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In Iraq, violence has forced thousands of Christians to flee their homes in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Iraqi officials say gunmen have killed more that a dozen Christians in the past weeks and blown up several Christian homes. The displaced people are crowded into churches and homes in villages north of the city in Nineveh Plain, the ancient center of Christianity in Iraq. NPR's Corey Flintoff visited the refugees and has this report.
COREY FLINTOFF: This is the precinct of St. George's Syrian Catholic Church in the village of Bartillah. It's normally a serene place with gardens and a quiet crowd or where worshippers light candles to the Virgin Mary. Now, the church's community center is crowded and chaotic, packed with about 45 families, more than 175 people who left everything behind when they fled their homes in Mosul.
Unidentified Man: (Through Translator) These families came here with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Local people have been donating food and bedding and some of the vital stuff they need to survive until more aid arrives.
FLINTOFF: That's a church official. Like the displaced people he is caring for, he refused to give his name, fearful of retaliation. In fact, the climate of fear is so pervasive that refugees insisted that their faces not be shown in photographs for fear that they might be identified by their persecutors in Mosul.
The church official leads the way to a conference room where 28 people have been sleeping on mats on the floor. A photo of Pope John Paul looks down on the scene where platters and dirty dishes are piled high in one corner. A woman who identifies herself only by her nickname, Um Reyan, says the danger of her situation didn't really sink in until gunmen murdered a pharmacist and a 15-year-old boy in her neighborhood and strange cars began prowling the streets.
Ms. UM REYAN: (Through Translator) Then my neighbor came to tell me that she noticed a gray Sedan with three young men inside and that one of them was pointing at my house. We felt so scared after hearing this, and my neighbor said, are you waiting for your turn to come? Do you want to stay here until they come and kill your husband and children?
FLINTOFF: Um Reyan is in her late 20s with light brown hair and green eyes. Here in the safety of St. George's she wears a gold cross around her neck, something she says she was afraid to do in Mosul.
Ms. UM REYAN: (Through Translator) It's so hard for us to be forced to leave our homes, our schools, the nice life we had in Mosul. Our lives have completely changed. We used to live in a nice house with five bedrooms. Now we have to share one room with five other families.
FLINTOFF: One striking thing about Um Reyan is that despite the wear and tear of a week of living as a refugee, she's wearing a neat, print skirt with a matching blouse and jacket. Like nearly all the people here, her remaining clothes reflect her status as a middle-class person forced into a crisis that she couldn't have imagined just a few weeks ago.
(Soundbite of prayer service)
FLINTOFF: In the afternoon, the refugees gather for a prayer service and the strain in their faces eases as they hear the familiar hymns. Across the plain, refugees share a different experience. Some are with relatives, some sleep in the village school, and some are staying in a nearby monastery. That monastery, called Mar Mattai, can be seen from the village clinging to a craggy mountaintop high above the plain. It was established in the fourth century by one of the first monks who brought Christianity to this region.
The normally meditative silence is broken by the voices of about 40 families who've taken refuge here. Their laundry adds an incongruously bright note to the sandstone balconies under the onion dome. The mountain to which the monastery clings is called Jebel Maqloub, the mountain of acceptance. Tradition says that this is place where the prayers of every faith are accepted. Father Fadi Khaleel, one of the six monks here, says that this is what he prays.
Father FADI KHALEEL (Iraqi Christian Monk): (Through Translator) I pray and say, oh, Lord, protect Iraq and protect Iraqis from any danger, and surround the lives of the Christians, the Muslims, the Kurds and the Arabs with the fence of safety and peace.
FLINTOFF: No one here knows when that peace will come. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Northern Iraq.
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