"THEY held me captive for five days, without food nor water, constantly beating me. One day I heard them coming down the basement where I was held.
"Suddenly, I felt a cold blade under my neck and someone told me, 'If you become a Muslim, we will not kill you.' "
"Once, they took [the cross] and put it inside a bottle full of pee while I was watching. 'Let this cross help you now,' they said, laughing."It was July 2006 and Sefarian, an Armenian Christian living in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, had been kidnapped by a group of Islamic fundamentalists while working in his grinding machines workshop. At that time he was just the latest victim in a series of abductions and killings of Iraqi Christians that continue today.
"They kept me constantly handcuffed and blindfolded. I just had a sack of charcoal as a pillow and a bottle for my physical needs," he says, sorrow darkening his face.
After five days Sefarian was released, when his family agreed to pay a hefty ransom of $US72,000.
It was the second time Sefarian had been kidnapped by one of the many armed groups active in Mosul, the first time being a one-day imprisonment in January 2005 that ended after his family paid $US12,000 to his captors.
His wife's cousin, also a Christian, was kidnapped on another occasion but was not lucky enough to survive: after three days, he was found dead by his family.
Today, Sefarian is one of the 35,000 Christian refugees from all over Iraq who have found shelter in Kurdistan, the autonomous northeastern part of Iraq and the only stable region of the country.
But what was once a haven for Christians is rapidly turning into the last departure point for the tens of thousands who feel they have no future in their home country.
The Christmas bombings in the Christian neighbourhood of Doura in Baghdad, which caused the death of 34 people last Wednesday, are just the latest in a series of attacks and problems Iraqi Christians have had to face.
Hampered by a lack of economic prospects, mixed with language and cultural barriers, and with no proper political protection, more and more Christians are leaving the region, abandoning Kurdistan, and Iraq, for good.
According to recent estimates, the Iraqi Christian population has shrunk to between 300,000 and 500,000 from a high of 1.3 million people in 1991, raising fears about the possible extinction of one of the most ancient Christian communities in the world.
A 2011 report by the International Organisation for Migration shows the number of displaced Christian families in the four northern governorates of Iraq (three of them in Kurdistan) decreased from 1350 to fewer than 500, while in the same year the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in neighbouring Turkey recorded an increase in Iraqi refugees, half of them (about 1700) Christians.
Divided into five different religious confessions that range from Catholic Chaldeans to Nestorians and Orthodox, Iraqi Christians are almost all ethnic Assyrians, a neo-Aramaic or Syriac-speaking population tracing its origins back to the ancient community that used to inhabit Mesopotamia more than 4000 years before Christ.
Evangelised during the first three centuries AD, Assyrians have embraced Christianity ever since, fiercely resisting the periodic attempts of Arabisation and Islamisation carried out by Arab and Ottoman rulers throughout the centuries.
Proudly calling themselves the original inhabitants of Iraq, Christians are now facing one of the toughest challenges to their existence: numbering just a few hundred thousand out of more than 30 million Iraqis, Christians have been politically sidelined in a country organised along sectarian and ethnic lines dominated by the far bigger Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities.
"We are the weakest link in the Iraqi mosaic," explains Keldo Ramzi, the Christian secretary of the Chaldo-Assyrian Youth Union in Erbil.
"If anyone wants to send a message to the US, he targets Christians or bombs churches."
The worst attack happened in October 2010, when a series of suicide bombings hit the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, causing the death of 58 people.
According to a recent report published by the Assyrian International News Agency, at least 71 churches have been attacked or bombed in Iraq since 2004.
Itself home to a local Christian population numbering about 160,000, Kurdistan has long been a haven for Iraqi Christians.Thanks to its ethnic homogeneity and the political autonomy gained in 1991, the region has been able to avoid the daily bombings and sectarian killings that have ravaged Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Here, local authorities proudly boast, all religions are protected, according to the spirit of the new Iraqi constitution. "We respect Christians, and Christians respect us (Muslims)," declares Kamil Haji Ali, the Kurdistan Regional Government's Minister of Endowments and Religious Affairs.
