ANKAWA, Iraq, Aug 12 (Reuters) - It looks much like any other Iraqi town, until you notice the number of shops selling alcohol, the young women walking the streets at night in jeans and tight T-shirts, and the church spires.
Ankawa, a town of about 15,000 people just outside the capital of the northern Kurdish region, is almost entirely populated by Christians and has become a bastion of that declining -- some say dying -- community in mainly Muslim Iraq.
Legend says Ankawa was founded in the 2nd century by Saint Thomas the Apostle. It is one of the oldest Christian settlements in Iraq, a land that has deep roots for several Christian denominations, including Chaldeans and Assyrians.
In the early 1990s, Iraq's Christian community was estimated at more than one million with large populations in Baghdad, Basra and the northern city of Mosul.
But since 1991, and particularly over the past 2 1/2 years, the community has fallen into disarray. Christians are fearful religious violence after churches were bombed and Muslim militants targeted Christian-owned alcohol shops.
Many Christians have sought refuge abroad.
Father Youssef Sabri, a priest at St Joseph's Chaldean church, maintains broad connections across the Christian community in Iraq and says the numbers may now have dwindled to 600,000 or less out of a total population of around 27 million.
Far away from most of the bombs that plague the country, Ankawa has emerged as a refuge for Christians seeking to escape violence. It has also become a jumping off point for those looking to flee Iraq.
Around 250 families have come to Ankawa from Baghdad, Mosul, Samarra and other towns in the past year, according to Sabri, while hundreds more have left, moving to Sweden, Australia, Canada, Britain and the United States.
"People here say, 'Rather Ankawa than Baghdad'," said Father Tariq Choucha, another Chaldean priest in the town. "But what they really want is a visa to go abroad and stay there."
In Ankawa, Iraqis who have fled the violence of Baghdad can relax and plan the next stage of their journey, knowing that at least they will not have to take the dangerous road to Baghdad's airport.
As well as alcohol stores, Ankawa has several restaurants, an ice-cream parlour, an Internet cafe and antiques shops. There are two churches and three chapels.
Foreign security companies in the area have set up bases in the town, finding the lifestyle more relaxed than conservative Arbil, the region's capital. Young men and women can walk the streets together, and their dress is as relaxed as in Europe.
Because of the possibility of attack, and the presence of foreigners, security is tight but there have been no problems.
"It is a good community. We even get Arabs coming to visit," said Paulus Danha, 52, who owns an alcohol shop. Business is strong thanks to demand from the security companies and international non-governmental organisations, he said.
The town has also become richer thanks to remittances from abroad. There are 3,000 people from Ankawa living in Sweden, more than 2,000 in Australia and a similar number in Canada, according to Sabri.
Most of those who have left are young men, leaving behind a disproportionate number of young women. But rather than weakening the community, Sabri says it has worked out well.
"Now we see the young men coming back to find wives," he said, introducing a 26-year-old Iraqi now living in Stockholm and his bride-to-be, a trainee doctor from Ankawa.
While anxious about Iraq's wider Christian community, Sabri, who lived in the United States for 13 years and returned to Iraq after the war in 2003, sees some reason to hope.
"It's good for the young people for now if they are abroad and secure, but eventually I think they will come back," he said. "The community is strong and Ankawa is where their hearts are."
- There is no official Kurdish region in Iraq. The Northern Iraq (Assyria) is an occopied land by foreign invaders, some Persian tribes who are called (Kurds)
- Those Assyrians who are the member of Roman Catholic Church falsely are called Chaldeans.