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A helping hand to besieged Iraqi Christians

Posted: October 25, 2011 - 12:01am  |  Updated: October 25, 2011 - 12:04am

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is offering to provide homes to poor Christian families uprooted by nearly a decade of sectarian violence. But some are questioning the motives behind the humanitarian gesture.

Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iraqi Christians have often been the target of violence by Islamist extremists. More than 200,000 have fled the country.

Those who remain live in constant danger of attack, such as the al-Qaida-led attack on a church in central Baghdad that left 60 dead.

Recently, the Kurdish party announced that it was offering 200 plots of land in a gated compound in Se Ganian, a village about six miles north of Kirkuk, and $10,000 per family to encourage low-income Christian families to settle there.

So far, 40 families from across Iraq have taken up the PUK offer and moved into the village, with more expected to follow suit.

Observers say the Kurdish party is driven by two separate motives.

“This initiative is humanitarian, but also a political move to get more votes for the party’s next campaign in Kirkuk,” said Mohammad Ameen, a political analyst and a professor at Kirkuk University.

The campaign involved a long-delayed referendum that will decide whether the oil-rich Kirkuk region joins the Kurdistan region or remains in Iraq. Billions of dollars in oil revenue are at stake.

Ghafoor Salih Sameen, a party official in Kirkuk, denied that the current move was an attempt to curry votes among Christians in the upcoming referendum, and argued that Kurds have a long history of aiding the Christian community.

“We are working hard to serve Kirkuk residents in general and the Christians in particular, as they are an important part of the identity of Kirkuk,” said Dilshad Beirut, chief of the projects committee on the Kirkuk provincial council. “We will do our best to stop their exodus by providing all necessary services.” Sleewa, 38, who lost his brother two years ago when Islamic extremists kidnapped and killed him, has moved his family to Se Ganian.

“I decided to live (there) even though it is far from downtown Kirkuk where I work,” he said. “But it is better than living where we are exposed to risk at any time.” There are currently 200,000 Chaldean Christians in Iraq, three times fewer than before Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003.

There are currently six church-funded projects running in Kirkuk and neighboring villages to support the Christian community. They include rehabilitating old churches and building entertainment clubs and youth centers.

In another attempt build social cohesion in the region, the provincial authority of Kirkuk launched a dialogue initiative between Muslims and Christians. As part of the program, imams and preachers at Friday and Sunday sermons speak out against religious intolerance and encourage unity.

Abdulla Hadi, imam at the Al-Khulafaa mosque in Kirkuk, said, “Dialogue enables different religions to accept each other. They can find something in common by talking openly to each other and encouraging tolerance through weekly sermons.” Ziyad Butrus, 26, a Christian civil servant from Kirkuk, said he supported the idea of safe and secure Christian neighborhoods, but worried that establishing gated Christian communities would lead to ethnic segregation.

“I don’t like separation from Muslims,” he said. “We should all be made to feel equal and share in our rebuilding of Iraq.” Unlike relatives who left the country after being threatened — with some even kidnapped and ransomed — Butrus said he was determined not to move abroad.

“I will struggle to stay in Iraq. I belong here, and can’t live anywhere else,” he said.

• Samad is a reporter in Iraq who writes for IWPR, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict.

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