Iraq: Uncertainty over who is behind attacks on Christians

BAGHDAD, 20 October 2008 (IRIN) - Iraqi officials, leaders of the Christian community and ordinary Christians are divided over who is behind the latest attacks on the country's Christian minority.

All are agreed, however, on the need to address the unprecedented violence in the northern province of Ninevah which has seen numerous attacks on Christians since early October.

"Christians, like other Iraqi communities... have been subjected to killings and displacement since 2003, but in the past few weeks anti-Christian violence has increased and taken a new turn," said Hisham al-Hamdani, head of the provincial council of Ninevah Province.

"There must be urgent solutions to stop these attacks. This will be achieved only by deploying more security forces to ensure security in all areas, especially where Christians are dominant," al-Hamdani said.

He blamed "saboteurs and 'Takfiris' [Sunni extremists] from the terrorist group of al-Qaida in Iraq who are trying to impose a perverse interpretation of Islam by killing non-Muslims, or converting them to Islam".

However, a priest who spoke on condition of anonymity as he is not authorised to comment on the issue, said: "We have been targeted since 2003 by extremists but I can't explain the latest events which I believe are politically-motivated."

Parliament recently abolished the quota system in future local council elections in six of Iraq's 18 provinces, meaning that these local bodies will not be able to have specially reserved seats for ethnic and religious minorities. The reason for the decision was the lack of census data on the numbers of Christians, Yazidis and followers of other religions in specific areas.

Christian leaders have since then been lobbying parliament to pass a new law setting aside a number of seats for minorities, including Christians, fearing they could be further marginalised. Demonstrations and protests have been staged in cities where these minorities live.

"They want to weaken us and then exclude us from political life," the priest said, without identifying who might want to marginalise them.

Attempt to alter demography?

Osama al-Nujaifi, a secular Sunni lawmaker from Ninevah, said Iraq's Kurdish militias have been trying to change the demography of the province to increase the number of Kurds in parliament. Kurds have denied such allegations.

Hana Yousif Kaziar, a 54-year-old Christian from Ninevah Province, said: "I honestly have no explanation as to why we are being targeted like this... I don't believe we are posing any danger to any of Iraq's other citizens."

"I can only blame the government for not providing adequate security," he said. "All these past years I have been persuading myself that things would one day get better, but I think I have been dreaming. I am seriously thinking of leaving the country."

Anti-Christian violence in Mosul, the provincial capital of Ninevah and some 400km north of Baghdad, erupted on 4 October when gunmen started assassinating Christians and threatening others, telling them to leave the city.

As of 18 October, Jawdat Ismaiel, provincial director at the Ministry of Displacement and Migration's office in Mosul, put the number of displaced Christian families at 1,840 (about 11,000 individuals).

Police have estimated that 12 Christians have died in the violence. The latest incident was on 13 October when gunmen broke into a music store in Mosul killing its Christian owner and injuring his nephew.