WASHINGTON — “Time is running out for Assyrian Christians,” declared Michigan-resident Nahren Anweya, 34, speaking to the Register at the third annual convention of In Defense of Christians (IDC) held in Washington Sept. 7-9.
Born in Iraq, Anweya vividly remembers being slapped in the face by her first-grade teacher in Baghdad, for describing herself as a Christian — signifying the second-class citizenship suffered by the faithful there long before the current crisis.
“We are disappearing literally by the week,” she said, estimating the total number of Christians in Iraq today as fewer than 300,000 (a figure cited by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, down from 1.5 million before the 2003 invasion).
But activists like Anweya are unwilling to concede defeat to the Islamic State (IS or ISIS).
“We want an internationally protected region in our own ancestral lands. We don’t want to disperse an ancient people around the world. We want to stay in our homeland, preserve our Aramaic language and preserve our Christian faith,” Anweya, a member of the Assyrian Church of the East, told Fox News last month.
She is not alone.
The Nineveh Plain, located in northern Iraq, is a multiethnic region. It’s the historic homeland of the Assyrian people, who mainly follow three Christian faith traditions — Chaldean Catholic, Syriac Orthodox and Church of the East — as well as other ethnic and religious groups such as the Turkmen (roughly divided between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, a minority are Catholic), Yazidis and Shabaks.
Growing numbers of well-informed authorities on the plight of Christians have concluded a semi-autonomous province, within a decentralized Iraq, is the answer to the question: What specifically can we do to protect our excruciatingly punished sisters and brothers in the cradle of faith?
Last Friday, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Nebrasks, a Catholic with a graduate degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, introduced a congressional resolution to support the establishment of a “safe haven” for persecuted religious minorities in the Nineveh Plain.
“This resolution, which follows on the government of Iraq’s own initiative to create a province in the Nineveh Plain region, seeks to restore the ancestral homeland of so many suffering communities,” said the congressman in a press release timed to coincide with the IDC convention.
The Iraqi cabinet announced plans to create a new province in the Nineveh Plain in January 2014. And the country’s constitution endorses a decentralized state, though this vision has not been consistently implemented.
Advocating for a safe haven to provide protection to Christians and other persecuted religious minorities gives us a specific focus, said Kathryn Jean Lopez, National Review Online editor at large and founding director of Catholic Voices USA, who moderated a convention panel.
“People don’t want to know about Christian persecution because they feel like they can’t do anything about it,” she said.
Robert Nicholson, executive director of the Philos Project, an initiative that attempts to “promote positive engagement between Christians and the Middle East,” noted that Armenia, Israel, Kurdistan and even American-Indian reservations demonstrate “homelands for suffering minorities actually work!”
Nicholson, a Baptist, walked through the logic for a multiethnic, semi-autonomous homeland in his presentation.
According to Nicholson, once we realize that many suffering Christians are determined to stay in Iraq, we have four options: Let things continue to evolve in an ad hoc way; help them “self-emancipate, create a perimeter and re-establish their body politic”; create a new structure: an autonomous zone within the Kurdish area (where many displaced Christians live); or create a new administrative structure, separate from the Kurdish region, that has a direct relationship with the Iraqi government.
Based on listening to the indigenous people themselves, Nicholson said that the fourth option has the most support. They need protection, but, for historical reasons, they don’t trust those around them, including the Kurds.
And the Nineveh Plain is not historically part of the homeland of the Kurdish people, he said.
“Most displaced Christians want to be part of Iraq, they feel part of the greater country, and the Iraqi constitution makes express permission for this [a semi-autonomous province] to happen,” explained Nicholson.
He added, “Iraq is not a failed state yet, and as far as the U.S. government goes, the Iraqi federal state is the structure with which we are working. Iraq is a country, money goes there, and it is our ally.”
“At the end of the day,” he said, “it has to be an Iraqi decision, but it fits with a larger flow of events, including wide support for decentralization” of the Iraqi state.
Mona Malik, special-projects coordinator for the Assyrian Aid Society of America, said her organization was particularly gratified that the convention spotlighted a Nineveh Plains homeland.
She considers the convention successful because it allowed all Assyrians, of every confession and political perspective, to highlight this common goal.
“Since the Assyrians, for the last 6,000-plus years, and Yazidis, for centuries, are the indigenous people of the Nineveh Plain, it is a natural that the Nineveh Plain and Sinjar [a mountain overtaken by IS forces] are repatriated to the two communities.”
She pointed out the need to look at pre-2003 demographics to understand the historic composition of this territory: “The Assyrians and the Yazidis accounted for 60% of the Nineveh Plain in 2003. Currently, that has dropped to approximately 30%-35%. Forced displacement, persecution and genocide caused the drastic decrease” in population.
Like others at the IDC convention, Malik made clear her positions are based on constant communication with people living in the region and a recent trip to northern Iraq. Malik confirms high levels of mistrust among the displaced, who have been persecuted “not only by ISIS, but by the regional powers, as well. Regional powers not only abandoned the Assyrian and Yazidi villages in June and August of 2014, but the KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party] disarmed them two weeks prior to invasion of ISIS.”