But even if Christians can profess their faith in relative safety here, many, like Sefarian, claim their civil and economic rights are not respected. After selling his four-storey house in Mosul, in August 2006 the old man moved with his wife and son to Erbil, where he now rents a small apartment in Ankawa, a Christian enclave on the outskirts of the city.
But without a pension or other forms of assistance from the Iraqi government, Sefarian is forced to rely on his son's wages to survive.
"In Mosul, I was living like a king," he says, laughing bitterly as he casts a quick glance at the pictures of Christian saints and crosses adorning his living room. Here in Erbil he has to renew his residence permit every year, a procedure that includes finding a local sponsor and takes time and money.
"I can't find a job at my age. I don't speak (Kurdish) and don't have any means to survive."
While the region has registered an impressive economic boom driven by oil exploitation since 2003, many Christians claim to have experienced only the worst part of it. Houses in Ankawa have been sold to Muslims, contravening a "gentlemen's agreement" Christian politicians say was reached with the KRG to preserve the Christian identity of the area.
"They are building new, very expensive apartment towers that nobody here will be able to afford," claims Naurad Youssif, a 41-year-old Christian from Ankawa working at the local post office.
"Christians here are a poor community and those apartments will not be for us."
The fall of Saddam has not brought only problems, though. While under the previous regime Assyrians were assimilated to Arabs, the new Iraqi constitution recognises them as a distinctive ethnic group, allowing them to use Aramaic (instead of Arabic) in churches and schools for the first time in Iraqi history.
But the aftermath of the Arab Spring, with Islamist parties winning elections in Tunisia and Egypt, has not gone unnoticed here, raising more doubts about how a democratic Iraq may turn out for Christians.
"If political Islam will take control of the government here, I don't know what might happen to us in 50 years," says a worried Farouk Anna Atto, director of the Ankawa Syriac Heritage Museum, an exhibition illustrating the history of Assyrians.
Faced with a constant haemorrhage of people, some Assyrian parties are proposing to create an autonomous region in the Nineveh plains, an area of 4000sq km east of Mosul, where Christians could live as a majority and govern themselves. The project, which would create a Christian enclave in an oil-rich area whose control is still contested between Kurdistan and the Iraqi central government, has been already rejected by many Christians.
"It's a project the Catholic Church has always opposed," says 43-year-old Afnan de Jesus, an Arab Chaldean nun, originally from Mosul, who converted to Christianity.
"I think it would be very dangerous to live just among ourselves, isolated from the others," she adds, looking at the three other nuns sitting in the main room of their convent in Ankawa. The Little Sisters of Jesus, as the religious order is called, were forced to leave the Baghdad neighbourhood of Doura in 2006, after violence and killings had reached an unbearable level. Before 2003 Doura was home to more than 2000 Christian families; now only 150 remain.
Yet if the majority of local Christians seem resigned to choose between a life in exile and an uncomfortable existence here as second-class citizens, a young and active wing of the Christian population is trying to fight this passive mentality. Globalised and English-speaking, many Christian youngsters are employed by foreign companies working in Kurdistan, aware of their rights and willing to keep on living in Iraq, no matter what.
To do so, they are ready to break the nexus between religion and politics that, in their opinion, has created so many problems.
"If we reclaim our rights under the name of Christianity we will be very weak, because churches cannot interfere with governments," explains Savina Rafael Daoud, a 22-year-old Assyrian woman from Ankawa. Taking advantage of the overall good relationships between Kurds and Christians, some youngsters are willing to engage with the local society, something the Christian community has refrained from doing so far.
"Christians are not very brave here. Yes, there are problems to solve, but this doesn't mean we should leave this country," says Salim Kako, an Assyrian politician. "We cannot look for the shadow all our life.
"We have to go under the sun and fight for our rights."