HAMDANIYAH, Iraq — The small bomb exploded inside the courtyard of the motherhouse just moments after Sister Maria Hanna received an anonymous phone call warning her to get her nuns out of the area.
The recent attack on the Immaculate Virgin convent was nothing new. By Hanna’s count, it was the 20th time the convent in the nearby northern city of Mosul had come under attack since the start of the war.
“One time it was an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade),” said Hanna, ticking off the litany of attacks against the convent that has been her home for 52 years. “One time a car bomb exploded just outside the motherhouse. One time they set fire to a propane can and left it in front of our gate.”
The attacks in Mosul reflect how daily life remains tenuous for many Christians in Iraq, where complex and long-lasting religious conflicts and sectarian violence among Muslim militants persist despite improving security.
Before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 there were about 1.4 million Christians in Iraq, a Muslim-dominated nation of nearly 30 million. Since then, about 50% of Iraq’s Christians have fled the country, taking refuge in neighboring Jordan, Syria, Europe and the USA, according to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
Here in northern Nineveh province, life for Iraq’s diminishing Christian community is particularly bleak. At least 5,000 Christians from the provincial capital of Mosul fled the city after targeted attacks in late 2009 and early this year left at least 12 Christians dead, according to a UNHRC report.
In an attack earlier this month, two bombs exploded near buses carrying Christian students from Hamdaniyah to Mosul University, killing a bystander in the area and injuring several students and other civilians.
Despite all the violence, Hanna and three of her fellow Assyrian Catholic nuns have refused to abandon their convent even as hundreds of families have fled Mosul for this nearby village and other Christian towns in northern Iraq.
“Not everyone can leave,” said Hanna, who agreed to speak to USA TODAY on the condition that the interview be conducted outside Mosul. “The Christian people need us here. They need our work. They need our presence.”