In 2007 militants kidnapped Mazen Ishoa, an Assyrian Catholic priest living in Mosul, along with another priest as the pair made their way home from a funeral. Pope Benedict made an appeal for their safety, and the two were later released.
On Feb. 23 gunmen again upended Ishoa's life, entering the home where he lived with his parents, and killing Ishoa's two brothers and his father. Ishoa's own whereabouts were not disclosed after the shooting. An Iraqi in Mosul, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, said the family had chosen to remain in Mosul despite threats from Islamic militants, which have driven thousands of Christian families from the area in the last three years: "They were determined to stay and serve the community."
Targeted violence against Christians in the capital of Nineveh Province escalated last month on the eve of national parliamentary elections scheduled for March 7. Nineveh, at present considered the most volatile region in the country, is divided among Sunni, Kurd, and minority political elements. Many see the area's Christian community as divided in its allegiances between Sunni Arab, Kurdish, and a few Christian candidates for parliament-and therefore subject to intimidation by violent militants.
The same day that Ishoa's family members were killed, another family also was attacked at home. Militants passed the house firing shots at the dwelling, then returned, forced themselves into the house, and gunned down the entire family. An Iraqi who reported the incident to the U.S.-based monitoring group Open Doors said five or six family members were in the home at the time of the shootings. "They even threw two bodies outside the house as a cruel warning for others," the Iraqi said.
The two incidents brought to at least 14 the number of Christians apparently targeted and murdered within one week in the city, once the seat of Iraq's Christian and Jewish community and-at over 2.5 million-Iraq's third-largest city.
Ten years ago more than 100,000 Christians lived in Mosul. With the destabilization brought on by the U.S. invasion, the subsequent political turmoil, and the rise of Islamic militant groups, church leaders estimate that the Christian population is down to about 150-300 families.
The violence directed at Christians "is a commonplace occurrence in Iraq, sadly, yet largely unnoticed by American Christians." said Carl Moeller, president of California-based Open Doors.
During the week leading up to the Feb. 23 killings, four other Christians also were gunned down in Mosul, including two students named Zaya Toma and Ramsen Shamael, and Mosul residents Najem Fatoohy and Rayan Salem. On Feb. 20 the body of another, Adnan Aldhan, was found in front of the gate of another Christian family's home.
U.S. forces remain at an airbase just outside Mosul, but under the current U.S.-Iraq security agreement will not confront local violence unless they are asked to intervene by Iraqi forces.
Those rules of engagement came in response to a period of reduced violence across Iraq and coincide with President Barack Obama's stated goal of withdrawing all U.S. combat forces by the end of 2011. The upcoming elections are a key milestone in the president's plan but already have suffered setbacks.
Originally scheduled to take place before the end of 2009, they have been delayed by political infighting and provincial tensions, chiefly in Nineveh and nearby Kirkuk. Each of those provinces is closely divided among Arab Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds. Each also has a strong representation of minorities, including Christians.
In Iraq voters cast their ballots overwhelmingly along political and ethnic identity lines, not over issues. A Shiite will vote for a Shiite candidate and a Kurd will vote for a Kurd. The leading groups establish lists of the factional parties in order to draw most attention from their respective voting bloc. Minorities, who make up 5 percent of the population and are heavily concentrated in the north, sometimes cast votes for majority parties and are considered potential swing votes.
But this year the main factions are by no means unified. A powerful Shiite faction has arisen to challenge incumbent Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It also announced that it will press parliament to annul existing oil deals with foreign firms, further setting back economic development. Leading Sunni and Kurdish leaders also face challenges from within their ranks.
For Christian-identified parties, a minimum of five seats out of the 325-member parliament is guaranteed. Because eligible voters include Iraqis displaced within Iraq and living outside the country, a vote for a Christian candidate, or list, may not necessarily go to candidates who represent Nineveh and other areas particularly affected by militant violence.
Nineveh's biggest electoral battle will be between Kurds-who took control of the provincial council after Sunnis boycotted national elections in 2005 until 2009-and Sunnis, who form the region's majority. In recent years Kurdish leaders have gained loyalty among the historically Christian villages surrounding Mosul-chiefly because Kurdish security forces called pesh merga have provided security in those areas and the Kurdish Regional Government has built schools and other facilities there-while Sunni influence, and a militant Sunni faction called al-Hadba that formed last year to defeat the Kurds, have gained power within the city of Mosul itself.
Sunni potency at the polls is in question following one Sunni party's call Feb. 20 for a boycott of the election after two of its leaders were disqualified from participation over alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. When Sunnis boycotted the polls in 2005, it led to some of the worst sectarian fighting of the war.
In Mosul some Christians are thinking less about their right to vote and more about their safety. "We don't want elections, we don't want representatives, we don't want our rights, we just want to be alive," said Baasil Abdul Noor, a priest at Mar Behnam church.
Another priest told me that right now it's harder to press authorities to track down and take action against the militants who are killing Christians: "In time of election it's easier to mix the cards, to accuse others. The Arab groups will accuse Kurds and the Kurds will accuse Arabs, but at the end of the day we are the losers."
Given U.S. military presence, is there more the United States could do? Said Open Doors' Moeller, who spoke to me by phone from his Irvine, Calif., office but has traveled to northern Iraq and spent this past Christmas in Jordan with Iraqi refugees: "The question is being answered on the ground as 'no.' Our intention to leave Iraq is overriding our better nature. We are tired of war and have announced our intent to leave this year; but unfortunately that will mean for Iraqi Christians utter devastation."
In Mosul, Christians believe that's already the case.
Jan. 30, 2005: Iraq holds democratic elections, drawing an estimated 8 million voters who pick representatives for the transitional National Assembly.
Oct. 15, 2005: Iraqis vote to approve the nation's new constitution.
Dec. 15, 2005: Iraqis elect a permanent 275-member Council of Representatives, or parliament, the first full-term government since the U.S.-led invasion.
Jan. 10, 2007: President George W. Bush announces the troop surge-a plan to combat sectarian violence by deploying thousands of additional U.S. troops to Iraq.
Jan. 31, 2009: Iraq holds provincial elections.
Feb. 27, 2009: President Barack Obama announces he will withdraw most U.S. troops from Iraq by August 2010 and all remaining combat troops by the end of 2011.
July 25, 2009: The Kurdistan region of Iraq holds parliamentary and presidential elections.
March 7, 2010: Iraq holds parliamentary elections to select representatives for the 325-member Council of Representatives.
-with reporting by Kristin Chapman