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Christian town in north Iraq offers refuge

Posted: Monday, March 07, 2011 at 06:51 PM CT

Bishop Georges Casmoussa (C) leads soldiers of a US company to Saint John's Church in Qara Qosh on February 17. For the hundreds of Christian families that have fled Iraq's big cities of Baghdad and Mosul in fear in recent months, this small town in the country's north offers them refuge and safe haven. (AFP/File/Prashant Rao)

QARA QOSH, Iraq (AFP) — For hundreds of terrified Christian families who fled attacks in Baghdad and Mosul in recent months, an ancient Christian town in Iraq's north has offered a safe haven from violence.

Qara Qosh, which lies east of Mosul in Nineveh province, took in hundreds of families after an October 31 massacre in a Baghdad church claimed by Al-Qaeda.

Forty-four worshippers and two priests were killed in the incident that terrorised the minority and drew condemnation from Iraq's top Muslim clergy.

While most families fled from the capital and Mosul, Iraq's two biggest cities, others arrived here from the ethnically mixed oil city of Kirkuk and even as far south as the Shiite Muslim majority port city of Basra, according to Bishop Georges Casmoussa, Qara Qosh's top Christian leader.

"These families, they suffered a trauma," the bishop told Major General David Perkins, commander of US forces in northern Iraq, on a recent visit here. The church has been the undisputed authority for years in this town of 35,000, close to the border of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.

"To be attacked inside your own church, it is traumatic," the bishop said.

"We come to the church to pray, to find peace. If you cannot find that in the church, where can you go?"

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 1,354 Iraqi Christian families have not returned to their homes since the Baghdad church attack.

Most fled to the Kurdish region, which is regarded as safer than the rest of the country, notably for the Christian minority. Turkey, just north of Kurdistan, has also seen an influx, with the UN refugee office there saying asylum applications from Iraqi Christians more than doubled in three months -- from 183 in October to 428 in December.

Aerial view of Qara Qosh. (AFP)

As of January 31, 158 families had moved to al-Hamdaniyah, the district for which Qara Qosh is the main town, according to IOM figures. This was down from the 361 families the IOM recorded in mid-December, but is still by far the highest in any single Iraqi district outside the Kurdish region.

"Many families have relatives or friends in the villages in the north of Iraq, so when the situation becomes a little difficult, they decide to go there," explained Father Saad Hanna of St. Joseph's Church in Baghdad, who taught philosophy and theology to both priests killed in the October 31 attack.

'Iraq is our country too' -- The population of Qara Qosh is 95 percent Syriac Catholic and most Iraqi priests in this Eastern rite come from the town. Security forces in the town are also largely recruited from local Christians, as is an armed militia, which reports to local police, that provides security for churches and church property.

"I know that Muslims have also been targeted in the violence," Bishop Casmoussa told Perkins as they stood inside one of Qara Qosh's churches, an 18th-century edifice dedicated to St. John. "But, for a minority community, to be always living in fear, it is much harder."

The number of Iraqi Christians has dwindled from an estimated 800,000 to 1.2 million prior to the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein to about 400,000 today. Most are in Baghdad, the Mosul area and parts of Kurdistan.

An IOM report last month stated that "despite increased security measures, an atmosphere of extreme insecurity persists among Christians remaining in Baghdad and many still intend to move or emigrate."

Some of the families in Qara Qosh, many from Mosul, were clearly reluctant to return home. Keegan de Lancie, an IOM official in Iraq, said around half of the displaced Christians there planned to settle in the community, some vowing never to return to Mosul.

Another 10 percent want to emigrate while others, De Lancie said, "are simply waiting to see how the situation changes before deciding on their next move."

To deal with the influx, Qara Qosh authorities have asked provincial officials to help by providing jobs and investment.

Bishop Casmoussa wants to see the local college upgraded to a university so that students who fled Mosul could complete their studies.

De Lancie noted that while most displaced Christians in Qara Qosh rent homes or stay with relatives, "many still go to Mosul for their jobs or education and return back to Qara Qosh at night."

As for what might persuade them to go back home, Casmoussa was firm: "They will return when they see signs of reassurance, when security is there day and night, when there are no armed attacks in the city. When all the killings, kidnappings and explosions stop."

The bishop did not hide his frustration with Iraq's political leaders. "When there is an attack against Christians, we hear many speeches but, when it comes time to passing laws, then it just stays the same.

"Iraq is our country too -- we want to stay here," he said.

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