Fearing ISIS, Iraqi Christians flee | World| Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 23.06.2014
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Fearing ISIS, Iraqi Christians flee

Christians in Iraq urgently call for help as they are increasingly caught in the crossfire. Many have fled from the advancing Sunni insurgent group - and experts say change for the better is not in sight.

Christians and members of other minorities in Iraq threaten to "completely disappear" in the wake of the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) insurgent group, says Matthias Vogt of Germany's Mission International Catholic Mission Society.

The expert on Islam last visited the northern cities of Mosul and Qaraqosh in November. The insurgents have meanwhile seized Mosul.

An estimated 300,000 to 350,000 Christians currently live in Iraq, down from 1.4 million Christians in 1987. Many left the country as refugees, mainly during the second Iraq War in 2003. More than 2,000 Iraqi Christians have since been killed, Germany's Catholic Kirche in Not organization says on its website, and more than a third of the Iraqi refugees who have fled abroad are Christian.

Closed and looted

Women holding cross during mass

The number of Christians in Iraq has dwindeld over the years

Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled Iraq's second-largest city Mosul, among them many Christians and members of other religious minorities like Yazidi and Shiite groups, Missio says. Bishops, priests and nuns fled to nearby Christian villages deemed safe. The churches in Mosul have all been closed. "We've received credible reports that ISIS terrorists are slaughtering people by the hundreds in Mosul, leaving their corpses out in the streets while homes are ransacked," Vogt says.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that Kurdish militia haven't allowed refugees to cross the border to the neighboring autonomous Kurdistan region for fear that terrorists might be among the throngs.

"Islamic terrorists have also reached Qaraqosh, a Christian town just a few kilometers east of Mosul, and they're threatening the residents," Vogt warns. The expert says convents there are surrounded while members of the order have been sending desperate emails calling for help.

"Even before the events these past weeks, Christians had a hard time in Iraq, in particular in the Arab, Shiite and Sunni parts of the country," says Kamal Sido, a Middle East expert with the Society for threatened Peoples (GfbV) in Göttingen. Kurdish-dominated North Iraq is the only exception, Sido adds.

Refugees in a truck

Residents of Mosul flee their city

Twofold persecution

The situation worsened considerably with the invasion of the Islamists from Syria, Sido says, and presumably the "last Christians have left Mosul by now," fled to the Nineveh Plain northeast of Mosul, about 30 kilometers from the city center. For centuries, the Mosul region has been a center of Christianity in Iraq, and since 2003, the area has been under the protection of Kurdish security forces aided by Christian militia. Many Iraqis have already taken refuge there. "Now the refugees that arrived from 2003 to 2007 are supporting the 2014 newcomers."

Thomas Schirrmacher, a leading expert on the persecution of Christians, warns of the danger of conflicts in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. The Kurdish region "offers Christians an ideal refuge because it is peaceful and more in accordance with the rule of law," the Bonn-based expert says. But the balance of power in the area is shifting as a result of the enormous number of refugees, he warns.

"The Kurds are very concerned that one day, they might be a minority in their own region," a situation that would give rise to enmity and discrimination, Schirrmacher told DW. "Christians would suffer a twofold persecution."

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