Iraq's Christians under attack again as elections approach

The Christian Science MonitorMarch 2, 2010 

IRBIL, Iraq — In the living room of a cousin's house, Vivian al Dahan and her brothers poured out the details of how their father was kidnapped and killed a week ago in Mosul. Their mother kept trying not to cry.

Adnan Hannah al Dahan was the first of at least eight Iraqi Christians who've been killed in the northern Iraqi city in the past two weeks. The murders have led to an exodus of one of the troubled city's oldest minorities and to fears that the attacks will prevent Christians from voting in Sunday's Iraqi elections.

Iraq's Christian community is one of the world's oldest, but since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, church bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations have scattered the community. Last year, Human Rights Watch estimated that two-thirds of Iraq's Christians have fled their homes since the war began.

The abduction that ended in Dahan's death was the second time he'd been kidnapped. Two years ago, he was abducted from his corner shop, beaten with a rifle and stuffed in the trunk of a car. He was kept wrapped in chains under a stairwell until the family borrowed enough money from neighbors to pay a $5,000 ransom.

"They said, 'You are Christian — you have to pay a tax,' " said Vivian.

The family didn't go to the police because they said the kidnappers would have blown up their house.

This time, there was no ransom note and no contact with the men who took Dahan. A week after he was abducted, his beaten and scarred body was dumped in the street near their house. Police took his eldest son Raif to the morgue to identify him.

Dahan, who'd lost the use of his hand after we was wounded in the Iran-Iraq war, had been whipped and his shoulder was dislocated before he was shot in the mouth.

"We haven't done anything wrong. Have we done anything wrong? My father wasn't a policeman or a politician," said Vivien. "He was a peaceful man — he loved people, and people loved him."

Mosul is built on the site of the biblical Ninevah, the burial place of the prophet Jonah and home to some of the earliest Christians, and the Dahans said they didn't leave Mosul after the first kidnapping because their father was too attached to the city to move.

"He said, 'If all of us Christians leave, who is going to stay in the land of the prophets and pray in our churches?' " said his widow, Warda. "He said, 'We were all born in Mosul, and we will die in Mosul.' "

The Dahan's shop was in a corner of their house on a main road in the Baladiyat district of Mosul. It's riddled with bullet holes from years of gun battles between insurgents and Iraqi and American forces, and when they couldn't afford to keep replacing the shattered glass, they just covered the windows with plastic wrap, said Vivien.

"Our house was a battlefield," said Warda, huddled on a corner of the sofa and dressed in a black suit.

"We would lie on the floor and we wouldn't know where the bullets were coming from," said Vivien. "More than once, we thought we were dead."

Security has improved in Mosul over the past year, but the latest killings and death threats, delivered in text messages, have prompted hundreds of families like the Dahans to leave. Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, less than an hour's drive away, has become a haven for thousands of Christians fleeing the violence in Mosul.

Under Saddam Hussein, Kurds were expelled from their homes in Kirkuk and Mosul to the Kurdish territories. Kurdish peshmerga checkpoints on the informal boundary marking Kurdish territory now keep a tight rein on who enters the region.

When the Kurdish soldiers saw the framed photograph of Vivien's father with a black ribbon around it, however, they offered their condolences and waved the Dahans through, Vivien said.

The Dahan family is a dramatic example of the steady exodus of Christians from their homes in northern Iraq, where Christians coexisted for centuries with their Muslim neighbors.

Warda's father was a priest who was wounded when a missile landed on his church in Mosul during the Iran-Iraq war. He and her mother and brothers and sisters were given asylum in Sweden, where her father later died. She hasn't seen her family since then.

Warda's eldest daughter Revan fled to Sweden two years ago after her husband was kidnapped and his shop was blown up in Baghdad. He was later released and joined her in Sweden, which now has 100,000 Iraqi refugees.

Vivien is convinced that her brothers would be killed if they returned to Mosul. They'd like to join their relatives in Sweden, but as is the case with all countries, applications for asylum have to be made outside Iraq, and the family has no money to leave. The recently opened Swedish consulate in Irbil issues visas only for business delegations.

"You see those refugees wandering the earth — we've become like that in our own country," said Vivien, who was married a month before her father was killed.

In an address Sunday from St. Peter's Square in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI called on Iraqi authorities to keep vulnerable religious minorities safe. The chief United Nations representative in Iraq has also expressed concern about the targeted killing of Christians in the run-up to Sunday's parliamentary elections.

The killings as the elections approach have raised concerns that Christians will be too afraid to go to the polls. The murders are widely considered an attempt not only to eradicate the Christian community but also to tilt the balance of power in Mosul, where Kurdish and Arab political forces are battling for control.

The estimated 750,000 Christians who've left or been forced out of their communities since 2003 have left behind businesses and homes that in many cases remain empty.

"The struggles aren't just about faith — this is a struggle for political power and control of land and resources," said Anne Ward, a humanitarian worker with the Chaledean Catholic community in Irbil.

Arraf is a Christian Science Monitor staff correspondent.

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