October 6, 2010 / 2:05 PM / 7 years ago

Iraqi Christians flee homeland even as war fades

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) - Bassam Hermiz has slashed prices to clear his stock of electrical appliances, close his shop and join many thousands of other Iraqi Christians abroad.

Once numbering some 750,000 in this mainly Muslim country of 30 million, Christians have been trapped in the crossfire of sectarian strife ignited after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's secular dictatorship in 2003.

Alarmed that their flock could face extinction, Iraqi Christian leaders appealed to the Vatican for help.

Pope Benedict, also worried about the shrinking Christian presence in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, has called a synod of bishops for October 10-24 to discuss how churches can work together to preserve Christianity's oldest communities.

The special assembly will consider a Vatican document that decries "disregard for international law," human rights abuses and an exodus of Christians fleeing conflict in the Middle East.

The document, released in June, says Christian emigration is "particularly prevalent because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the resulting instability in the Middle East."

It also cites political instability in Lebanon and menacing conditions in Iraq, "where the war has unleashed evil forces."

Post-invasion bloodshed and chronic insecurity have spooked Iraqi Christians, many of whom feel they have no future here.

"We decided to leave after we lost hope of living in peace in Iraq. It was not our choice," said Hermiz, the shopkeeper who is taking his family from the volatile northern city of Mosul to Holland, where his brother already lives.

He cast a dejected eye over the few remaining goods in his shop. His two-storey family home, replete with balconies and marble, also looks forlorn with most of the furniture sold.

Hundreds of thousands of Christians, described by Pope Benedict as Iraq's "most vulnerable religious minority" in an appeal for better security this year, have left since 2003.

CHRISTIAN EXODUS

Perhaps only half of a Christian community rooted here for centuries remains, although no official figures exist.

And more Christians are leaving, despite a plunge in overall violence in the past three years as bloodletting between majority Shi'ites and once dominant Sunni Muslims tapers off.

Every now and then Christians still come under attack, especially in the northern province of Nineveh, considered the last urban stronghold of al Qaeda Islamist militants.

It is not always clear whether they are targeted for their faith, for the headlines their woes generate in Western media, for their political allegiances or for other reasons.

In February, gunmen killed eight Christians in the streets or at work in Mosul, prompting thousands of others to flee.

The slayings occurred two weeks before an inconclusive parliamentary election that has produced no new government six months later. The stalemate threatens Iraq's fragile security, along with most other aspects of life in a traumatized nation.

In May bomb blasts near a bus carrying Christian university students in Mosul killed at least one and wounded 100.

Attacking Christians is an effective way to highlight the shortcomings of Iraq's security forces, attracting more media attention than the far higher casualties among Iraqi Muslims.

Christians, like other minorities in northern Iraq, feel insecure as the region's Arabs and Kurds feud over land and oil.

"The departure is in full swing for many reasons: the security and economic situation, and the direct attacks and kidnappings that Christians have been exposed to," said Bassim Bello, mayor of Telkaif near Mosul. He said 1,050 families in the mainly Christian town had fled abroad in 2008 alone.

Exile is often heart-breaking, as it is for Hirmiz and his family, quitting the home they built 20 years ago in Mosul.

"I used to reject the idea of leaving, but I've got used to it over time, especially when I hear of the killing of friends," sighed Um Edwar, Hermiz's wife. "I also feel sad about the garden, which I adore. No one will take care of it like I do."

Writing by Aseel Kami, editing by Michael Christie and Alistair Lyon

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