Rezan Kader recalls a parish priest she used to call uncle when she was a young girl in the Kurdish city of Sulaimani.
"We had a mosque near our house and close to it we had a church with a parish priest who I used to call uncle," remembered Kader, who is now the Kurdistan Regional Government's Representative for Italy and the Vatican.
"When I became a political refugee in France I met him again," she said in an interview with Rudaw. "I told him, 'Here everybody is asking me if I am Muslim.' And he answered me that the beauty of Kurdistan was in this: 'Nobody asked anyone anything.'"
Many years later that sense of tolerance remains rooted in the autonomous Kurdistan Region, which has become the last refuge for some 10,000 Iraqi Christian families escaping violence in other parts of Iraq.
For the Vatican, which is worried that one of the world's longest continuous Christian communities in the world is vanishing due to violence and emigration across Iraq, the Kurdish safe haven has provided a temporary respite.
The Vatican is in a delicate position when it comes to Iraq's Christians: On the one hand, it fears the death of the community if everyone migrates out of fear of persecution and violence; on the other hand, it knows many Christians have no choice but to leave their ancestral homes following threats or anti-Christian attacks.
"Let us fast and pray so that Christians do not emigrate from Iraq," the Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, Louis Raphael I Sako, said in his message for Lent, the Christian period of fasting that began on Wednesday.
"Our Christian identity is deeply rooted in Iraq's history and geography, and it has been so for two thousand years," he observed.
"Our roots and limpid sources are in our country; if we leave, we shall be deprived of our origins. To persevere and hope is an expression of complete faithfulness to our faith and our homeland. You must not listen to those who would bewitch you, nor those who would scare you. They do not want what is good for you," his Beatitude warned.
Iraq's Christian community, estimated at 800,000 -1.2 million before the 2003 US-led invasion that unleashed a wave of sectarian violence, has dwindled to less than half that, as al-Qaeda Sunni fighters have targeted the community.
Last Christmas, 38 people were killed in three bombings in Baghdad's Christian areas, including a car bomb that exploded as worshippers were leaving mass.
In October 2010, al-Qaeda fighters and suicide bombers stormed into a Baghdad church during Sunday mass, massacring 44 worshippers, including two priests and several children. Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, the Apostolic Nuncio (Pope's envoy) to Iraq, told Rudaw that the Vatican is grateful to Kurdish authorities for lending a hand to the country's Christians whenever they could.
"We are grateful to the authorities of Kurdistan when they try to prevent incidents of religious intolerance or condemn those who do not respect it, as has been demonstrated in several cases," he said.
But he underscored that "religious tolerance is only a first step towards the desired religious freedom, which is much more ambitious and must be constitutionally guaranteed and implemented throughout Iraq.
"Unfortunately, there is always and everywhere the risk of intolerance because the laws are not enough. We need to promote a proper mindset from the pulpits of churches and mosques," he added.
Kader, the KRG representative, said that, "Christians and Muslims have always lived together. Christians are in their house, they are not strange to us. They were always partisans, like us."
In a speech at the European Parliament in January, Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Massoud Barzani said that, besides tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds and Muslims from other parts of Iraq, "Nearly 10,000 Christian families have been living in the Kurdistan Region.
"In addition to these families, 26,000 more Christian families from various parts of Iraq came to Kurdistan because of terrorism and because of their exposure to murder and intimidation," he said.
According to Jordi Tejel, professor of international history at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva and author of several books and articles about the Kurds, Kurdish and Christian coexistence dates back many centuries.
"The coexistence between the two groups is very ancient. Both communities have had the awareness that there are minorities and they need to help each other."
But he noted the awakening of radical Islam in Kurdistan over the past several years, seen in attacks on liquor stores run by Christians in different Kurdish cities. French expert in armed-conflict studies and international relations, Gerard Chaliand, noted that, in a very intolerant part of the world, the Kurdistan Region stands out for its tolerance.
"Iraqi Kurdistan looks a lot more tolerant than neighboring countries in general, and has representatives of these groups (Christians and minorities) in their parliament," he told Rudaw. Meanwhile, Kader said that Barzani had been received five times by previous popes.
"After we have a new government elected in Kurdistan we are expecting another visit from the president. There is never an occasion when a Kurdish official visits Italy that does not go to the Vatican." Three years ago, Barzani received The Atlantic Award in Rome for his role in promoting peace, stability and religious tolerance in the Kurdistan Region and Iraq.
Despite all efforts, the Christian exodus from Iraq continues unabated. According to the Chaldean Church, everyday six Assyrian families leave Iraq. They do not only flee the violence against Christians, the attacks on churches -- 73 since 2004 -- or the sectarian strife between Shiites and Sunnis.
Many who were displaced to safer regions, like Iraqi Kurdistan, are escaping another enemy: Unemployment. Last year Iraq -- including the Kurdistan Region -- declared Christmas a national holiday, and big Christmas trees were put up in some cities.
But it will take more than Christmas trees to keep Iraq's Christians from leaving. "Al-Qaeda is the common enemy of all the community; it's the tumor of society now," Kader said.
By Alexandra Di Stefano Pironti