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Christians in the Muslim World

Iraq: Pain nourishes the Resistance of the Christians

A visit to the monastery of Al Qosh, the last refuge of displaced people from Mosul where “whoever wears a cross around their necks runs the risk of being murdered.” And yet there is the belief that the climate of terror may finish: “Despite our misfortunes the moment of mutual understanding appears to us to be nearer.”

Al QOSH – keep your head down, wait, hope. The motto of the displaced people crowded into the cells of the sanctuary of Qosh is completely expressed in these three words, the only words that are able to restore confidence to the reeds in the wind of this Iraq which is struck by a hurricane of confessional war and sectarian hatred. This hurricane has uprooted them from their homes in Mosul and pushed them here between the stone walls of the Monastery of Notre Dame. From Mosul to here there are a little over thirty kilometres but that road is the first step in the great flight. The new staging post of that exodus which since 2003 has led over 250,000 Iraqi Christians to leave their country. These fifty families which arrived in Al Qosh in the early days of March are the last remnants of the twelve thousand exiles who have fled from the city of Mosul over the last seven years. These families came to this ancient Chaldean monastery, which is located on the slopes of the Bayhidhra mountains, to flee from the increase in violence which cost the lives of seven of their brethren who were killed during the weeks prior to the elections of 7 March. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the irruption into the home of the thirty-nine-year-old Father Mazen Matoka, one of the most loved and well-known priests in Mosul. Perhaps they were looking for him. Perhaps they wanted an illustrious victim, but that afternoon Father Mazen was not at home. The assassins then turned to his father and his two brothers: “They broke in while I was at church. I do not know if they were looking for me,” relates Father Mazen, “they asked for documents, they shouted at my mother and my sisters to go to another room. My mother offered them money but they were not interested. She rushed out onto the balcony, threw open the windows and cried for help. But not a soul arrived. They shut themselves in a room with Mukhlas and Bassem, my brothers, and our father Jeshu. Then they began to shoot. The hand of one of them was shaking and he missed them but his friends made no mistake and shot them in the mouth…in the head…and then in the back when my father, Mukhlas and Bassem were already on the floor. That is how they kill the Christians of Mosul.” The climate of terror has not spared the heads of the Chaldean Church. Two years ago the Bishop of Mosul, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was found a corpse after being kidnapped by a fundamentalist group. “Whoever wears a cross around their neck runs the risk of not getting home alive,” Emil Nona, his young and courageous successor, explains to us, stroking his large golden cross. “To survive here we have to act with extreme prudence, never take the same route twice, often change cars, be seen as little as possible…but by now not even this is enough. Recent events have increased people’s fear and their desire to flee…families go on packing their suitcases and leaving the city. My great fear is that the Christian presence in Mosul will be definitively compromised, that Christians after centuries of living in this city will be eradicated and convinced never to return. For this reason it is important to remain. For this reason it is important to dialogue with the chiefs of the Arab tribes and with the Kurds and to convince them to assure the safety of we Christians. For that matter they also know that to assure protection for our community means to restore trust and security to the whole of the region.”



