Accessibility links

Iraqi Christians Say They Have Been Forced To Flee Mosul

A security guard stands in front of the Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad's district of Karrada.

A security guard stands in front of the Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad's district of Karrada.

MOSUL (Reuters) -- Iraqi Christians fleeing attacks in the northern city of Mosul have pleaded for protection from what they described as a systematic plan to drive them out of the area.

Kana'an Bahnam, a 58-year-old Christian, fled ethnically mixed Mosul with his family in the middle of the night, in disguise and with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

"There are secret hands trying to promote division and strife between Muslims and Christians," he said.

Jawdat Ismail, a top official with the Displacement and Migration Ministry in Mosul, said that 1,307 Christian families had left their homes in the city, 390 kilometers north of Baghdad, for towns and villages nearby.

"It's a systematic, planned scheme that aims to empty Mosul of all Christians," said Yusif Gorgees, a Christian who has been helping others reach Qaraqush, a nearby Christian town.

Officials say between five and 14 Christians have been killed in Mosul in recent days, a trend that has worried the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite Muslim. Houses have been blown up and shopkeepers have been shot.

Investigation Ordered

Al-Maliki has ordered an investigation and vowed to protect Christians in Mosul, long known as one of Iraq's most tolerant cities and home to an ethnic mix of Arabs, Kurds, and Turkomans, including Muslims, Christians, and other small minority sects.

It remains unclear who is behind the violence, but at least some Iraqi Christians see an official hand in the attacks.

Sabah Yaqu, a government health worker, escaped to the nearby town of Al-Hamdaniyah, where he and his family have squeezed into his brother's home.

"Assassinations of Christians are politically motivated," he said. Yaqu pointed a finger at Mosul's Kurds, who he said were hoping to gain greater power in provincial elections expected to take place early next year.

Iraqi police have made at least a dozen arrests and have deployed more than 1,000 police to protect Christian areas.

Brigadier General Kahlid Abd al-Sattar, spokesman for Iraqi military operations in Nineveh Governorate, said the attacks were "part of terrorist schemes against different religious groups."

While violence has dropped sharply across Iraq, greater bloodshed continues in Mosul, which is seen as the last urban stronghold of Sunni Islamist Al-Qaeda militants.

Some Christians are demanding the government do more to protect them.

Naem Ablahd, who has taken refuge in a warehouse in Qaraqush, said that killings in broad daylight "prove the weakness of the local government and security forces."

"At a time when Christian blood is being spilled, we don't get anything but false promises from the security forces," Ablahd said.

Iraq's Christian minority, believed to number in the hundreds of thousands and concentrated mainly in Mosul and Baghdad, has tried to keep a low profile during years of sectarian fighting between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims.

But they have occasionally come under attack, with churches targeted by bombers and priests held for ransom by kidnappers.