Iraq Conference: After fleeing twice inside Iraq, a family receives refuge in Spain

News Stories, 12 April 2007

© Reuters/Thaier Al-Sudani
An Iraqi policeman outside a Catholic church in Baghdad. There were 1.4 million Christians in Iraq in 1987, but now there are less than a million in a country of 26 million people.

MADRID, Spain, April 12 (UNHCR) In a country where anyone can become a victim of violence, minorities in Iraq feel especially threatened. Among those forced to flee the danger was a family who had converted to Christianity and now live as refugees in Spain.

Palestinian refugees in Iraq have been attacked. Sunni Moslems have been forced from Shi'ite Moslem areas, Shias from Sunni areas. Kurds have fled Arab areas, Arabs from Kurdish areas. In this brutal environment, Christian Iraqis an ancient but dwindling part of the Iraqi population have frequently been targets.

Close to 2 million Iraqis are currently displaced internally while up to 2 million others have fled abroad. The UN refugee agency has invited all 193 UN member states to a conference on the humanitarian needs associated with displacement in Iraq and nearby countries in Geneva on April 17-18.

"Christians are leaving Baghdad and the whole centre of the country. The churches are empty," said Tessa*, who fled to Spain with her husband and two children in 2005. She worries that the Iraqi Christian community, almost as old as the religion, might soon disappear altogether.

For Tessa and Nabil*, the threat was greater because they had been Muslim. Nabil decided to convert to Christianity in 2001. The situation worsened when Tessa also converted in 2003 after she almost died from cancer. Tessa's Sunni family cut off contact.

Nabil started receiving threats and in January 2005 found a bomb in front of his house. His workers were threatened and his shop was burned. Their two children, baptised in 2005 at the ages of 10 and 12 years, faced the risk of kidnapping by groups who demand "taxes" for observing their religion.

In the 16th Century, Christians were half the population of Iraq. In 1987 there were still 1.4 million Christians, but now there are less than a million in a country of 26 million people. After a wave of violence against Christian churches in October 2004 five churches were bombed on a single day discrimination rose. Militants attacked liquor stores and warned Christian women to wear Islamic dress.

At 48-years-old, Nabil and his family were relatively wealthy. He owned an aesthetician centre, while his wife was a professor at the University of Agriculture in Baghdad. But they made the decision to flee. "Christians are being terrorised in Iraq. They have no peace and no safety with the death squads and car bombs," said Nabil.

With help from his church, the family moved to Dahuk in the north of Iraq. However, this city proved safe for only a few months before they started again receiving threats. Even local members of their church began to fear hosting them. Their children could not attend school.

Nabil and his family headed further north to Arbil in the Kurdistan region, which had become a haven for 20,000 Iraqis displaced from elsewhere in Iraq. After two months, it was clear Arbil was also not a sanctuary. Rumours spread around the city about the "danger" the family represented for Islam.

"Our presence was creating problems for the people surrounding us," Nabil said. He decided in May 2005 to leave the country. Wearing a disguise, Nabil returned to Baghdad alone and got visas. The day after he returned to Arbil, the family went by car to Syria. The next day they proceeded to Amman and after four days flew to Spain to request asylum.

Last November, Spanish authorities granted all Nabil's family refugee status under the 1951 Refugee Convention because of their well founded fear of persecution for their religion. Spain currently hosts 45 Iraqi refugees and during 2006 a further 42 Iraqis requested asylum.

"Spain gave us the opportunity to profess freely our religion, without feeling guilty. My children can go to school or play in the park without being surrounded by people with Kalashnikov rifles standing guard over them and my wife no longer feels in prison, thought she does not work anymore," said Nabil.

The family, now living near the centre of Madrid, are integrating slowly as they overcome the language barrier. There are no regrets about leaving. "When life is at risk you do everything to protect yourself and your family," Nabil says of the desperate measures Iraqis take to reach safety.

"I don't think violence and inequality in my country will cease in a few years. All the Iraqis Christians and Muslims are living in a situation without solutions," he said. "You find tragedy after tragedy and they are fleeing every day to look for safety in neighbouring countries or in another continent."

* Names changed for protection reasons

By Francesca Fontanini in Madrid, Spain