The Fall of the Rais



Will anything really change? Some people hope so. They hope that the latest flare-ups of sectarian terror can help to make people understand its wicked and stupid uselessness. They hope that for we Christians as well the era of horror is near to finishing. “This climate of hatred does not belong to the history of our country; everything began because of the chaos generated by the fall of Saddam Hussein,” explains Father Gabriel Toma, aged forty, the Chaldean parish priest of the monastery of Al Qosh. “When the Rais fell, everyone thought that they would be able to gain advantages and rights by preaching hate for others. And people paid in the first person for this pitiless illusion. Now everyone has understood that wickedness is never one way but generates a circle of madness that is able in the end to hit you like a boomerang. Everyone has understood that horror is always reciprocal. The majority of Shiites and Sunnis at the last election did not vote for those who upheld the rights of their communities but for those who called for a climate of reconciliation and respect between different faiths and groups. We Christians have always said this but now that moment seems to us to be nearer. The era of fanaticism is near its end and the moment of dialogue and mutual understanding seems to us, despite our misfortunes, to be nearer.” Amongst those who believe and hope there is also Monsignor Sako, the Bishop of Kirkuk. “The elections of March 2010 took place a few days after the gravest killings of Christians in the history of Mosul and the violence also continued after the vote…and yet that call to the voting urns marked a turning point,” argues the bishop. “In 2005 the lists were closed and sectarian; this time, instead, they were open to everyone, with Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Christians, Shiites and Sunnis placed in the same formations. For the first time the religious element played a less important role. The population chose secular candidates and lists that were not connected with a religious clergy, whether Shiite or Sunni. And the results of the elections demonstrated that the Iraqis want a non-sectarian government that is able to assure security. All of this is a very good sign for those who are persecuted.” If the Bishop of Kirkuk believes this, there is some hope. Kirkuk, with Mosul, is one of the two disputed major cities of the north of Iraq, a city where – after the fall of Saddam – the Kurds have tried to establish a hegemony. This struggle without restraints with the Arab tribes and community is the cause of the heavy climate of terror and destabilisation that one breathes in both these centres and is, according to some theories, the reason for the persecution that afflicts the Christians of Mosul. “The extremist groups, those that actually kill or kidnap our faithful, are only the symptom, the expression of this evil,” explains Father Toma. “To really understand who lies behind this campaign one must ask who gains from this killing of Christians, who is benefited by the territorial restructuring of this area.” The words of Father Toma are taken up and privately uttered widely amongst the Christians. According to these opinions the responsibility for the persecutions should not only be attributed to the Sunni fundamentalist factions near to Al Qaeda but also to those Kurd factions that are seeking to take control of the territory. According to this theory the Kurds – although they officially offer protection to the Christian in northern Iraq – have not forgotten the support of the Chaldean community for the regime of Saddam and see this community as an obstacle to their control of the area. “There are many ways of exterminating and persecuting,” we are told, on the condition of not being quoted, by a lecturer who fled with his family to the monastery of Al Qosh. “If you do not send in the police to stop those who kill and you do not chase up the killers, the result is the same.”



The Flag with the Shining Sun



The Kurdish wish for hegemony is far from being discreet. To understand this it is sufficient to leave Mosul and to go into the fertile and rich plane of Nineveh. There every road block flies the flag with the shining sun of the Kurd militias. These are militias that are so convinced that they embody the authority of an independent state that they ask foreigners to show them the still non-existent Kurd visa. In the view of Atheel al Nujaifi, the governor of the province of Nineveh who signed an appeal in which the United Nations and the European Union were asked to open an investigation into those who command the violence, the heads of the Kurd militias are the real instigators of many attacks on the Christians and other minorities. “Killing a Christian is the best way of spreading a feeling of fear and instability….Here those who are opposed to the plans of the Kurds are persecuted, threatened, arrested and often liquidated,” accuses Nujaifi, citing to support his accusations a report of Human Rights Watch based upon the same suspects. And Bassem Bello, the Christian mayor of the Arab village of Tel Kaif, has no scruples in repeating these accusations: “Every time that something happens we lose some families who flee abroad. That is the plan, they want to displace the original inhabitants of these areas, take over our homes and our lands. And believe me, this is something that not only Islamist fanatics want. Here more than a few people are ready to do anything to get rid of we Christians.” If the plan is to increase tensions, then a return to living together in society, an agreement between Kurds and the Arab chiefs for a shared running of Mosul, achieved in the name of social peace, could help the Christians to foster the return of those who have left Iraq thinking that they would never return. From this point of view the best hope for many Christians is linked to the destiny of Iyad Allawi, the energetic Shiite former prime minister, a leading figure of 7 March thanks to an alliance with the Sunni parties that was based upon the principle of co-existence and the end of confessional struggles. This is an idea that the sixty-five-year-old Iyad Allawi also stresses during a meeting with us, confirming his commitment to do everything to assure the return of those Christians who have fled abroad. “As a young men I studied at a Jesuit school and my best friends were Christians…I well know how much that community has contributed to the growth of the country. To lose the Christians would mean to abandon a part of our identity. During my first mandate as prime minister I did everything I could to try to assure their security and to make funds available to rebuild churches that had been destroyed. This time things will not be different. I commit myself to doing everything to assure the return of those who have fled abroad and to assuring that that community will play the role that it has played in the past.”


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