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25 July 2014

Kurdistan becomes safe haven for fleeing Christians

Kurdistan becomes safe haven for fleeing Christians

Kurdistan has declared itself a safe-haven for Christian refugees, as Islamic State (ISIS) militants extinguish the Christian presence in Iraq's second city, Mosul. According to news reports, every Christian has finally been driven out of the city.

Christians have been fleeing persecution in Mosul and Baghdad for Kurdistan for many years now

The Religious Liberty Commission of which Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Release International, Open Doors and the Evangelical Alliance is a part, is concerned about the situation in this volatile country.

The region's newly-appointed religious affairs minister, Kamal Muslim, gave this assurance: "Kurdistan will always be a safe-haven for those leaving their places of terror". He also affirmed that Christians would be free to practise their beliefs in Kurdistan.

ISIS militants have confiscated homes and stripped them of their remaining belongings as they tried to leave. They ordered Christians in Mosul to convert or pay protection tax and submit to Islamic rule.

According to Middle East Concern, an association of Christian-rights agencies with operations in the Middle East, vehicles passed through Mosul with loudspeakers, announcing that all Christians had until noon on Friday to leave the city "or else face execution." Earlier in the week, ISIS marked houses belonging to members of minority communities, including Christians, with the phrase 'property of the Islamic State'.

The Chaldean Archbishop of Iraq's fourth largest city Erbil, Bashar M Warda, told Release International: "Since the 2003 allied invasion of Iraq two-thirds of Christians have left the country. The attack on them has been immense. In the future I imagine Iraq becoming a country where you have many Christian sites, just for tourism –due to the families that are leaving".

"For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians,' Patriarch Louis Sako told the AFP news agency.

"The terror is palpable," says Release chief executive Paul Robinson, "and that fear is driving Christians and Muslims from their homes. Many Christians have been displaced by religious extremism more than once, and they have reached the end of the line. They just want to leave."

"All we have is war and killing and fighting," says Thiar, a Christian refugee. He fled from Baghdad when extremists killed 52 members of his church –including his nephew and three-year-old son. Over five hours, two terrorists gunned down members of the congregation of the Syriac Catholic Cathedral and detonated suicide vests filled with ball-bearings. Thiar says he desperately wants to leave the country and join the rest of his family in Germany.

Kurdish Government religious affairs spokesman Mariwan Naqshbandi told Release: "In 2003 we had around 2,000 families living in Ainkawa, now we have 6,000 families". Most of these are from Christian areas of Iraq.

"Kurdistan is the only country in the Middle East where you can see the numbers of Christians rising," he added. "We have no persecution of Christians and we don't have the terrorist groups here."

One fieldworker told Open Doors: "There are no Christians in Mosul anymore. The only thing we can pray for is that they might return one day." Open Doors partners in Iraq have responded rapidly as Christians flee Mosul. Raja, herself a refugee from the city, who is now helping in the refugee relief programme supported by Open Doors, told us, "Shortly after the occupation of Mosul, refugees started coming to our church. When it was time to distribute the relief packages, the families quickly gathered around us. It was overwhelming. I saw the desperate faces of the old men and the mothers that came to collect their food and I felt so sorry for them."

Kurdish government spokesmen offered two reasons for their open-handed policy towards Christians: They know what it is like to be persecuted, having been targeted by Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons. And although most are Sunni Muslim, they say they value their nationality –for which they have fought for many years –above their religious identity.

However, Christians in Kurdistan do face restrictions, and Muslim-background believers especially remain at risk. Christians make up just two per cent of the population of Kurdistan.