Christians in Iraq Form Militias for Protection

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BARTELLA, Iraq - Christians in Iraq are forming new armed militias to protect themselves against what they call a systematic campaign by Muslim extremists to drive them out of Iraq.

In the past month, nearly half of the Christians in the northern town of Mosul have been forced to flee after attacks and threats from radical Muslims.

For years, Bashar Karan run a successful business selling hardware supplies. But he's given that up to stand with a Kalashnikov at the main entrance to Bartella, a large Christian village east of Mosul.

"I wanted to protect my people, I felt I had a responsibility to look after them," he said.

He's not alone. Five hundred Iraqi Christians armed with heavy machine guns and assault rifles have taken an oath to protect this village of about 25,000 people.

"We are not like other militias that have sprung up across Iraq. We don't go out killing people and causing chaos. We stand here with our guns just to protect our people," Bashir Saalem said.

And because it's just a few miles from Mosul, one of the most dangerous places in Iraq, the commander of the Christian militia says security is a top priority.

"Christians are facing a lot of pressure today in Iraq. In the past month, hundreds of Christians have fled for their lives from Mosul and other parts of the country. Many of them are here in our village and we have to protect them," Christian militia commander Abu Mahath said.

Two hundred and fifty Christian families have found refuge in Bartella's churches, schools and monasteries.

"Members of my family used to pay money to the insurgents in exchange for protection but that didn't work. Even though we paid, they continued to harass us and that's why we left," said Layla, a Christian refugee.

Sunni insurgents are believed to be behind the campaign to drive them out.

And according to human rights activist, Dr. Hussein Sanjari, "they want, according to their doctrine, pure Islamic societies as if these lands belong to them only."

Islamic extremists have frequently targeted Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, forcing tens of thousands to flee the country.

The Islamic radicals have killed more than a dozen Christians during the recent violence in Mosul. The Iraqi government has deployed extra police to the region to beef-up security. But that has done little to allay the fears of these Christians.

"The terrorists want to kill us Christians. If we don't defend ourselves, who will?" Mahath said.

"There are about 12 different entry points into the village of Bartella they are all manned by the Christian militia. But in addition to manning these checkpoints they also conduct regular night patrols.

"We are constantly on the lookout for any suspicious activity or persons. We do house-to-house searches and just check on people to make sure they are alright," Saalem said.

Earlier this year, a series of bombs exploded outside churches and a monastery in Mosul. Since then, all the churches in this village are closely guarded by Christians.

"We search every car that comes into this area for bombs or guns," Karan said.

And those joining the ranks of the Christian militia are said to be growing. Today, some 5,000 are serving across this part of Northern Iraq.

"Each guard gets roughly $200 per month," Mahath said.

It's barely enough to support Bashir Saalam's family of three but he says it's not about the money.

"We just want to live in peace and enjoy our rights as Christians and this is the least I can do for my people," he said.

In the meantime, the government is pledging financial support and protection for every Christian family that returns to Mosul. But so far, just a handful have returned.

*Original broadcast October 29, 2008.

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