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Update: Three more Christians were killed on February 23 after armed men shot a father and his two sons at their home in Mosul.

(Washington, DC, February 23, 2010) - Iraq's government should bolster security to protect the lives of Christians in Mosul, Human Rights Watch said today. Since February 14, 2010, five Christians have been killed in Mosul in separate attacks that appear to be politically motivated, given the country's looming national election.

Human Rights Watch called on the government to take immediate measures, such as an increased security presence in Chaldo-Assyrian neighborhoods before and during the elections, to help prevent a repeat of a campaign of violence that devastated the community in Mosul in late 2008.

"Iraq's authorities need to act now to stop this campaign of violence against Christians from spreading again," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "In particular, the government needs to see that those responsible for these murders are swiftly arrested and prosecuted to protect Mosul's Christians from further violence."

According to information obtained by Human Rights Watch, on February 16, assailants impersonating secret police approached Zaya Toma and his cousin, Ramsin Shmael, while they waited at a bus stop in Mosul's al-Tahrir district on their way to the university they attend. Speaking in Arabic, the assailants asked Toma, a 22-year-old engineering student, and Shmael, a 21-year-old pharmacy student, for their identity cards. Although identity cards in Iraq do not indicate religion or ethnicity, assailants have often used the victim's name as a marker of his or her religious or ethnic affiliation.

After Toma produced his card, one of the assailants shot him point-blank in the head, killing him instantly. Ramsin tried to run but was shot twice; one bullet shattered his teeth. The assailants fled, apparently assuming they had killed both students, although Shmael survived. Family members arrived on the scene before the police, to find Toma lying in a pool of blood, his books on one side of his body, his identity card on the other.

The incident has devastated the broader family of Toma and Shmael, who escaped to northern Iraq from Baghdad in the summer of 2007 after receiving threats to kill them unless they converted to Islam. Family members say they want to move again - this time out of Iraq - to join the hundreds of thousands of Chaldo-Assyrians who have fled since 2003.

"By killing Zaya, they have taken everything from us," a family member told Human Rights Watch. "Our only crime is that we are Christian,"

The attack was one of several killings of Christians in Mosul the same week:

  • On February 20, the body of Adnan Hanna al-Dahan was found in northern Mosul. The 57-year-old Syrian Orthodox grocer had been kidnapped by unknown assailants from inside his shop a few days earlier.
  • On February 17, the bullet-ridden body of Wissam George, a 20-year-old Assyrian studying to be a teacher, was found after he disappeared that morning on his way to school.
  • On February 15, gunmen stormed a grocery store and killed Fatukhi Munir, its owner.
  • On February 14, Rayan Salem Elias, a Chaldean man, was shot dead outside his home.

While the identities of the perpetrators remain unknown, the spike in attacks against Christians comes only days ahead of Iraq's March 7 parliamentary vote. Families of the victims and community leaders believe the violence is politically motivated and are appealing to the government for protection.

The Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, Emil Shimoun Nona, said the most recent killings could prompt a new wave of refugees fleeing northern Iraq, where Christians live in constant apprehension.  Since 2003, between 250,000 and 500,000 Christians - or about half the Christian population - have left the country, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees. In January, Archbishop Nona was installed as successor to Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, whose body was found in March 2008, ten days after kidnappers seized him as he was leaving the Holy Spirit Church in Mosul.

Human Rights Watch said that the recent attacks recall the campaign of targeted killings against Chaldo-Assyrians in Mosul in late 2008 that the organization documented in a 51-page report, "On Vulnerable Ground: Violence against Minority Communities in Nineveh Province's Disputed Territories," released in November 2009. The orchestrated violence left 40 Chaldo-Assyrians dead and led to a mass exodus of more than 12,000 from their homes in Mosul. Assailants targeted Christians in their homes, in workplaces, and in places of worship.

Those killings began shortly after the Christian community lobbied the Iraqi parliament to pass a law that would set aside a greater number of seats for minorities in the January 2009 provincial elections. The attacks escalated after Christians held demonstrations in Nineveh and Baghdad in response to parliament's decision (later amended) to drop a provision in the provincial elections law ensuring political representation for minorities.

The report also documented intimidation and restrictions on freedom of movement by Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq of other minority groups in Nineveh, including Yazidis and Shabaks, during the 2009 provincial elections.

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