In a secluded guesthouse beside a forest near the Czech town of Jihlava, a delicate experiment is under way.
This is a temporary home for some of the few refugees to have been accepted by the Czech Republic during a migration crisis that has divided its people, and set Central Europe at odds with Germany.
Like Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, the Czech Republic rejects Berlin’s plan for EU states to accept quotas of refugees, and rival rallies in Prague last weekend drew thousands of anti-Islam protesters and people who denounced them as racists.
The Iraqis have landed in a country, and continent, deeply split over the refugee crisis, but something marks them out from the desperate masses that fearful Czechs imagine overrunning Europe – they are not Muslim, but Christian.
They are beneficiaries of a pilot project run by Czech church groups to rescue Iraqi Christians, who have been driven from their homes by extremist groups like Islamic State, otherwise known as Isis or Daesh.
The first 27 Iraqis came to Jihlava late last month, and a further 126 are expected to arrive in several Czech towns before the end of March.
“I converted to Christianity 15 years ago, and was sentenced to death several times,” by extremists and radical Muslim clerics, said Majid Kurdi, who came to Jihlava from Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled the advances of Islamic State across Syria and Iraq, which has devastated a community that faced growing pressure from Islamic extremism since the start of the Iraq war in 2003. When Islamic State seized Mosul, Iraq’s second city, in June 2014, and then towns on the neighbouring Nineveh plain, they killed, raped and enslaved non-Muslims, and banned Christian services that had been held there for almost 2,000 years.
Like the similarly persecuted Yazidi community, tens of thousands of Christians fled east to the Kurdish stronghold of Irbil, which hosts camps for many of Iraq’s displaced people. “Even Irbil is dangerous for Christians – there are many radical Muslims there,” said Kurdi, a Protestant pastor, carpenter and translator who speaks six languages.
“We were surrounded by Muslims where we lived; the school would not teach my son because he is a Christian, and my father-in-law would not accept that his daughter had become a Christian,” Kurdi explained, looking across the quiet fields and forest that ring the refugees’ guesthouse.
“I really needed to rescue my family from the threats and pressure. Now I hope to find work here; we will learn Czech and the children will go to school.” Kurdi (38) has no illusions about how hard it will be for many of his compatriots to adapt to life as refugees in Europe.
“Many of them are now coming from refugee camps, but before that they had big houses, good jobs, plenty of money. Christians lived very well there,” he explained. “Now they must start again, from zero – for the kids it should be possible to integrate, but for the adults it will be very tough.”
Moreover, they are landing in a country where alarm over the refugee crisis is compounded by angry disputes at all levels over how to tackle it. A survey last December showed 60 per cent of Czechs did not want anyone fleeing war to be allowed to enter the country, and only 2 per cent were in favour of allowing refugees to settle here permanently. The government of Social Democrat prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka has offered to take 1,500 refugees on a voluntary basis but, like Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, flatly rejects a quota system that would oblige it to accept many more.
Compared with President Milos Zeman, however, Sobotka can seem like a bleeding-heart liberal.
Zeman, who revels in the role of plain-speaking “man of the people”, has claimed that Muslim refugees would follow Sharia law wherever they settled, forcing women to be veiled, cutting the hands off thieves and stoning unfaithful women.
The former communist has described the refugee crisis as an “organised invasion” and a Muslim Brotherhood plot to take over Europe, and as his popularity with far-right groups has grown, his relationship with Sobotka has soured.
Asked last month how he could remove Sobotka, Zeman quipped: “There is just one democratic option – free elections . . . the undemocratic option is a Kalashnikov.”
Sobotka subsequently accused Zeman of “undoubtedly contributing to the destabilisation of the society” with his repeated, dire warnings of the danger that refugees supposedly present to the Czech Republic.
“We don’t need politicians who, in their own political interests, deliberately blow risks out of proportion,” Sobotka said. “He’s raising tension in society, which is completely unnecessary.”
After last Saturday’s confrontation at Prague Castle between anti-Islam protesters and their opponents, a group of masked men attacked the city’s best-known refugee help centre, smashing windows and throwing flares inside.
Sobotka gave his personal backing to the resettlement of Iraqi Christians, and the government voted unanimously in favour of a project that seems to be broadly accepted in Jihlava, a town of 50,000 people about 130km southeast of Prague.
“People in the Czech Republic aren’t well disposed towards refugees, but the public is generally positive about this project,” said Martin Frydl of Generation 21, the foundation that is co-ordinating the resettlement scheme.
“There have not been any protests, and most people seem to realise that they have no reason to be afraid of these refugees.”
With funding from the UK-based Barnabas Fund and a host of smaller Czech donors, the Iraqis in Jihlava will move into flats after two months, and their accommodation and other costs will be covered for the first six months.
“After that, they can move anywhere in the Czech Republic for work, if they wish. They will be independent, but we will assist financially for a further six months if necessary. And the same will apply to Iraqis in other towns,” said Frydl.
There is considerable scrutiny of the Iraqis in Jihlava, much of whose time in the rustic guesthouse is spent on Czech language lessons and filling in forms to apply for asylum and access to healthcare, schools and the local job market.Inordinate influence How they and other Iraqi Christians adapt to Czech life may have an inordinate influence on how refugees are perceived in a country – and region – with tiny non-white minorities and little experience of how to help foreigners integrate.
“We would be very happy if more people were willing to help refugees,” said Frydl.
“This about Christian values – if a person is in need we should help, regardless of their race or creed. We chose to help Christians because they are in most danger there, along with the Yazidis. But if this project inspires others, we would be very glad.”
For the Iraqis, one ordeal is over, but another has just begun.
“It was very hard to leave my family in Kirkuk, but I was threatened several times,” said a 28-year-old woman who declined to give her name for fear of reprisals against – or from – her relatives, who do not know that she converted to Christianity.
“My father is the head of our tribe – if he knew I was a Christian, he might kill me,” she said.
“Now I just want a safe life – to go to church freely, to wear a cross around my neck. To live without fear.”