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Iraqi Christians cling to last, waning refuges

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Rahho is among nearly a dozen priests who have been kidnapped in Mosul since 2003. Many more ordinary Christians have been abducted. In most cases, a ransom was paid to free the priests, the sources say. Three priests were assassinated.

System of extortion

Christian churches in Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Mosul have been bombed throughout the war. Now, priests and others in Nineveh Plain say they pay large sums of money to Al Qaeda-linked militants in Mosul, the provincial capital, in exchange for protection for themselves and their churches.

This system is akin to the special tax that Christians in the region used to pay under the Islamic caliphate centuries ago. Muslims in the city say the "tax" is extorted from wealthy merchants as well, regardless of their faith.

The "tax" on Christians supposedly safeguards the nearly 2,000 students who commute from the Plain to college in Mosul on buses, according to Ryan Negara from the town of Al Qosh.

Still, according to Mr. Negara, the extortion has not kept Christians safe. He says one of his friends, an engineering professor, was kidnapped with nine students last year and released only after ransom was paid.

On a recent Sunday, families gathered in the courtyard of the Saint Elias Church in Ainkawa, a Christian town inside the semiautonomous Kurdish region. Nearly every one had a heart-wrenching story to tell about kidnapping, extortion, and displacement at the hands of Islamic extremists intent on driving Christians from the region.

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