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Iraqi Christians Flee to Kurdish North for Safety
By Nizar Latif

BAGHDAD -- With attacks on their community continuing, Iraqi Christians in Baghdad are looking north to the Kurdish region, as they seek safety and an alternative to fleeing their country entirely.

Since last month's massacre at the Our Lady of Salvation church in the capital, which left about 50 worshippers dead, there has been a heightened sense of insecurity among Baghdad's Christian minority.

Despite a brief period of relative calm in recent days, a series of assassinations has done nothing to settle rattled nerves or inspire confidence in the ability of security forces to prevent further sectarian bloodshed.

On Monday, two Christian brothers were gunned down in their car workshop in the restive city of Mosul, 390km north of Baghdad.

Exactly one week earlier in eastern Mosul, another two Christian men were shot and killed after gunmen broke into their home.

There have been renewed calls in Europe for Iraq's Christians to be granted asylum, suggestions that sparked a quick rebuke from Iraqi officials - including many senior Christians - that such a move would only serve the Islamic extremists trying to rid the country of Christianity.

The Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd from the northern city of Sulemaniya, last week said that rather than fleeing overseas, Christians should move to the secure autonomously administered Kurdish areas until the situation elsewhere had stabilised. It is an offer that many Christians here are now seriously contemplating.

"Life isn't possible in Baghdad for us at the moment," said Milad Butros, a Christian resident of Doura, a neighbourhood in southern Baghdad in which Muslims and Christians long enjoyed a peaceful coexistence. But after the 2003 US-led invasion, the area quickly fell under the control of Islamist militants.

Mr Butros, aged 52, had two of his daughters abducted by al Qa'eda fighters in 2006. He has heard nothing of them since, despite extensive search efforts aided by Iraq's powerful tribes.

The latest series of attacks on Christians, apparently carried out by al Qa'eda, and the Kurd's offer of sanctuary have convinced Mr Butros that he should now take his wife and son away to safety.

"The government doesn't seem to be serious about protecting us here, so if no one wants us in Baghdad, we will leave," he said. "The Kurds have offered us shelter and we will go. I couldn't stay in Baghdad even if it was built of gold."

Thousands of Iraqi Christians have already sought and found refuge in the Kurdish provinces. In Erbil, the Kurds' administrative capital, the flourishing Ankawa neighbourhood has been built up and populated by Christians, with the support of the Kurdish authorities.

Even outside of Kurd-run areas, in Ninewah province, Kurds have helped to secure the Christian villages to the north and east of Mosul, the provincial capital. That help has not been uncontroversial, with some viewing it as part of a land grab by the Kurds in their long territorial dispute with the country's Arabs.

"We expect many Christians to come north," said Romeo Higari, a Christian MP in Erbil. "At least they will still be in Iraq - I refuse to accept that Christians have to leave for Europe to have a future. We have lived here for thousands of years, it is our country and we should stay."

Yunadam Kanna, head of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM) in Iraq and an MP, also said many of Baghdad's Christians were now preparing to move north.

"I have been in touch with Christian doctors, engineers and professors now in Baghdad and they are ready to leave for Kurdistan," he said. "They are sad to leave their city, but at least they can keep their lives."

Mr Kanna said the Kurdish offer of a safe haven was a preferable alternative to Iraq's Christian's leaving the country altogether.

The ADM has urged the government to improve security in Baghdad, and has advocated the establishment of Christian guard units that would defend churches and residential neighbourhoods. Similar arrangements have already been made in some of the villages on the outskirts of Mosul, despite fears it would lead to the formation Lebanese-style Christian militias.

Mr Kanna stressed any such forces would remain under Iraqi government command, and would not be an independently controlled Christian fighting unit.

The prospect of Christians leaving Baghdad en masse would be "disastrous" for the country, said Muthana al Jafani, a sociologist based in the capital.

"Christians makes up a large part of the educated elite, and without them medical services, education and engineering projects in Baghdad will all suffer," he said. "If the Christians leave, it will tear up the very fabric of Iraq. It is a very serious threat."

An estimated 800,000 Christians lived in Iraq before the 2003 invasion but their number has shrunk, with tens of thousands moving to Syria and Jordan or gaining asylum overseas.


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