WASHINGTON (UPI) -- Representatives of Iraq's largest Christian minority, the Chaldo-Assyrians, as well as leaders from Iraq's smaller ethnic minorities and human rights groups met on Capitol Hill Friday afternoon to request special recognition and protection from militant jihadist groups.
"The most strategic, imminent danger of the jihadist movement is to eliminate the kufr (unbelievers) from Iraq," Walid Phares, Middle East analyst with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy told the assembled audience.
Citing a long history of persecution in the region, particularly under the secularizing Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, ethnic leaders linked current attacks to an organized reaction against all non-believers in the Muslim world, including the United States.
James Rayis, Vice-Chairman of the American Bar Association's International Law Section on the Middle East agreed. "Since very early times after the fall of the Ottoman empire there were waves of persecutions."
"(However) the (current) attacks are because of issues of perceived ties to the West -- because of issues that make us an identifiable symbol of the non-Islamic Arab world."
Iraq's non-Islamic minorities, which number over one million and include Chaldo-Assyrians, Mandaeans, Roma, and Yazidi have existed in the region several thousand years before the spread of Islam in 600 A.D.
According to Biblical records, the Hebrew prophet Jonah preached repentance to the inhabitants of the Assyrian city of Nineveh, near the modern city of Mosul, 700 years before Christ.
The occupation of Iraq by U.S. forces and the birth of the Iraqi insurgency have led to a particularly brutal rise in attacks, murders, kidnapping and the destruction of property directed against indigenous Christian minorities.
Nearly 40,000 Chaldo-Assyrians have fled Iraq in the last few months, according to figures released by the Coalition for Human Rights.
Church bombings in Assyrian neighborhoods of Baghdad and Mosul in August and October, mortar attacks and raids against Christian homes, and forced conversions to Islam have also contributed to the unease of a community that has increasingly felt itself under siege by Islamic militants.
At least one militant group, The Islamic Mujahideen, has demanded that all Mandaeans convert to Islam, leave the country, or be killed.
"The bottom line is that there are some very vulnerable religious minorities today in Iraq who are leaving in droves under human rights pressure they are feeling," said Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom.
Among their primary demands, the leaders want the U.S. to tie reconstruction funds specifically to Christian areas affected by militant attacks. "(Reconstruction) funds should be evenly applied to all the people," said Suhaib Nasi, of the Mandaean Society of America.
"When it is in the hands of the (Iraqi) government or the Kurdish Democratic Party it is not being invested and funneled into the various (Christian) regions."
Samer Shehata of Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies traces the current persecution of ethnic Christians to the rise over the last two decades of "militant sectarianism" and "Islamist politics" as vehicles for criticizing Saddam Hussein's secular regime, and now the West.
It is under this unfortunate combination of circumstances that "the Christian minority becomes a target," he told United Press International.
However, Shehata also assigns some of the blame to the Bush administration, for tying development aid and political structures so closely to religious and ethnic identities.
"The glasses through which the U.S. has been looking at Iraq have been sectarian; this just reproduces a situation in which people think of themselves according to these identities."
More problematic is the Iraqi Christian leaders' desire for a self-administered territory, or "safe haven" for ethnic Christian minorities.
According to the Assyrian International News Agency, this territory would integrate areas currently under Kurdish control, containing significant Assyrian populations such as Dohuk, Arbil, Sulaimaniya, Kirkuk, Diyala and the plains of Nineveh in northern Iraq.
The idea of a "safe-haven" is nothing new for the Assyrian community in Iraq, nor are land disputes and questions of security between the Assyrian and Kurdish minorities.
The term originally referred to the Autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq, created in 1992 by the United Nations to protect insurgent Kurds, fleeing Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War.
Ironically, Assyrian leaders accuse Kurdish "squatters" and paramilitary groups of having taken advantage of the U.N. action to expropriate Assyrian land, commit human rights abuses and destroy Assyrian cultural artifacts, thousands of years old.
The Bush administration however, has been consistently wary of claims to territorial autonomy, even in the case of the more populace Kurds. For their part, Christian leaders say they only want security and international recognition as a minority.
"We are Iraqis, we are part of Iraq," Ashur Yoseph, vice-president of the Assyrian Aid Society of America told United Press International. "We want to build a business infrastructure in the plains of Nineveh. We want funds for reconstruction and for developing a region for the majority of Chaldo-Assyrians."
Shea believes that it is in the interest of the United States to more actively defend the Christian minorities. "Without a sizeable non-Muslim minority, moderate Muslims who want to keep religion out of government...will encounter far greater intimidation in raising their voices against the imposition of medieval Islamic law," she wrote in an article for National Review Online.
Irrespective of how the United States responds to their pleas, Shehata is skeptical both about how well the ex-patriot spokespersons represent the wishes of ethnic minorities in Iraq, and how helpful the United States can be to their cause.
"The U.S. is the kiss of death anywhere in the Middle East -- obtaining help from the United States, even if your claim is legitimate, is the quickest way to discredit it."
By Emmanuel Evita