WEA-RLC Research and Analysis Report
March 12, 2011
Under constant Islamist attacks, over half of Iraq’s Christian community has fled the country and thousands of others are seeking shelter away from their hometowns. Yet Iraqi authorities remain reluctant to act and it is feared that the remaining Christians may also soon have to leave the restive country. This needs to be averted before it’s too late.
Iraq’s Christians, one of the oldest communities in the world, have faced numerous incidents of bomb explosions, killings, abduction, torture, and forcible conversion to Islam ever since the U.S.-led liberation war began in 2003 – local Christians are seen as allies of the US forces. It is estimated – by conservative standards – that between 400,000 and 600,000 Christians have left the country. Some put the number at one million.
In the past, Christians in the troubled areas, such as the cities of Baghdad and Mosul, had an option to flee to nearby Christian-majority pockets in the autonomous Kurdistan area and cities under the occupation of Kurdish forces, which until recently were not seen as hostile to the Christians. But, of late, even Kurds have begun to persecute them. Perhaps, there are no “havens” left for the Christians.
A recent wave of attacks began in Mosul killing at least 10 Christians in the run up to the March 2010 parliamentary election, which prompted over 4,300 Christians to flee to the Nineveh Plains area. On Apr. 3, 2010, British daily The Telegraph reported that many Christians in Mosul were being stopped on the street and asked for their identity cards – and shot if their names revealed their Christian origins. The exodus surged manifold after a major attack at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad on Oct. 31 last year which killed 44 worshippers and three priests.
The attackers of the Oct. 31 attack were from the Islamist terror group Islamic State of Iraq – Al Qaeda’s name in Iraq. They had demanded the release of two Christian women held captive in Egyptian Coptic monasteries for their conversion to Islam – a rumor supposedly spread by a Libyan Islamist from Al Qaeda, Sheikh Abu Yehya, according to Washington DC-based Hudson Institute.
In the following weeks, hundreds of Christians fled. For example, only one Christian family remained – down from 70 families in 2003 – in Habbaniya Cece town in Anbar Province, now an Al Qaeda stronghold and where an ancient church was bombed in 2005, The New York Times reported on Jan. 20, 2011.
Christians are still fleeing the country, as those displaced by the 2010 attacks are being harassed and have lost the confidence in the government’s ability to protect their lives. While some displaced Christians have returned to their cities, having no money left to survive away from their hometowns, they are constantly haunted by the possibility of another wave of attacks any time, any day. Hospitals, universities and other essential facilities are far away from Christian hamlets and they find travelling too risky.
On Feb. 1, 2011, Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) said a persistent feeling of insecurity was driving more Christians from their homes. IOM counted over 1,300 Christian families seeking refuge in northern Iraq, which is largely under the control of Kurdish people. It also found some real estate agents spreading rumors of attacks to drop property prices and to force Christians to sell their homes. In some areas with high numbers of displaced Christians, rents have risen by 200 to 300 percent.
The Nineveh Plains, a region technically under the government of Ninawa province, north-west of Mosul and where many displaced Christians found shelter, is under the occupation of Kurdish militias shielded by the Kurdish Democratic Party that governs Iraq’s Kurdistan region. The Kurdish forces, believed to be close to the US military, are also persecuting the Christians.
Iraq’s Kurdish leaders, along with the Shi’a political leadership, dominated the drafting of the country’s constitution. They made provisions for the near total autonomy of the Kurdistan Regional Government and a referendum to decide if adjoining disputed territories will become part of the autonomous region. However, the federal government, now dominated by the Shi’as, is delaying the referendum which has angered the Kurds. The ensuing tensions have caused the Kurds to not only overprotect their region but also to make an attempt to establish their control over disputed territories. In the process, they have begun to attack minorities, including the Christians.
Kurdish militias entered Christian hamlets soon after the US operations began in 2003. They claimed they wanted to protect the Christians and other minorities from attacks by the Arabs. However, as the years went by, they themselves began to harass the minority. Before the March 2010 election, Kurdish security forces threatened Christian residents saying they must vote for the Kurdish candidates or face consequences. Kurdish forces have also erected “security” barriers in Christian areas to restrict their movements, making life difficult for them. Local residents believe Kurdish forces have killed and abducted many Christians, reported Assyrian International News Agency, known as AINA, on Feb. 18, 2011.
Around 75 percent of the Iraqi population is Arab, and roughly 15 percent is Kurd. Over 95 percent of all Iraqis are Muslim – 65 percent Shi’a and 35 percent Sunni. Iraq’s politics had largely been dominated by the Arab Sunnis until the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003. Now, the federal government of Iraq is governed by Shi’ite parties led by the Islamic Dawa Party.
Apart from being targeted for their faith by Al Qaeda and related terror groups, Iraq’s Christians are also caught in the crossfire of the Arab-Kurd and Shi’a-Sunni conflicts, which rose to new heights after the 2003 US operations.
So how can the remaining Christians be protected amid such complexities?
First and foremost, the US Forces in Iraq and the Kurdish leadership could be lobbied, given that large numbers of Christians live in the areas that are under the influence of the Kurds, who are seen as allies of the United States. They must be urged to ensure the protection of the Christian residents as well the displaced Christians from the Kurdish militias. They should also be asked to provide their day-to-day needs and long-term needs such as education. Two key persons who could be lobbied are General Lloyd J. Austin III, Commanding General of US Forces in Iraq, and Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government.
Then, the Christians, who have fled to the neighboring nations, including Syria and Jordan, should be identified and their rights ensured as other refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other relief agencies should be apprised of the situation.
Besides, many Christian politicians in the Nineveh Plains are calling for the creation of an autonomous province for Christians as the only hope for their safety. This demand should be evaluated and highlighted in the global mainstream media, which have not covered the plights of Iraqi Christians sufficiently. Moreover, the US must seek a comprehensive settlement between the Kurdistan regional government and the federal government with the help of the UN to ease tensions in the region.
Furthermore, the United States should be asked to streamline its Iraq policy to deal with the failure of the federal and Kurdistan governments to protect Christians and other minorities, and to ensure enactment of special laws to prevent impunity after incidents of religiously motivated violence.
As a long-term goal, Iraq’s secular parties – parties that will treat all religious communities equally – should be strengthened, as they seem far weaker than the Islamists parties which use mosques and other influential religious organizations to mobilize support and financial resources.