Martin Manna is president of the Chaldean Chamber of Commerce, based in Detroit, Michigan, where some 30,000 émigrés have landed since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
He said metropolitan Detroit has 12 churches serving the Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac communities, which are “interchangeable” in terms of sharing the same perspective.
Regarding a semi-autonomous province, Manna said the community should “act as though it already exists” and start the process of “rebuilding and focusing on the future.”
Yet it is essential to “understand we have enormous issues to make sure a province of our own would work,” Manna added. “It would have to get further support for security from the Iraqi central government and the Kurds.”
In his view, Christians from this region have no choice but to assert a form of independence because, “historically, we have been pawns.”
Genocide and Suspicions
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry finally determined Christian slaughter constitutes genocide last March 17, largely as a result of a unanimously approved congressional resolution on Christian genocide, strongly shaped and supported by IDC and a meticulous report, “Genocide Against Christians in the Middle East,” done with the help of the Knights of Columbus.
According to the report, more than 1,130 Christians have been killed for their faith as part of the genocidal campaign by radical Islamic forces between 2003 and June 2014.
Having determined a genocide is occurring, the U.S. government must now work to bring the perpetrators to justice and take specific action, such as supporting a safe haven in the Nineveh Plain.
Many convention participants expressed suspicion regarding the U.S. government’s tepid response to the plight of Christians and don’t expect solutions from the administration.
George Younes, a Lebanese-American businessman, told the Register, “We [U.S. military] took over Iraq in a few weeks, but we couldn’t get ISIS out for the last two years? If the U.S. wanted to get them out it could have done it a long time ago.”
Younes believes corporate interests — and geo-politics — have a strong influence on events in the embattled Iraq and Syria wars.
“The Nineveh Plain is rich in oil and roads to get oil smuggled from both Syria and Iraq into Turkey,” the Maronite Catholic said. “When ISIS cleared out the Christian communities, it did so to make room for Iraqi and Syrian oil to be trucked to Turkey, refined and sold on the black market. This was intentionally allowed by the U.S. to hurt Russia’s influence in the region as an oil-producing competitor.”
“ISIS was a third-party vehicle for making profits on oil and to curb Russian influence in the region,” Younes concludes, “which is why the U.S. government has been reluctant to address the expansion of ISIS and its slaughter of Christians.”
Not at the Table
What makes advocacy for a Christian safe haven particularly relevant is the fact that the Iraqi government, with support from regional and world powers, is poised to drive Islamic State forces out of northern Iraq’s biggest city, Mosul.
But Loay Mikhael, IDC’s special adviser on Iraq, is nervous. He sees that Christians have no seat at the negotiating table with regard to the future.
“Conspiracy is ongoing. It continues,” he said. “A lot is happening behind the scenes and under the table. What will happen in the post-ISIS era? We, as indigenous people, are not part of this deal, this reconciliation. This is the problem.”
Mikhael said the Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac people must have a presence — and a structure — in the lands from which they have been driven.
“We need to have international observers,” he stated. “People who fled do not trust the central government or the Kurds to protect them.”
Mikhael said Christians must “unify our voice” in support of Fortenberry’s resolution as “a golden opportunity and a last opportunity, because, every month, 50 people flee Iraq.”
So far, he said, “no one in the eyes of the international community is listening to us, so we have to work harder not to be blindsided.”
According to Mikhael, after the Islamic State is routed, it would be an irreparable disaster if international actors looked at the Assyrian-Christian community and said, “Sorry. You were not part of this planning.”
Reason for Mikhael’s concerns can be seen in the Turkish military’s aggressive posture in northern Iraq. Turkey has established a base in northern Iraq just north of Mosul, with hundreds of soldiers training Sunni Arabs and Peshmerga (Kurdish) forces, ostensibly to take back Mosul.
Turkish troops in Iraq are even training Sunni militiamen led by Nineveh’s last governor, Atheel al-Nujaifi, who was dismissed by the Iraqi parliament for corruption and suspected ties to IS.
Christians in the Middle East have a guarded view of the Turkish government, which continues to deny the Armenian genocide, 1915-1923, and facilitated the Islamic State’s growth, said IDC participants.
Many descendants of the Armenian, Syriac and Assyrian genocide are the very Christians being displaced, uprooted and persecuted today.
Turkey has ambitions in the Nineveh Plain, which is just beyond its southeastern border.
These plans do not include support for a Christian homeland, according to experts at the convention, uneasy to be named in light of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s aggressive campaign against all who criticize him.
Armen Sahakyan of the Armenian National Committee noted the Turkish government is “jailing any bloggers or journalist who writes honestly about the Armenian genocide,” including Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.
Sahakyan said he can imagine a positive future for Christians in the Middle East if the stakeholders brought together through IDC remain united: “I think the variable we have to look at is all the people in this room and all our networks. Then I am optimistic. If we shrug our shoulders and walk away, I’m pessimistic.”
Victor Gaetan is an award-winning
senior international correspondent for the Register
and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.