Plight of Iraqi Christians Provokes Calls for Special Protection

While the successful penetration by suicide bombers, who killed ten people, including four U.S. nationals, of the carefully guarded “Green Zone” in downtown Baghdad grabbed headlines here this week, another measure of the deteriorating security situation in Iraq came from a more surprising source.

In an article published Thursday in the online edition of the right-wing National Review, an influential neoconservative activist appealed to the Bush administration to create a “safe haven” within Iraq specifically for Iraq’s estimated 800,000 Christians, or “Chaldo-Assyrians,” 40,000 of whom are believed to have left the country since the U.S. invasion in the face of growing persecution.

The creation of such a zone, which is contemplated under the interim constitution approved by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) earlier this year, could curb the growing exodus and might even persuade some who left to return, according to the author, Nina Shea, the director of Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom.

“The community needs U.S. help to create such a district which should encompass the traditional community villages located near Mosul, in the Nineveh Plains,” according to Shea. “They believe that thousands of their members who have fled to other countries in the Middle East over the decades but are not permanently resettled could be persuaded to return to such a secure place.”

She also called on the State Department to begin providing reconstruction aid directly to the Christian community in the region, and not just to Arab and Kurdish groups living in the region.

Calling the Chaldo-Assyrians the “canaries in the coal mine for the Great Middle East,” Shea, who enjoys good relations with the Bush White House, noted that “the extent to which they are tolerated in the new Iraq is being watched closely by Maronites of Lebanon, the Copts of Egypt, and other non-Muslim populations in the region.” Like the Chaldo-Assyrians, the Maronites and Copts are Christian.

Her appeal echoed those of a number of Iraqi-American Christian groups which met here earlier this month in a concerted effort to draw attention to their co-religionists’ communities which has deteriorated sharply since the U.S. invasion.

“Widespread and systematic abuse of human rights and targeted killings of Christians continue every day in Iraq, mainly in the Kurdish-controlled areas in the North, Mosul, and Baghdad,” asserted a letter to the U.S. Congress sent by the 70-year-old Assyrian American National Federation (AANF) late last month. “As a result of such atrocities, some 40,000 Assyrians have already fled Iraq since July of this year.”

“Iraq, once the center of the earliest Christian churches in the world, may soon be cleared of its Assyrian population, the only indigenous people of that country – ancient Mesopotamia,” warned the letter, which also called for Congress to earmark five percent of total reconstruction aid for Iraq “for the safety of the Christian population and the rebuilding of their villages.”

Communities of Christians have indeed inhabited modern-day Mesopotamia virtually since the dawn of Christianity 2,000 years ago. Most are Chaldeans, or Eastern-rite Catholics, whose native tongue is Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Most of the other Christians are Assyrian, who belong to different denominations, including the Ancient Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Chaldean Church, and Protestant churches. The remainder consist primarily of Syrian, Armenian, Greek Catholics; Armenian and Greek Orthodox; and, Mandaeans, who are followers of John the Baptist.

Historically, the Chaldeans and Assyrians have been concentrated in the Mosul area, although many left seeking economic opportunities in other regions. During successive periods of “Arabization” in the post-colonial era, and particularly under Ba’athist rule, some Christian communities, like other non-Arab groups, particularly Kurds, were displaced in order to make way for Arabs, especially from the southern part of the country.

According to the last national census in 1987, Iraq had some 1.4 million Christians, but most sources estimate that 800,000 at most remain in the country of some 23 million today. Most of the emigration took place after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 when UN sanctions brought intense economic hardship on middle-class families, in particular, a disproportionate number of which are Christian.

As the sanctions continued to weaken the middle class during the 1990s, tens of thousands of Christians emigrated to nearby Arab countries, notably Syria and Lebanon, Europe and North America.

Under Saddam Hussein, Christians, particularly Assyrians who were sometimes referred to as Christian Kurds, suffered from forced relocations in the north, and, like Kurds and Shiites, were banned from organizing political parties. At the same time, they were welcomed into the Ba’ath Party (which was co-founded by a Christian) and were permitted to rise, as did then prime minister Tariq Aziz, to senior posts. The regime did not interfere with their religious practice, and, in some cases, even provided subsidies to churches.

With the rise of Islamist sentiment, even before the U.S.-led invasion last year, Christians grew increasingly concerned about their fate in Iraq. Popular pressure induced the regime to adopt Islamic slogans, build mosques and even introduce a ban on alcohol, which hit the almost exclusively Christian liquor-store and restaurant owners particularly hard.

On the eve of the war, Pope John Paul II, along with a number of Iraqi Christian clerics, made private and personal appeals to the Bush administration not to go to war, in major part because of their fears that the aftermath could expose the community to much greater risks and persecution.

“The concern is that Christians will disappear,” Bishop Pierre Whalon, an Episcopal official working with the Chaldean church, told the London-based Financial Times on the eve of the war. “The present regime gives them some tolerance; who knows what the next one will do.”

Those fears, which were broadcast before the war by U.S. Christian denominations but pooh-poohed by the neoconservatives and other hawks before the war, now appear to have been well-grounded. Christian liquor-store and restaurant owners and their families have been attacked – sometimes fatally – in predominantly Muslim towns and cities, while last August, five churches in Baghdad and Mosul were blown up in a coordinated series of bombings. At the same time, wealthier Christian families have been targeted for kidnapping by criminal gangs.

Christians have also come under attack by Kurdish militias in the north, including Mosul itself, where Kurds have clashed frequently with Arabs and other minorities as they have tried to extend their control to “Arabized” areas, which they consider to have been traditionally Kurdish.

“They worry that this may be the beginning of either a jihad by Muslim extremists or an ethnic-cleansing campaign by Kurds, with whom they live in close proximity, or both,” wrote Shea, who said the administration “cannot afford to be indifferent to the persecution facing the Chaldo-Assyrian religious minority.”

The result has been an exodus of an estimated 40,000 Christians so far, most of whom have emigrated to neighboring Syria. At the same time, many others from Baghdad and the south have reportedly tried to move back to their traditional homeland near Mosul, particularly around Dahouk, Zakho, and Irbil.

It is this area that, according to Shea and the Christian Iraqi-Americans, should be carved out and given special protection as contemplated by section 53(D) of the CPA-approved Basic Law, on which the interim government, however, has not yet taken a position.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.