By Terry Mccarthy
ABC) — We first met Father Mofeed Toma in 2004, when he was abbot of the Christian monastery in the town of Al Qosh in the mountains of northern Iraq, near the Turkish border. That part of Iraq is controlled by the Kurdish authorities and has never really been touched by the war. We spent several days with Father Mofeed, and in those early days he was hopeful that Iraq’s 2 million Christians would not be drawn into the power struggle to the south between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
But in the years that followed, insurgents began attacking Christian businesses, particularly liquor stores, which were legal but unpopular with some Muslim extremists. And Christian businessmen were kidnapped for ransom in Baghdad, Basra and Mosul, starting an exodus of Christians from those cities. Some emigrated to Europe and the United States, while others went north to find refuge in Kurdistan.
Al Qosh received its share — some 800 Christian families came to the small town, increasing the population by one third. These newcomers built houses in the small town and sought to adapt to living in the quiet countryside so far from the cities where they grew up. Some started businesses trucking goods in from Turkey, others took to farming.
Meanwhile Father Mofeed had moved — he was first transferred to Mosul, where he was kidnapped by Sunni extremists in 2006. They demanded money from him, to which he replied that as a priest he had no money, and even if he did he would give it to the poor and not to the bandits who had abducted him. The extremists gave up and released him, but he moved out of Mosul for his own safety. Not long afterwards another Christian priest who was kidnapped was beheaded. Last year Father Mofeed noticed that some of the Christian families who had moved to the north were talking about going back to their homes in Baghdad. He counselled caution, since it was unclear that the reduction in violence was permanent. But as the security situation continued to improve, families started to trickle back. When we visited Al Qosh last week the postmaster told us that 50 of the 800 new families had gone back down south, and others we spoke to said they were planning to go in the near future.
But while Father Mofeed is now cautiously optimistic about the situation inside Iraq, he is saddened that so many of the Christians who used to live there have gone overseas — about half, by some calculations. He thinks that very few of these families will come back, and fears that the long Christian tradition in Iraq might get sidelined if too few remain. That would take away a valuable strand of pluralism in Iraq that for centuries has been very tolerant of Christians.
Iraq’s civil conflict has principally been between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, with Christians getting caught sometimes in the crossfire. But how Christians are treated and how many decide to remain in the country now will be a telling indicator of the overall level of tolerance and civility in the new Iraq as it apparently emerges from war. We will be staying in touch with Father Mofeed to help us see how things develop in the coming years.