less purchase a home — a reality that can be overwhelming.

For those from wealthy backgrounds or those who lived in large cities such as Baghdad, the comparatively simple, small-town life they find in Hamdaniya and other similar settlements can be psychologically difficult.

Displaced persons in Kurdistan confront the added challenge of learning the Kurdish language, without which they have little chance of securing a job or performing well in school.

But no matter where they settle in these safe zones, the majority cannot find work that supports themselves and their families.

“Seventy-five percent of the displaced Christians are living not in bad conditions, but in very bad conditions,” says Ziya Petros of the Chaldean National Congress.

Many families scrape by on a monthly stipend of less than $50, provided by the local church. A number of international relief organizations also assist the displaced. But according to Mr. Petros, corrupt officials all too often embezzle the aid channeled through some of these organizations.

“They don’t give the money properly to the people,” he says. “They use it to embarrass them; they use it to buy them out during elections.” (CNEWA provides support through the local churches.)

Thirty-five-year-old Karan Jalal Abdul-Ahad and his family moved to Hamdaniya from Baghdad in 2007. For years, he and his family lived in fear, dodging the sectarian violence that engulfed the capital. He once witnessed henchmen dump a pile of maimed bodies on a street corner. Yet, he refused to leave — that is, until the day he started receiving death threats. Knowing his days were numbered, he made the hard decision to pack whatever his family could carry and head north.

Though relieved to find safety in Hamdaniya, he did not take well to his new surroundings.

“In the beginning when I came here, I was too depressed to go out,” he says. Proficient in English, he landed a job in a pharmacy that needs employees who can understand the English labels on medications.

“I still miss Baghdad. But, I will never go back,” he continues. “My parents both died here and are buried here. Hamdaniya is now my town. This is my world. This is my life.”

Iraqi journalist Namo Abdulla reports on events in Iraq for The New York Times.

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