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Few Christian residents have returned to the northern Iraqi town of Bartella
February 12, 2019
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BARTELLA: In the main square in the northern Iraqi town of Bartella stands a large cross, one of the few overt signs the town was historically Christian.

Nearby, a massive billboard shows Shiite martyrs alongside a photo of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. Posters of Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen killed in fighting with the Daesh group hang on streets all around the city, along with banners to revered historical Shiite saints.

Thirty years ago, Bartella’s population was entirely Christian. Demographic changes over the decades left the town split between Christians and an ethnic group known as Shabak, who are largely Shiites. When the Daesh group overran the town and the rest of northern Iraq in 2014, Bartella’s entire population fled — since both communities were persecuted by the radicals.

But two years after Bartella was liberated from Daesh, fewer than a third of its 3,800 Christian families have come back. Most remain afraid, amid reports of intimidation and harassment by Shabak, who dominate the Shiite militias now controlling the town.

Catholic priest Behnam Benoka claimed that the Christian community is being pushed out by the Shabak. He also said multiple cases of sexual harassment have been reported to him and even one robbery of a little girl whose gold earrings were stolen. At one point, Shabak men fired guns in the air front of the town’s church for over an hour.

Iqbal Shino, who moved back to Bartella with her family in November 2017, said a Shabak man grabbed her from behind in a market. She screamed and the man was caught by onlookers. She filed a complaint with the police but later dropped it to avoid problems. “I feel like because I was a Christian, he assaulted me so that they can scare us to leave Bartella,” she said.

The town’s divisions point to the broader tensions around northern Iraq in the wake of the dispersal caused by the Daesh group. Now that Daesh is gone, sectarian divisions are bubbling up the surface, and multiple political and armed groups are vying for power and influence, said Renad Mansour is a research associate at Chatham House, a think tank.

“That’s the main priority now: Who can carve out the most influence in the area and naturally that creates a precarious security environment,” he said.

Qusay Abbas, the Shabak representative in parliament in Baghdad, said incidents of harassment against Christians are just individual acts that don’t represent the community of Shabak or the militias, which are part of the government-sponsored Population Mobilisation Forces.

“The security apparatus has a lot of factions so it’s inevitable that some mistakes would happen. There are some violations, and a lot of things, sometimes stealing, misusing their position to get money, we know that,” said Abbas, who is based between Bartella and the capital. “But that doesn’t mean that everyone is bad.” He said the Shabak suffered just as much as the Christians from Daesh.

“They both suffered collectively, so I say to the Christians brothers, please don’t rely on some rumors and sectarian speeches,” he said. “We can solve these problems we just need to sit down together.” The Christian community in Iraq has plummeted in the last 15 years because of attacks by Daesh groups. An estimated 1 million Christians were living in Iraq before the US-led invasion of 2003; today only a fraction remains. The Daesh group takeover the north only worsened the disaster for the Christians, sending them fleeing for safety in the autonomous Kurdish region, where most remain.

Associated Press

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