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Iraqi Christians Flee Fighting


Caught up in the sectarian attacks claiming dozens of Iraqi lives each day is the country's small Christian community. The Dora neighborhood of Baghdad has traditionally been home to many Iraqi Christians, but many have fled to the calm of the northern city of Ainkawa, where they are trying to resume their lives.

Hundreds of years ago, Christian missionaries brought their faith to parts of what is modern-day northern Iraq. A small community of mostly Chaldean Catholics and Assyrians has grown in cities across the north, as well as in the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad and to the south in the port city of Basra.

Today, Iraqi Christians account for between two and three percent of the country's nearly 27 million people.

As sectarian violence grows between Shi'ites and Sunni Arabs, the Christian community has stayed out of the conflict. But many Christians have become victims of the violence, some caught in random acts of terror, others targeted because they are not Muslim.

Many have fled the capital for the Christian town of Ainkawa, near the city of Irbil, in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

Youssef owned a restaurant in Baghdad's Dora district. Forced to flee the violence, he now works as a security guard at a church in Ainkawa. "I left my restaurant and brought my sons here because the terrorists kill everyone: the barber, the baker, the supermarket owner. They just kill indiscriminately," he said.

Firas also lived in the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad. He left two months ago and says very few of his neighbors are still there. He says he left because he feared for his life. "If you are in a Shi'ite neighborhood and they see your identity is Christian, okay, you will at least suffer or they will kill you, easily. Same in Sunni places," said Firas.

Sometimes, those who have fled have experienced the worst horrors. A businessman we will call Fouad, to protect him and his family, was kidnapped in Baghdad. He is reluctant to recall his ordeal. "I do not want to remember it. Leave it," he said. "What is the use of this story? Every day hundreds are kidnapped in Baghdad."

But after some prompting, he told VOA that gunmen abducted him and held him for five days. He does not know where they took him, as they covered his head with a hood the entire time.

He says the first two days he was sure they would kill him. In the end, his family paid the kidnappers $170,000 for his safe return.

But Father Tariq from Saint George Church in Ainkawa says it is not just Baghdad Christians who are fleeing the violence. He says families came from Basra, Mosul and Kirkuk, as well as Baghdad. Altogether, about 700 families have come to the area.

Sally is a Christian from Kirkuk. She left the city about a year ago and came to Ainkawa. She says the situation in Kirkuk is very bad: there are bombs, explosions and kidnappings.

Randa is also from Kirkuk. She used to work at a church there, but fled two months ago. She says car bombers attacked three churches in the same day. "It was horrible, and we were afraid, so I left my job and my home," she said.

Many who have fled say they hope they will be able to return to their homes in a year or two. But others say they will stay in their Christian enclave in the north.

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