AINKAWA, Iraq — For 35-year-old Rajo Qardaq Palander, a church security guard, the breaking point came last year, when insurgents demanded that he pay $20,000 or abandon his home in Baghdad's Dora neighborhood.
The choice was easy. He slipped out of Dora in the dead of night, joining the exodus of Assyrian Christians from Baghdad and Mosul to this haven in Iraq's Kurdish-controlled north.
"I held on as long as I could," Palander, 35 said. "I have no future in Iraq."
One of Iraq's most ancient national groups, the Assyrian Christians, who're Eastern Orthodox Christians, have largely quit their ancestral home in Arab Iraq and fled to the Kurdish region, where tens of thousands now live, or abroad.
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The pressure on the Assyrians continues: Five churches were bombed in Baghdad in early July and killings continue in Mosul. In Ainkawa, a city of 40,000 on the outskirts of the main city of Irbil, there's sanctuary, castle-like churches, which dominate entire city blocks, and liquor, a trade that Christians dominated in Baghdad, is for sale openly.
Still, refugees and others who're choosing to stay in Iraq fear the days ahead. They're hoping to make political gains in Iraq's Kurdish provinces and to reclaim lost land.
"For the time being, it's a better place. But it's a dark future," said Father Isha Najiba, an Eastern Assyrian priest in Ainkawa who served in Dora until 2002.
He stresses that everyone in Iraq has suffered because of the war. The numbers of Assyrians make the pain especially acute for a minority proud of its history as the descendants of an empire that covered much of northern Iraq, Syria, Turkey and parts of Iran in pre-Biblical times.
"If 100 Muslims die, it will have the same impact as the killing of one Christian because there are so few of us," Najiba said.
The number of Assyrians and Chaldean Catholics remaining in Iraq — including Kurdistan — is hard to pin down, with estimates ranging from 150,000 to 800,000. It's accepted that the war has driven as much as half the former population to seek refuge outside Iraq.
Najiba said that only 150 of the 1,100 Assyrians who lived in his Dora neighborhood before the war are still in Baghdad. The others are in Syria, Jordan, or cities such as Ainkawa, in Iraq's Kurdish provinces.
They leave a visible mark in Ainkawa. Residents say a third to half the people living here fled Baghdad or Mosul since the war started more than six years ago.
A huge poster showing Pope Benedict XVI greeting Kurdish President Massoud Barzani looms over the main intersection leading into the city, reflecting Barzani's overtures to the growing community.
Green banners for Heineken beer hang from restaurants and bars, advertising a hidden vice in the Muslim cities that surround Ainkawa.
The Kurds "don't do anything to harm us, and that's enough," said Samir Francis, 35, whose home in Dora was blown up two weeks after he abandoned it in 2006, a message telling him not to return.
Others are looking past the physical security and trying to reacquire land and protect their rights in Kurdistan.
Assyrians have been scattered across the globe since the Ottoman Empire flushed many of them out of Turkey in the early 20th century. They've lost territory in Iraq to Kurds and Arabs alike. Many Assyrians who could afford to leave fled the country under Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, settling in Europe, the U.S. and Australia.
Many now live in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley, two primary destinations for Assyrians seeking refugee status in the U.S.
Under Saddam, politically active Assyrians faced targeted threats. Others were pushed off their land, particularly in the countryside. Yonadam Kanna, the only Assyrian member of Iraq's current parliament, had been sentenced to death by the late dictator.
Assyrian Christians and Chaldean Catholics describe Saddam's tenure as a time of persecution, but it was the sectarian violence that ripped apart Iraq between 2005 and 2008 that drove them from Baghdad and Mosul.
Refugees in Ainkawa said they were targeted either for their religious identity or to seize their money and property. They blame mostly Sunni Muslim insurgent groups for the intimidation that evicted them from Baghdad's Dora neighborhood.
Their main concern in Ainkawa today centers on the power of the two leading Kurdish political parties, Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Assyrians say their job prospects are limited if they don't join the KDP or the PUK, a concern shared by some Muslims in Irbil.
The Kurdish government says it's committed to protecting minority rights and has guaranteed at least five seats in its parliament for Christian politicians. Their votes in last month's regional election were split, however, between one Assyrian list that was backed by the KDP and another that emphasized independence from Kurdish groups.
Refugees said they received stipends from the KDP after arriving in Kurdistan and felt compelled to back the KDP's candidates on its Assyrian list. Kurds could benefit from Christian votes if Iraq holds a planned referendum on annexing the Ninevah plains to the Kurdish Regional Government.
"We need Assyrians representing Assyrians, not Assyrians representing Kurds," said John Khora, 20, who volunteered for the independent Assyrian list. "We want the land back we owned from 100 years ago."
Kurds are sensitive to charges that they ignore minority rights because of their history as victims of mass killings committed by Saddam's military. They say they were careful to respect Christian rights when they wrote a regional constitution that recognizes minority languages, allows them to run their own schools and buy property.
"We were oppressed; we don't want to do the same thing," said Wais Mohammad, a general director in the Kurdish ministry that oversees the affairs of displaced Iraqis.
The Kurdish government counts at least 39,000 Muslim and Christian refugee families within its borders — well over 100,000 people among its 4.5 million residents.
Mohammad said the charge that the KDP and PUK try to recruit refugee voters through monthly stipends is a misunderstanding. "It's a custom," said Mohammad, a KDP member. "People when they have problems seek help, and the doors of the political parties are the first they knock on."
That's not the message that Nyaz Matthew, 36, took when he started accepting stipends from the KDP. He supported the KDP-backed-list in the election. A picture of Barzani looks out from his store window.
"I trust the government to respect Assyrian rights," said Matthew, who was displaced from Baghdad in 2006.
More than a few Assyrians are eager to leave Iraq for good. Palander, the refugee from Baghdad, got as far as Greece before he was turned back by authorities who were skeptical about the documents he received to join his parents in San Diego.
"I have nothing here. What am I without my parents?" asked Najiba, who found work in Ainkawa as a security guard at St. Joseph's Church.
Najiba sees those departures and worries that Assyrians could lose what remains of their homeland. With fewer numbers, they'd have little opportunity to reclaim land near their ancient capital outside Mosul, let alone move back to Baghdad.
"Christians have been separated into many parts," he said. "There's no hope for the people who have emigrated. They won't come back."
(Ashton reports for the Modesto Bee.)
ABOUT THE ASSYRIANS
Assyrians are said to be the oldest ethnic group to live in the region known today as Iraq. Three millennia ago, they controlled an empire that extended from modern-day Syria to Turkey, included northern Iraq and parts of Iran.
Their native language is Aramaic, which is thought to be the language Jesus spoke. Assyrians are Christians and belong to the Assyrian Church, a Catholic rite, the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Chaldean Church, both eastern Orthodox rites.
Prior to the U.S. military invasion in 2003, Assyrians in Iraq numbered 1.5 million, or some 8 percent of Iraq's population. At least half of them have since fled the country, however, after Assyrian churches, shops and businesses were attacked.