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A New Genesis in Nineveh

Iraqi Christians find refuge in the Kurdish-controlled north

by Namo Abdulla

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“I saw injustice in Mosul. I want to start a new life here,” says Salam Talia, a 23-year-old Iraqi Christian. The young man sits on a sofa between his middle-aged parents in their newly built apartment in Hamdaniya, a historically Christian town about 20 miles southeast of the city of Mosul. On one of the living room walls hangs a large image of Jesus surrounded by photos of family members killed in the war and the sectarian violence that has ravaged the nation for the past eight years.

Despite the trauma they suffered in their native Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city and capital of the Nineveh Governorate, the Talia family considers itself fortunate and even expresses a measure of happiness with their new lives in Hamdaniya. They no longer fear practicing their faith and attend church regularly. They have made friends and are settling into their new home.

Hamdaniya lies in the Nineveh plains, a region east of the Tigris River. It takes its name from the Assyrian city mentioned in Genesis. The ruins of ancient Nineveh nestle on the river’s eastern bank directly across the water from Mosul. Still today, many residents of the Nineveh plains are Assyrian Christians.

The Nineveh plains are among several disputed territories in northern Iraq. Iraqi Christians increasingly view the area as the future homeland for the country’s Christian community, and many now demand it become a semiautonomous region.

Iraqi authorities also claim other territories in the north, particularly parts of the oil-rich Kirkurk Governorate, currently controlled by Kurdish authorities in the adjacent autonomous region of Kurdistan.

At the end of the first Gulf War, Allies established a no-fly zone in the Iraqi region of Kurdistan to protect the country’s Kurds, who had been persecuted by Saddam Hussein. Though the majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslim, they are not Arab but a distinct ethnic group of Indo-European origin and speak an Iranic language.

In Hamdaniya, the Kurdish flag flying over the main gate and the pro-Kurdish graffiti on the outer walls indicate that for now at least Kurdish authorities control the town.

Local security forces prefer to collaborate with the better armed Kurds rather than allow for the region’s many violent extremists to infiltrate Hamdaniya and terrorize its inhabitants. They operate more than a dozen checkpoints and have erected blast walls and deploy around-the-clock armed guards outside the town’s government offices, social service institutions as well as churches and other places of worship.

“If there is a foreigner in town, everybody knows right away. Residents usually report the person,” says Bhnan Abo, president of the town’s refugee affairs committee.

More than 95 percent of Hamdaniya’s 45,000 residents are Christian. This includes some 15,000 displaced Iraqis.

Many of these displaced families have fled from predominantly Arab Sunni Muslim areas of the Nineveh Governorate. In the last decade, the governorate has become a stronghold for Al Qaeda-affiliated militant groups. These extremists have consistently targeted the region’s Christian minority, whom they view as infidels and collaborators with the West. Killings, death threats, kidnappings and attacks on churches, Christian institutions and homes are rampant.

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Tags: Iraq Violence against Christians Iraqi Christians Sunni Assyrian Church