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Christian leaders in Iraq plead for help

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THE LEVANT – Christian leaders in Iraq say their faith will be obliterated in communities as old as the church itself unless international troops and more airstrikes drive the Islamic State from the country.

Catholics and Anglicans said yesterday they had lost confidence in the Iraqi government to afford them any protection after tens of thousands of Christians were forced to flee their homes on the Nineveh plains in the face of an Islamic militant advance.

Thousands of Yazidis, members of an ancient sect, have also fled their homes around the Sinjar mountains in northern Iraq after Islamic State gave them an ultimatum: convert to Islam or die.

“No one wants another country’s soldiers to enter their own country, but we live in very bad times,” said Father Messayr Behnam, of St George’s Chaldean Church, Baghdad.

“We want international forces to protect the villages in Ninevah because the government doesn’t care about us.”

US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have insisted they will not to be dragged into another Iraq war, but they have already faced allegations of mission creep for supporting Kurdish and Iraqi troops battling to retake the strategic Mosul dam.

Members of the Kurdish peshmerga had tried to defend the villages in Nineveh when Islamic State first advanced, but residents said that they were outgunned.

In Mosul, the modern name for the biblical city of Nineveh, residents said tens of thousands of members of the Iraqi security services fled as ­Islamic State ­advanced.

“The government is only worried about elections and power struggles. They are discussing laws in parliament, leaving people to die in the valleys. They have abandoned us,” said Father Behnam, who was born in Qaraqosh, 25km southeast of Mosul.

Nineteen members of his family had been forced to flee their homes, but he said they were the lucky ones, with shelter in Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.

Thousands of refugees had sought shelter in Irbil while others fled to Lebanon and Turkey, he added. A few families arrived in Baghdad, but they were getting passports in case they needed to move again. “The United Nations should decide who will protect the valleys,” Father Behnam said. “Then people can go home.”

Memories of the US-led invasion were still painfully fresh in Iraqi and American minds, but without some sort of internat­ional force, he said, the refugees who fled Ninevah would be too scared to return. He said his congregation had fallen from more than 4000 families in 2003 to fewer than 500 now.

At the only Anglican church in Baghdad, Father Faiz Bashir Jerjes said the number of worshippers had fallen from more than 1000 a few months ago to fewer than 250 at Evensong last Sunday. “It will be a great moment, ­recorded in history, if these countries came to support us,” Father Jerjes said. “Otherwise we will say goodbye to the last Christians in Iraq.”

About 15 families in Mosul had converted to Islam because relatives were too ill to leave, Father Jerjes said. Other Christians were allowed to stay and pay a religious tax, he said, but not Yazidis.

Barham Salih, a former prime minister of Kurdistan, said the international community would “have to be engaged in a substantive manner to make sure this threat is truly eliminated”. However, he added US airstrikes around the Mosul dam had already helped to “turn the tide” against the Islamic militants.

“The lesson of the last month is that people who thought this was a faraway problem have been proven wrong,” he said. “We cannot be indifferent.”

Gerard Russell, author of Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, about endangered religions in the Middle East, said the Yazidis and the Christians had lost faith in the government. “The Yazidis want asylum, the Christians want to go home, but they don’t trust anyone to protect them,” he said in Irbil yesterday. “The Nineveh plains have never had this problem ­before, and that’s why psychologically it is such a big blow.”

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