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Iraqi Christians Flee Campaign Of Violence In North

Officials say security has been increased at churches and other Christian sites.
Officials say security has been increased at churches and other Christian sites.
A small house in the northern Iraqi town of Al-Hamdaniyah is crowded with more than a half-dozen families who recently fled their homes in fear for their lives.

The families are Iraqi Christians from an ethnically and religiously mixed part of the nearby city of Mosul, nearly 400 kilometers north of Baghdad.

Like thousands of other Christians from Mosul, the families say they are being targeted in a systematic campaign of cleansing. The violence has transformed Al-Hamdaniyah and other predominantly Christian areas near Mosul into magnets for Iraqi Christians from ethnically or religiously mixed neighborhoods.

Jawdat Ismail, a top official with the Displacement and Migration Ministry in Mosul, says a total of 1,307 Christian families have fled their homes in Mosul.

One woman at the house in Al-Hamdaniyah, who does not want to be identified by name, says her family left Mosul because they had seen too many other Christians killed or their homes bombed.

"There are seven to eight families from Mosul here [in this house]. We came here after a regrettable attack -- the killing of a father and his son in the Al-Sediq area," she says.

"What did we do? What is the government's stance in regard to these incidents?" she asks. "There has been a month of killing of Christians and bombing of their houses. What did those families do? They became homeless with no food, no drink, no clothes, no supplies, and no money. What did we do? Where shall we go? We want to return to our homes."

At the same house, a man from another family says he never expected to see security deteriorate so much in Mosul. That's because the city has, for centuries, been a place where Iraq's ethnic and religious cultures lived in harmony -- an Arab majority as well as thousands of Kurds, Assyrians, and Turkomans.

"When we left Mosul, in fact, we were surprised with what happened. Our Muslim brothers had phoned us and told us [to stay.] They said we would be under their protection. They said that it was hard to see us leave. But this is what happened," he says.

"Someone was killed. Another was made to leave and we were afraid of what we heard. So we fled. We stayed in places that I cannot describe. See those people who are staying here? Every family took a room regardless of whether it was a kitchen, a bathroom, or a bedroom," the man says. "We left Mosul with just the clothes on our backs. We did not take anything with us."

Calling For Help

Iraqi authorities have yet to publicly announce who they think is responsible for the campaign of violence, although Al-Qaeda fighters are suspected by some.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad blames terrorist groups for the attacks -- saying the violence shows that their enemy is the civilian population of Iraq.

U.S. officials say the militants want to create divisions among Iraqi communities and undermine the progress Iraq has made so far in building an inclusive, democratic, and prosperous society.

Pope Benedict XVI this week condemned the recent bloodshed, while the United Nations voiced its concern over the fate of Christians in Mosul.

Yousif Gorgees, a Christian who has been helping Mosul residents reach the nearby Christian town of Qaraqush, describes the violence as a "systematic, planned scheme" that aims to empty Mosul of all its Christian population.

One of the Christian community's leaders in Mosul is Louis Sako, a Chaldean archbishop who recently appealed to Christians around the world not to leave Iraq's Christians isolated or abandoned.

Sako says there has been a "terminal exodus" of Iraqi Christians from Mosul. He says they are fleeing what he describes as "ethnic-religious cleansing" carried out by fundamentalist groups.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq, Archbishop Sako says he also suspects militant Islamists are carrying out the attacks in a bid to fuel religious hatred and divisions in the region.

"Attacks and incidents of kidnapping and killing occurred for money, or may be done by closed-minded extremists," Sako says. "But it sounds like there is something designed to create a rift between Christians and Muslims, in order to have resonance in the neighboring countries, or to defame Islam, or due to unknown particular agendas as well."

Security Concerns Continue

U.S. forces also have been working with Iraqi security forces to respond to the changing tactics of insurgent groups. Their goal is to improve security for all citizens of Nineveh Governorate, of which Mosul is the capital.

Overall, violence in Iraq has dropped to a four-year low. The trend is attributed to a surge in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, as well as the decision by former Sunni insurgents to join local policing efforts, and a cease-fire by the Shi'ite militia loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

But Iraq is still suffering from an extraordinarily high rate of internal displacement as people continue moving houses or changing cities to escape violence. Altogether, at least 4 million Iraqis are thought to have fled the country or moved to different parts of Iraq in recent years.

The drop in overall violence hasn't eased the concerns of Christians in the north who have been increasingly targeted -- even as the Shi'ite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki continues to struggle to foster cooperation among politicians and build trust among warring ethnic and religious groups.

As part of that effort, an Iraqi government envoy and the commander of a military operations center in Nineveh have met local leaders in Mosul's Christian neighborhoods to discuss their safety concerns.

Prime Minister al-Maliki also has pledged to take all steps necessary to defend the threatened community, and the government this week announced it was dispatching security forces to the city to protect the Christian population.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq correspondent Kefah Abbas contributed to this story