Iraqi Christian Village: From Sanctuary To Ghost Town In 2 Months : Parallels Villagers in Al-Qosh opened homes and schools to Iraqis fleeing the advance of the Islamic State. But that was June. Now it's a ghost town, as silent as its 6th-century monastery.
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Iraqi Christian Village: From Sanctuary To Ghost Town In 2 Months

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Iraqi Christian Village: From Sanctuary To Ghost Town In 2 Months

Iraqi Christian Village: From Sanctuary To Ghost Town In 2 Months

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


I'm Melissa Block, and we begin this hour with a story that shows how quickly the landscape is shifting in Iraq. Two months ago NPR visited the Christian village of al-Qosh in northern Iraq. It's about 30 miles from Mosul. Then, the village was swarming with displaced Iraqis - Muslims, Christians and others who fled Mosul when the city was captured by the extremists calling themselves the Islamic State. Well, now, as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, the good Samaritans of al-Qosh need saving themselves.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: In June al-Qosh was humming with activity. The schools were full of displaced Shiite Muslims, and spare rooms in many homes were filled with fleeing Christian families. But this week on a recent sun-baked afternoon, the village was desolate.

Al-Qosh sits at the base of a mountain, home to a monastery dating from the sixth century. These days, much of the village is as quiet as that monastery. A few Kurdish security forces stand guard at the entrance, mainly concerned with keeping potential leaders away from the tiny stone and cement houses.

As Kurdish forces retake villages around Mosul, families have begun to trickle back to al-Qosh. But most to stay only during the day, with Islamic State forces only some 20 miles away. Raed Salman is one of the few who's here full-time for now. The 45-year-old truck driver has a recent history that's sadly familiar to many Iraqis.

RAED SALMAN: (Through translator) We're originally from Baghdad. We fled Baghdad. My father and brother were kidnapped. We paid a huge ransom, but they shot and badly wounded my brother. Now we're displaced for a second time.

KENYON: Salman gestures to his large, well-appointed home, saying it took years of high-risk travel on Iraq's dangerous highway to earn the money for it. But now he's resigned to leaving it behind, as well as centuries of Christian history here, because his family's safety comes first.

SALMAN: (Through translator) Believe me, there is nowhere in Iraq that is safe for as. We have Shiite friends in the city of Kut. They say come live with us. We'll keep you safe. They're good friends, but what about the future? They could be the next ones displaced.

KENYON: Salman doesn't know where they'll go. Their passports are expired, and he says he doesn't have much hope of renewing them. A deep current of fear is once again running through Iraq's Christian minority, which is believed to have numbered around one and a half million when America invaded Iraq in 2003. Now estimates range from two to 400,000. In June NPR spoke with Rinam Mansour, a 30-year-old teacher who was volunteering to help displaced people from Mosul. Now he sits on his couch pondering his own future.

RINAM MANSOUR: (Through translator) I was on the church's commission to help displaced people. They were Shiites, Christians and others, and we opened our doors and gave them what we could. And now we ourselves are the displaced.

KENYON: In numerous interviews with displaced Yazidis, another religious minority in Iraq, many said they envy the Christians because they have a church to stand up for them. But Mansour just laughs when he hears this.

MANSOUR: (Through translator) The church protect us? The church people were the first ones to leave. Maybe I'll al-Qosh used to be a strong Christian village, but now most people want to leave Iraq. I think only those families with no money, no passports or no friends to help them relocate will stay.

KENYON: Mansour's sister, Lillian, has already tried relocating, having been moved by the UN to Southern California after the last anti-Christian violence in 2008. It was during the U.S. recession though, and when neither she nor her husband could find any kind of work, they returned to northern Iraq.

LILLIAN: (Through translator) When we got back it took my husband over a year to find work, and then at least things were better than in America. But just a few months later, all this started.

KENYON: As luck would have it, Lillian's husband found work as a teacher in one of the minority villages around Mt. Sinjar that was soon to be terrorized by Islamic State fighters. Now, Mansour says, the best case scenario for him is to give up his home and the relative prestige of teaching and hope to find a menial job in a strange country. He believes that if Iraqi Christians are to survive, it won't be in Iraq. Peter Kenyon, NPR News in northern Iraq.

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