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Iraqi Christians' fears

Birgit Svensson / ew
April 19, 2014

Over a million Christians have left Iraq in the last decade due to increasing threat from Islamist extremists. Easter is a time of particular caution, as those who attend mass can make for easy targets.

A part of Karakosh (Photo: Birgit Svensson / DW)
Image: DW/B.Svensson

Whenever a Christian holiday is drawing near, Youssef gets anxious. The 38-year-old packs his things and drives out of Baghdad, heading north. Around 350 kilometers (217 miles) later, he turns off toward Karakosh, a town with a large Christian community where he owns a small apartment. The guards at the town entrance already know his face.

"How is Baghdad?" the checkpoint officers ask him. "How many bombs did you have yesterday?"

Youssef tells them about two mortar shells fired at the airport and a car bomb that exploded in the Karrada business district. But he adds that he has given up on counting all the blasts - there are just too many of them.

For once, Dura, the southern Baghdad neighborhood where he lives, has remained trouble-free. But over Christmas, several attacks took place there. A car bomb exploded as Christians were leaving the mass. A day later someone bombed the market, which attracts both Christian and Muslim customers.

Youssef is worried that the terror will return this Easter. Since April of last year, the rate of violence has been steadily rising in Iraq. Nearly 600 people were killed and over 1,000 injured in March alone, most of them in Baghdad.

A refuge for Christians

Just 10 years ago, hardly anyone had heard of Karakosh. The town, located in the province of Nineveh, had fewer than 3,000 residents. The main source of income was agriculture, with sheep farmed for wool and leather. But with the start of the occupation by US and British troops, Karakosh became a safe haven for Iraq's Christians, who were increasingly subject to the country's ethnic and religious conflicts. Wedged between Shiite militia and Sunni extremists, they often became victims of fierce fighting. Since the downfall of Saddam Hussein's regime, which had offered them protection, they have been vulnerable to extremist attacks.

A church in Karakosh (Photo: Birgit Svensson / DW)
Christians who go to church in Iraq on Easter can face serious risksImage: DW/B.Svensson

Today, Karakosh is a medium-sized town with 50,000 residents - a bustling trade center with new roads, shops, restaurants and attractive houses. Like Youssef, two thirds of the population is Syriac Catholic. The town employs 1,200 armed security personnel, who patrol its borders so that "the terror stays out," as Youssef put it.

On the evening of October 31, 2010, the day before All Saints' Day, Youssef suffered a traumatizing experience. Eight of his relatives were attending the traditional mass at the Sayedat al-Najat cathedral in Baghdad's Karrada district, but Youssef himself was planning to come later because he had to work. A brutal attack took place as the mass was in progress, carried out by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq group, which is affiliated with al Qaeda.

The group took the approximately 200 worshippers as hostages and began killing them with shots to the head an hour later when the Iraqi army stormed the church. The shooting between the militants and state security forces that followed led to further injuries and deaths. Altogether, 68 people lost their lives. When Youssef arrived at the church to pick up his family members, he found them dead.

Hope for a better life abroad

Before the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the country was home to around 1.5 million Christians. Today there are only around 400,000 left, and they are continuing to seek refuge in other countries. Nearly all Christian families in Iraq have at least one relative abroad who is determined to get the rest of their family out of Iraq. Youssef would also like to move. He has applied for an immigration visa to Canada, which so far has been keen to accept educated Christians from Iraq. Youssef is an engineer and believes his chances of moving overseas soon are good.

"Christians in Iraq are a dying breed," said Louis Raphael Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, Iraq's largest Christian community. Over the years he has tried to create incentives for Christians to stay in Iraq. He appealed to the West to get more involved in Iraq and ease tensions between rival groups, instead of taking in Christian refugees.

A street in Karakosh (Photo: Birgit Svensson / DW)
Karakosh is a relatively safe place for ChristiansImage: DW/B.Svensson

"We have lived here for over 2,000 years - for centuries together with our Muslim brothers and sisters," said Sako, the successor of Cardinal Emmanuel Delly. "Our world has a pluralistic character - we need each other."

According to Sako, Easter is particularly important to Chaldean Catholics. "Roman Catholics like to focus on Jesus' suffering, while we focus on hope," he explained, adding that the church does not employ the image of a crucified Jesus, but prefers to display empty crosses.

"Christ's resurrection is the core of our faith - the new life, the rebirth," said Sako, adding that his faith is what gives him strength to carry on. He says he wants to spread the message of hope among his congregation in Iraq.

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