TEL ASQUF - With Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, Iraq's first Christian militia enforces one simple rule on the border of this little village. "Anyone not from Tel Asquf, is banned."
This village in northern Iraq's flashpoint Nineveh province, frequently targeted by Sunni and Shiite fighters, has now taken security into its own hands with armed patrols and checkpoints at the village's four entrances.
The village borders are marked with a sand barrier built by residents in a bid to stop car bombs breaching the perimeter as they did in 2007 when two such attacks within six months rocked the village and spurred the local authorities into action.
"The terrorists want to kill us because we are Christian. If we don't defend ourselves, who will?" asked militia group leader Abu Nataq.
Associated with the "Crusader" invaders, they are often victims of violence.
Iraq's Christians, with the Chaldean rite by far the largest community, were said to number as many as 800,000 before the 2003 US-led invasion, but this number is believed to have halved as people fled the brutal sectarian violence and the poor economic conditions.
Neighbourhood militias have become popular in Iraq, particularly with the rise of the Awakening groups -- former Sunni insurgents who switched sides and are now paid by US forces to battle Al-Qaeda.
But Iraq's Christian population, concentrated in Nineveh and its capital city Mosul, had not until now organised its own fighting force to protect against attack.
"We used to pay "jezya" (protection money) and they would leave us alone," Nataq said in reference to a tax levied on the Christian community by Al-Qaeda in exchange for peace.
But Tel Asquf's villagers rebelled against the payments and called on the help of the Kurdish forces of Arbil, the nearby capital of Iraq's Kurdish region, after judging that its own provincial capital, Mosul, had too large a Sunni population.
"I prefer the help of Kurdistan, of the peshmerga," Nataq said. The Kurdish fighters now controlled the roads leading to the village and claimed large swathes of the region, much to the fury of Mosul's Arab population, he added.
The peshmerga provide Kalashnikov rifles and radios to the 200 Christian militiamen who receive around 200 dollars (140 euros) a month from the Arbil administration to protect the 8,000 inhabitants of the village.
Since the arrangement was introduced around 10 months ago, the Christian militiamen have never had to use their weapons, "because the peshmerga form the first line of defence," Nataq said.
Christian fighters are stationed at the village's entry points and mobile teams patrol inside the inner cordon, especially around the Chaldean Catholic church of St George
On January 6, a series of bombs exploded outside churches and a monastery in Mosul, in an apparently coordinated attack that wounded four people and damaged buildings, as Christians celebrated Epiphany.
In March, the body of Iraq's kidnapped Chaldean Catholic archbishop, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was found near Mosul, prompting the condemnation of Pope Benedict XVI and US President George W. Bush.
Hani Petrus, 45, fled to Tel Asquf seeking refuge from the bloodshed, like dozens of other Christians from Baghdad, Samarra and Basra.
"I am a school headmaster but I used to work in a petrol station in Mosul. The terrorists used to come and serve themselves petrol for free and take money from the cash register: 200 to 300 dollars (140 euros to 210 euros) each time," he said.
"In Mosul, my children were not able to play in the street. I didn't want to let my 12-year-old daughter go to school. I was so worried about her," he said, adding that his family was part of four families crammed in one house.
"We are virtually living on top of one another and everything is expensive because the shopkeepers know that we cannot make the trip into Mosul," he said.
Salem Samoon Jbo used to sell liquor in Basra but fled north, first to Baghdad and then Tel Asquf, after Shiite extremists ordered he close the store in 2006. They had learned that he was a part-time bomb disposal expert for the US forces.
Now the 46-year-old stands guard outside one of the entrances to the St. George church.
He works seven days -- alternating two hours on duty and two hours off -- then takes two weeks off.
"There isn't any other work here. There is nothing else to do. I don't like guns but I have no other choice," he said.
"In any case, it is better than the work in Basra. There, I worked for the Americans and was a target for the Shiite militias. I worked as a bomb disposal expert."
A new report by Iraq’s Ministry of Human Rights that sets out the number of deaths in different ethnic communities caused by direct or indirect attacks in Iraq between 2003 and the end of 2007 showed that only 172 fatalities were from Iraq’s Christians: 107 Chaldeans, 33 Orthodox, 24 Catholics, four Assyrians, three Anglicans and one Armenian.
The report added that about 9,000 Christians were living as IDPs.
Since the US-led invasion in 2003, some estimates put the figure of fatalities of Iraqis (mostly Sunnis and Shiites) up to one million innocent civilians. Over two million Iraqis are living as IDPs.