Iraqi Christians remain doubtful about security

Baghdad, Iraq — Salma Younan remembers the day when an al-Qaeda fighter came to her home and demanded she renounce Christianity and convert to Islam.

She told him she would rather die than turn her back on her faith. "My blood is not as precious as my savior's," she recalls saying.

Security in her Baghdad neighborhood of Dora has improved since then, and most of the insurgents have disappeared. Many Christians are returning to homes they had abandoned. But Younan, who remained in Dora throughout those violent years, doubts peace will ever fully return for the country's beleaguered Christian minority.

"It is better, but it will probably not ever be the same for Christians in Iraq," she said.

Though attacks have been reduced to the lowest levels since 2003 — there were nine attacks in Dora last month compared with 271 attacks in June 2007, according to U.S. military data — the violence hasn't dissipated completely.

Last month, a roadside bomb went off near a liquor store that had remained open during a period when Shiite Muslim faithful commemorated the martyrdom of one of their most holy figures. Last week, two Christian women were found slain in their home in Dora in what the U.S. military and Iraqi forces suspected was a robbery gone bad.

Capt. Matthew Leclair, 32, an 82nd Airborne Division officer, spoke with neighbors as they prepared to attend the women's funeral and told them it appeared that the women came home while thieves were rifling through their belongings. The two were found with their throats slit.

Leclair told the neighbors it was unlikely that the women were targeted because of their faith.

Even so, the officer said the killings would inevitably reverberate in Dora's tightknit Christian community.

"It's such a small community that when something like this happens it has a much larger impact than if these were Shiite or Sunni women," Leclair said.

During the violence in Dora, once one of the capital's most diverse areas, two Christian churches were leveled by car bombs, several Christians were kidnapped and killed, and hundreds were forced out of their homes by militia groups.

Dora still has more than 1,500 vacant homes, according to Iraqi police Col. Samir al-Timimi.

There is a ghost-town-like feel to parts of the area surrounding the church of Saints Peter and Paul, where Easter services are planned Sunday for the first time since 2007.

Repair work continues at the main church for Baghdad's Chaldean Catholics — a sect established in Iraq about 600 years ago and united with the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century.

Khalis Kushaba Oraha, a Chaldean leader who has been working with Iraqi police as a liaison to Christian families who fled the area, said many families are returning home out of necessity rather than choice.

"More people are starting to think it's time to come, but many of the people who have returned had no choice," Oraha said. "They've run out of money, and living away from their homes is now impossible."

Salam Kirakous Michael, who was a guard at Saints Peter and Paul until he was beaten and threatened by al-Qaeda militants in June 2007, said about half the homes on his block are vacant.

Several of the homes that do have occupants, Michael said, are occupied by squatters, whom the Iraqi police have been moving out as the homeowners return.

Many of Michael's wealthier neighbors applied for refugee status and fled to the United States, Canada and Europe.

He doubts they will ever come back.

Michael left the area for about eight months. He said he was forced to move his family back to Dora this year after the rent they were paying while in exile in the north became unmanageable.

"Dora was a wonderful place, one of the best places in all of Baghdad to live," Michael said. "Right now, it still needs more time. But it will someday be a good place for us again."