Iraqi Christians flee homes amid militant push

By Diaa Hadid

Associated Press

Published: Monday, June 16 2014 7:13 a.m. MDT

Updated: Monday, June 16 2014 7:13 a.m. MDT

In this Sunday, June 15, 2014 photo, Iraqis attend Mass at the Chaldean Church of the Virgin Mary of the Harvest, in al-Qoush, set in the seventh century Saint Hormoz monastery built into a hill overlooking Alqosh, a village of some 6,000 inhabitants about 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Mosul, northern Iraq. Dozens of Christian families that fled to this ancient Iraqi village have taken a much-traversed route -- many from their minority community have escaped to Alqosh before, in fear for their lives. This time, few say they want to go back to their homes, seeking safety under the Kurdish forces known as the peshmerga. (AP Photo)

The Associated Press

ALQOSH, Iraq — Over the past decade, Iraqi Christians have fled repeatedly to this ancient mountainside village, seeking refuge from violence, then returning home when the danger eased. Now they are doing it again as Islamic militants rampage across northern Iraq, but this time few say they ever want to go back to their homes.

The flight is a new blow to Iraq's dwindling Christian community, which is almost as old as the religion itself but which has already been devastated since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. During the past 11 years, at least half of the country's Christian population has fled the country, according to some estimates, to escape frequent attacks by Sunni Muslim militants targeting them and their churches.

Now many of those who held out and remained may be giving up completely after fighters belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant swept over the city of Mosul and a broad swath of the country the past week.

"I'm not going back," said Lina, who fled Mosul with her family as the militants swept in and came to Alqosh, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) to the north.

"Each day we went to bed in fear," the 57-year-old woman said, sitting in a house for displaced people. "In our own houses we knew no rest." Like other Christians who fled here, she spoke on condition she be identified only by her first name for fear for her safety.

In leaving, the Christians are emptying out communities that date back to the first centuries of the religion, including Chaldean, Assyrian and Armenian churches. The past week, some 160 Christian families — mosly from Mosul — have fled to Alqosh, mayor Sabri Boutani told The Associated Press, consulting first on the number with his wife by speaking in Chaldean, the ancient language spoken by many residents.

Alqosh, dating back at least to the 1st century BC, is a jumble of pastel-painted homes nestled at the base of a high craggy hill among rolling plains of wheat fields. The village's population of 6,000 is about half Christian and half ethnic Kurds. Located just outside the autonomous Kurdish zone of northern Iraq, Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga have moved into the town to protect it.

Many Christians are deciding that the comparatively liberal and prosperous Kurdish regions are their safest bet.

"Every Christian prefers to stay in Kurdistan," said Abu Zeid, an engineer. He too said he wouldn't be going back to Mosul.

"It's a shame because Mosul is the most important city in Iraq for Christians," he added. Mosul is said to be the site of the burial of Jonah, the prophet who tradition says was swallowed by a whale.

Iraq was estimated to have more than 1 million Christians before the 2003 invasion and topping of Saddam Hussein. Now church officials estimate only 450,000 remain within Iraq borders. Militants have targeted Christians in repeated waves in Baghdad and the north. The Chaldean Catholic cardinal was kidnapped in 2008 by extremists and killed. Churches around the country have been bombed repeatedly.

The exodus from Mosul — a Sunni-majority city that during the American presence in Iraq was an al-Qaida stronghold — has been even more dramatic. From a pre-2003 population of around 130,000 Christians, there were only about 10,000 left before the Islamic State fighters overran the city a week ago.

Abu Zeid estimated that now only 2,000 Christians remain in the city.

Christians who have not left Iraq completely often flee their homes to other parts of Iraq when the danger is highest in hopes of returning later.

Boutani, the mayor, said this was the sixth time in 11 years that Christians from other areas have flocked to Alqosh for refuge. He himself fled here from Baghdad in 2009 after a church bombing in the capital.

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