Human rights groups have called on the Iraqi government to do more to protect the country’s Christian minority from an expected increase in violent attacks as they prepare to celebrate Christmas.
“Attacks on Christians and their churches by armed groups have intensified in past weeks and have clearly included war crimes” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“We fear that militants are likely to attempt serious attacks against Christians during the Christmas period for maximum publicity and to embarrass the government,” he added.
Last year armed groups carried out fatal bomb attacks on churches in Mosul on 15 and 23 December. Some 65 attacks on Christian churches in Iraq were recorded between mid-2004 and the end of 2009.
The increase in violence against Christians in the last month takes place against a backdrop of sectarian violence in Iraq, including several bomb attacks on Shi’a gatherings last week during the Ashura period, which have reportedly killed more than a dozen people.
“We utterly condemn the ongoing attacks against Iraqi civilians carried out by armed groups, and call on the Iraqi government to provide more protection, especially for vulnerable religious and ethnic communities” said Mr Smart.
Attacks have increased since around 100 worshippers were taken hostage in a Baghdad Assyrian Catholic church by an armed group on 31 October, with more than 40 people killed as Iraqi security forces tried to free the hostages. The Islamic State of Iraq, an armed group linked to al-Qa’ida, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Following the hostage crisis, Christian families in Baghdad have been subjected to increasing bomb and rocket attacks on their homes, as well as systematic threats in the mail or by text message.
Christians in Mosul have also been increasingly targeted for assassination by gunmen, with reports in Iraqi media of at least five killed by armed men in November. Reports of killings and abductions of Christians in Mosul have continued in December. Dozens of Christian families have fled Baghdad, Mosul and Basra and have sought refuge in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
In May 2010, a bus-load of Christian students were targeted in a bomb attack as they travelled from a predominantly Christian area in Mosul to Mosul University. A Christian from Mosul who must remain anonymous for security reasons has told Amnesty International: “Many students who were in those buses in May have not gone back to university.”
“The security situation in Mosul is very bad… 90 per cent of the Christian students have dropped university - they are all very afraid of something happening to them. …When I leave the house I am always under alert…”
These comments are consistent with a summary of testimonies from Iraqi Christians who have recently fled to Syria, released by a Christian organisation called the Church Committee for Iraqi Refugees in al-Hassake.
The summary, released by the Barnabas Fund, another Christian NGO, says that Iraqi Christians in threatened cities like Mosul “are living behind locked doors. They are compelled to take long leaves of absence from work, in Mosul and other cities, as a result of the dangers they face at work. The universities are almost empty of Christian students, as are the schools.”
The summary tells of regular threats against Christian families in Mosul and other cities, including a dead bird being nailed to the door in warning, extortion, and offensive graffiti on houses.
Tenants renting the homes of Christians who have fled Iraq are allegedly being forced to hand over the rent payments to armed groups who consider themselves the new owners, according to the summary. When Christian families have sold their houses to leave Iraq, armed groups have also allegedly threatened the new owners for taking ‘their’ property.
According to media reports, as Christmas approaches the Iraqi authorities have started constructing concrete walls to protect Mosul and Baghdad churches from security threats, and are introducing stringent security checks at their entrances. Religious services have been scaled back due to fear of attacks.
“Building walls around churches is a sign that the government has failed to provide real security” said Amnesty's Malcolm Smart.
The wave of attacks on Mosul Christians since the 2003 invasion of Iraq has greatly reduced the community’s population which then stood at over 100,000.
Iraqi politicians have taken since elections in May to form a government, creating a climate of uncertainty and a power vacuum for months, which has been exploited by armed groups.
“Now that Iraq is finally forming a government, that new government’s effectiveness will be measured by whether it achieves an actual reduction in sectarian attacks by armed groups, and helps stem the flood of Christians fleeing Iraq to escape the violence” said Malcolm Smart.