Christians flee genocide as fear sweeps Iraq
By Jack Fairweather
One of the most ancient monasteries in the world, St Matthew's, stands on a barren mountainside in northern Iraq, its last inhabitant a crusty old Syrian Orthodox priest. Nestled between sandstone crags with views of the hills around ancient Nineveh, now called Mosul, it looks like the final redoubt of the Christian world.
Seven thousand monks used to worship here; now there is just one, Father Ada Qadr al-Kars.
This thinning of the ranks has taken centuries, he said, but in the valleys Iraq's Christian community, targeted with especial ferocity by Islamic extremists for the past year, is disappearing rapidly.
Churches have been bombed, priests kidnapped and Christian neighbourhoods subjected to random shootings, the terrorists' revenge for the community's shared religion with the "Christian" invaders.
According to Church leaders, some 300,000 Christians - roughly a quarter of the population - have fled their homes since the US-led invasion.
It is too early to speak of a humanitarian crisis, with many from the community, one of Iraq's more affluent, able to leave the country in civilised fashion or find shelter in the Kurdish-controlled north. But in the minds of Church leaders there is little doubt as to the nature of the exodus.
"It's genocide. You can see it with your own eyes," said Bishop Putres Harbori, head of the Christian community in Dohuk, near the Turkish border, where 350 families have found sanctuary.
Many fear that Iraq's ancient Christian community is leaving for ever, some nostalgic for better times under Saddam Hussein. Life was good when the Ba'athists were in charge, said Paula Sliwa, 71, one of 60,000 Christians to flee Mosul in recent months.
He belongs to the Assyrian Church, one of several sects in the city tracing their history to Job preaching to the ungodly. He, his wife and five children used to live with 100 other families near the Shaleeka Cunta church on the western bank of the Euphrates.
Iraq's small Christian community has a history of collaboration with the powers-that-be in Baghdad, first with the British in the 1920s, then with Saddam's regime, which boasted the Christian Tariq Aziz as one of its most powerful leaders. Christians often worked in the luxury business, selling alcohol and running beauty parlours.
"I have a large house and two cars," said Mr Sliwa, formerly a well paid government official. "We never had any trouble." But the Christian community in Mosul has been shaken by a wave of vicious attacks, including five car bombs detonated outside churches, killing more than 20, in one month.
Anti-Christian graffiti was daubed on church walls and inflammatory CDs sold in the market. Regular gun attacks began in Christian areas of the city, with several priests kidnapped and told that, as Christians, they were on the side of the American invaders.
"We were used to living in hell," said Mr Sliwa. Then a neighbour told him that his two sons had been killed by the latest attack. "My son's car was 300 metres away. They were slumped in their seats, covered in blood," he said. "The terrorists had shot at any car in the neighbourhood, knowing they would kill Christians."
Mr Sliwa and the rest of his family fled to Angkawr, one of a number of Christian communities in the Kurdish-protected north. That evening his house in Mosul was broken into and ransacked.
Stories like his are common in Angkawr, where 150 families shelter from the oppression and fear that forced them to flee homes in Mosul, Baghdad and Basra.
They say a new breed of al-Qa'eda-inspired terrorists, rather than the former Ba'athists, are behind the attacks. Iraqi police are powerless to protect the community, say families, and US forces rarely intervene, not wanting to be seen to be siding with Christians and thereby exposing the troops to more violence.
For their part, Christian leaders in Iraq oscillate between calling the attacks "ethnic cleansing" and stressing that Christians are suffering along with others in Iraq.
Angkawr, a town of 35,000 people, is defended by guards and concrete barriers. Residents, along with the refugees, want to leave the country as fast as possible, with Syria, Jordan, Europe and America the popular destinations.
Saed Alexis, a local business leader, said: "There is not a person who wouldn't leave Iraq if they could. In five years there will be no one left."