Last February, Janet's family decided to move to Arbil, in the relatively safe Kurdistan region in the north. "After what happened, I was afraid that someone will come in and do something bad to my daughters," Janet, 55, told IPS in her two-room house in Arbil's Christian district Ainkawa.
Christians, who have lived in peace with their Muslim neighbors for years are today badly hit by the rising tide of religious extremism.
In his meeting with Bush in the Vatican last week, the Pope expressed concern that "the society that is evolving (in Iraq) would not tolerate the Christian religion."
That is already happening. Hundreds of Christians have been killed, their churches bombed and a ferocious campaign is under way to intimidate them, particularly in the insecure parts of the country.
Iraq's Christians are divided into a number of sects like the Chaldeans, who form the majority, Assyrians, who are descendants of the ancient Assyrian empire, Armenians and Syriacs.
During Saddam Hussein's reign, Christians lived in a largely secular atmosphere and were protected from extremism. But many did face discrimination and attempts to get them to conform to Arab cultural ways.
A small minority, many Christians have either left the volatile parts of the country for safer areas, or moved outside Iraq.
The Kurdish region is now home to thousands of Christian families who have escaped violence in cities like Baghdad and the northern city Mosul. The recent killing of several Christian clergymen in Mosul could push many others to leave.
About 2,800 Christian families have moved to Arbil, and another 1,550 to Zakho on the Iraqi-Turkish border, according to the Hizel Cultural Center, a Christian group that offers aid to displaced families.
Life in the north is safer but not easy. The huge influx of tens of thousands of refugees has led to a sharp increase in rents and prices. Inflation is rising and job opportunities are decreasing. Janet's family pays 600 dollars a month for their two-room house.
Father Sabri al-Maqdasi, a priest in Ainkawa's largest church Saint Joseph believes that given the continuous flow of refugees, accommodation will be extremely hard to find. The group Hadyab Financial Aid for Refugees offers $100 a month to each Christian family coming to Arbil, but that money does not go far.
With attacks and pressure rising, there are attempts by some leaders to create a Christian zone in the historically Christian populated areas of Nineveh and Dohuk provinces in the north.
But there is no agreement on this. Some are asking for an autonomous territory within Kurdistan region where Christians will have their own regional government and parliament. Others demand a self-rule arrangement where Christians control the local administration and police force in the areas they constitute the majority.
Father al-Maqdasi says a separated homeland will isolate Christians from the rest of Iraq and would "destroy our mission of building bridges and relations with other religions." Instead, he encourages a plan for Christians to have self-rule in effect as in Ainkawa in Arbil, where the local administration is run by Christians.
The wounds caused by the ongoing violence against Christians are not going to be healed easily. The suffering has given rise to a sense of alienation and detachment among many.
"The only dream we now have is to leave Iraq," Janet told IPS. "We don't feel that we belong to this country any more."
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Albion Monitor June
12, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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