Mujahed Mohammed/AFP/Getty Images

First guns, then ballots

Iraq | Militants in Mosul target Christians in pre-election shootings

Issue: "Fighting poverty," March 13, 2010

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.

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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.


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