What's Behind the Attacks on Christians in Mosul?

By Lennox Samuels

In recent days, attacks against Christians in Mosul have forced thousands of the faithful to flee the northern Iraqi city, in an episode that has been condemned by everyone from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to Coalition authorities to Pope Benedict XVI. But there’s little agreement about exactly what’s going on or what’s been driving the violence. Depending on who you talk to, the killings constitute a wave of terrorism designed to run off members of the religion, a last-gasp campaign by Al Qaeda in Iraq, or overstatement by Iraqi media.

To begin with, the number of fatalities is hard to pin down. Some Christian leaders say at least 20 people have been killed. U.S. and Iraqi officials say that’s inflated. “We have confirmed eight Christian killings since the end of September,” including one where the suspect also was Christian, says Major Gen. Mark Hertling, U.S. military commander in northern Iraq. Christian-community leaders who met recently in Mosul with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Rafi Hiyad al-Issawi, Nineweh governor Duraid Kashmula and other officials to demand redress, put the number at 12. “They were mostly killed after someone asked them for their identification and then learned they were Christian,” Emanuel Khoshaba Youkhana, deputy secretary-general of the Assyrian Patriotic Party, tells NEWSWEEK.

Whatever the real number of Christians who have died in recent attacks, there’s no question that thousands of them have fled Mosul. United Nations estimates indicate at least 12,000 have been displaced. The Assyrian Patriotic Party says 2,351 families have left Mosul for Iraqi cities like Kirkuk, Erbil and Dohuk as well as Lebanon and Syria, where several hundred are living in refugee camps. The displacement follows a ratcheting up of threats against Christians, whose presence in Iraq dates to the 1st century A.D. The Christians, mostly of the Chaldean or Eastern Rite tradition, have for the most part lived quietly among Muslims in the country, with intermittent periods of persecution. Now they are afraid to remain in Mosul, spooked by the killings, threats and rumors of religious cleansing. It is not certain who is behind the current attacks. As Iraq slid into war and insurgency after 2003, some Islamists targeted Christians, branding them infidels and allies of America. Christians received threats from extremist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq even before the latest violence erupted in late September. The group is synonymous with Al Qaeda in Iraq, which has retreated to Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, as U.S. and Iraqi forces drove the network from the rest of the country. Maj. Gen. Hertling says some seized documents show insurgents lauding the attacks as a success “because it was causing confusion among the people of Mosul.” The moves against Christians come as tensions in Mosul are rising again, with the Maliki government trying to reduce the influence of the Kurds and Sunni tribal leaders vowing to fight to keep the city in Arab hands.

Iraqi military brass insist the city is safer than reports suggest and claim that the attacks are less about going after a religious denomination and more about keeping the city off-balance by stirring fear and division among its residents. “Mosul has become totally secure but the truth is not being delivered,” says Lt. Gen. Riyadh Jalal Tawfiq, Iraqi military commander in Nineveh governorate, who likes to admonish the press to write less divisive stories. “In Anbar [province] you had good Sunnis [in the Awakening] fighting against bad Sunnis. Here you have bad Sunnis who are trying to drive a wedge between every group of people.” He says a special committee is investigating the attacks.

The central government in Baghdad is exhorting Christians who fled to return to their homes. At his meeting in Mosul, Deputy Prime Minister Issawi called the attacks “terrorists acts” and pledged to compensate Christians for their losses. Flush with cash, Baghdad is offering about $900 to every family that comes back. At the same meeting, the Christians delivered additional demands, including better security, greater development at the government’s expense and that the 12 slain Christians be treated “just like any other Iraqi martyrs.” Riyadh offers to take anyone on a tour of the city to show how secure it is, but both he and Hertling concede that conditions are unlikely to truly change unless the city’s infrastructure and severe unemployment problems are addressed. Emanuel, the Assyrian politician, says some families have returned but “given the lack of trust, I don’t think most will.” With suspicion so deep, it will take more than money and promises to woo back the city’s Christian minority.