Farish Nzarit Gatalian, an Armenian Christian living in Kirkuk, says that “the lucky person is he who gets a [foreign] visa and leaves this city.”
Fifty-year-old Gatalian, sitting in front of a picture of Jesus in his home, says that he no longer feels safe in the city and that he fears for the future of himself and his family. “When I go to work I’m never sure whether I will return home alive or dead in a coffin,” he said, explaining his reason for wanting to leave.
According to Gatalian, the plight of Iraqi Christians has becoming increasingly perilous and he told Niqash that most of his relatives have already fled the country. “During the past 40 years there were some 1000 Christian families from Armenian origin but now only 70 families are left,” he said, adding that Christians in Kirkuk have lost all hope of staying in their city.
On the back of the tense political situation in Kirkuk over the status of the disputed territories, tensions between the city’s four ethnic groups, Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens and Christians, have significantly worsened. Kirkuk’s Christians live, for the most part, in Arafa, al-Mas and al-Masour neighbourhoods. Like other groups in the city, they say they live in a state of continuous struggle to preserve their religion and identity.
Local Christians say that they are now targets of armed groups and tens of them have been killed and kidnapped, while their churches have been bombed.
Two weeks ago, Imad, a young Christian man was abducted as he left his home heading to work at a local hospital. Two days later his dead body was discovered. Shortly before this incident, a Christian doctor was kidnapped and only released after the payment of a US $100,000 ransom. While in captivity the doctor was tortured.
Imad Yuhanna Yaqo, a member of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM), a Christian party, told Niqash that they had recorded “seven deaths and four kidnappings between April and September. This has led 20 Christian families to flee Kirkuk and go to the Kurdistan Region or other countries like Syria and Jordan.”
Yaqo told Niqash that “the number of Christians in Kirkuk before the fall of the Baath regime was more than 20,000. This number has dropped to 10,000 and the number continues to decrease… Most of the emigrants have family members abroad with the financial means to assist them.”
Another ADM member explained the reasons behind the Christian flight from the city: “The deteriorating conditions, the uncertainties surrounding the future of Kirkuk, the dreadful conflict between Arabs and Kurds over the city, the increased violence practiced by Islamic parties and the weak influence of leftist and liberal parties are the reasons behind Christian emigration,” he said.
Today, those Christians that remain in the city are trying to assert greater influence by pushing their children to find jobs in government and security institutions. At the moment the proportion of Christians in these bodies is negligible compared to other groups.
Salvana Boya is the only Christian in Kirkuk’s provincial council for the Assyrian National Party and says that “there is only one seat for every 10,000 Christians in the city… Being the only Christian member among the 41 provincial council members, I feel that I lack the support I need,” he said.
But according to Boya, there is another problem facing Christians in Kirkuk: the small size of their families. “Late marriages among Christians and their reluctance to have big families are major challenges,” he said. “One rarely finds a Christian family of five or six members.”
According to Boya, the issue is as important as any security or political challenge because it is contributes to the decrease in the number of Christians and threatens their existence.
Even so, Yaqo believes that there is a larger region-side challenge facing Christians. “There is a conspiracy to empty the region of Christians,” he said. “We are the weakest minority in the region and the first victims of these conflicts. Our numbers are very little and if we continue to emigrate at the same speed the region will very soon be empty of its Christians.”