BARTELLA, Iraq (AP) – On the main square of the city of Bartella, in northern Iraq, lies a large cross. One of the few obvious signs that this city was historically Christian. Nearby, a huge billboard shows Shia Muslim martyrs alongside a photo of Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini Posters from Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen killed during the war. Clashes with the Islamic State group are hung in the streets of the city, accompanied by banners depicting historical Shiite saints. Thirty years ago, Bartella's population was entirely Christian. Demographic changes over the decades have left the city divided between Christians and an ethnic group known as Shabak, which is largely Shiite. When the Islamic State group invaded the city and the rest of northern Iraq in 2014, the entire population of Bartella fled – both communities were persecuted by the radicals. But two years after Bartella's release from the IS, less than a third of his 3,800 Christian families have returned. Most remain scared, amid reports of intimidation and harassment by Shabak, who dominate the Shiite militias who now control the city. Catholic priest Behnam Benoka claimed that the Christian community was driven out of Shabak. He also stated that several cases of sexual harassment had been reported to him and even the only theft of a little girl whose gold earrings had been stolen. At one point, Shabak men fired shots in the air outside the church of the city for more than an hour.Iqbal Shino, who returned to Bartella in November 2017 with his family, said that a Shabak man had seized him from behind in a market. She screamed and the man was caught by the spectators. She filed a complaint with the police but later abandoned her to avoid problems. "I have the impression that, because I was Christian, he assaulted me so that they could scare us off Bartella," she said. . around northern Iraq as a result of the dispersion caused by the Islamic State group. Now that IS has gone, sectarian divisions are surfacing and many political and armed groups are fighting for power and influence, said Renad Mansour, research associate at Chatham House, a think tank. "This is the main priority now: Qui Quay Abbas, Shabak representative in Baghdad's parliament, said that incidents of harassment against Christians are only individual acts that do not represent the Shabak community. militias, which are part of the Government-sponsored Population Mobilization Forces. "The security apparatus has many factions, so it is inevitable that mistakes will occur. There are violations, and many things, sometimes even theft, abusing their position to get money, we know it, "said Abbas, based between Bartella and the capital." But that does not to say that everyone is bad. "He said that the Shabak had suffered as much as the Christians of the IS." They both suffered together, so I say to the Christian brothers: please do not trust rumors and sectarian speeches, "he said." We can solve these problems, we just have to sit together. "The Christian community in Iraq has collapsed over the past 15 years years because of attacks by militant Islamist groups, including Al-Qaida and IS.It was estimated that 1 million Christians live in Iraq before the 2003 US invasion; only a fraction of it.The takeover of the group by the Islamic State in the north has only made q u make the disaster worse for Christians, fleeing them to ensure their safety in the Kurdish Autonomous Region, where most remain. Bartella's demographic changes began about 30 years ago when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein nationalized farmland belonging to Christians and gave it to the families of soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq war. This brought an influx of Shabak. After the overthrow of Saddam in 2003, another batch of Bartella lands was given to the families of Shia Shabak martyrs. Most of Bartella's shabak population came back and brought life back to their neighborhoods. In contrast, the Christian neighborhoods of the city are largely deserted. In one of them, Hay al-Muallimeen, many houses were destroyed during the fighting. Only one to four people live there.
Security is now managed by the Popular Mobilization Forces, known as "Hashed" Arabic. His fighters, who at Bartella are mainly Shabaks, control checkpoints in the streets and act as police. One of the main points of contention in Bartella is the removal of the Ninewa Protection Unit, a semi-autonomous police force composed mainly of Christians. kept the city until the IS takeover. His fighters fled to Kurdish areas and did not return. This is one of the reasons why Christian families are reluctant to return. "The Christian is the weak link in Iraqi society," said Ammar Shamoun Moussa, president of the NPU. "If there is stability and law in the country, I think a lot of families will come back." Jalal Boutros, Bartella City Council member, said that NPU is "part of our identity and protects and validates our presence". He said some Shiite militiamen from Hashed were just as extremist as Sunni militants of the Islamic State, widely known by its Arabic acronym, Daesh. "Even though Daesh's weapons are gone, thought is still there," he said. Trust between communities has disappeared. Salim Harihosan, a Christian, returned to Bartella in 2017 and, like many families, his house was destroyed. An NGO helped to rebuild it. But he regrets his decision to return and is haunted by the fear of anarchy, sectarian splits and potential violence. He wakes up five times a night to check if his car is safe and is looking to rent an apartment in the Kurdish city of Erbil, just in case. "It's a psychological situation … I'm going to the market and I'm hearing things, maybe this or this has happened," he said. "These things play with the spirit of the person living here." In the church of Ankawa district, in Erbil, hundreds of Christians, many of them Bartella, have prayed and sung hymns recently. One of them, 72 years old Habiba Kiyaqos has lived in Bartella all his life but never sees himself coming back. Her house was destroyed, her possessions disappeared and she is afraid of being a victim of religious extremists, whether it is Sunni militants like Shiite militiamen or l '. Islamic State. "I really want to go to sleep at Bartella, but I'm afraid that they will come and attack us."