A new plan for Christian self-autonomy within Iraq's Kurdish region has sparked debate among Iraqi Christian leaders desperate to halt the mass exit of Christians from Iraq.
With church-bombing and priest-kidnapping on the rise in Mosul and Baghdad, Iraq's Christian population is estimated to have dropped below 450,000, half the size it was in 1991.
"A year ago, the plight of the Christian community was not very well known," Michel Gabaudan of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told The Associated Press in a December 15 article. "But that has changed, because we now have very clear evidence that they have been persecuted."
Iraq's half-a-dozen or more historical churches, many of them dating back to the first three centuries after Christ, agree that something must be done to preserve their existence. But consensus on a solution has proven elusive.
Disagreement exists over whether to cooperate with Kurdish leadership to form an autonomous area within Iraq's Kurdish federal state, or to go it alone and create a new federal state solely for minorities. One Chaldean archbishop has said that either plan would only make things worse by creating a Christian "ghetto."
Sarkis Aghajan is one man who may have the biggest say in the future of the Christian community. As Iraqi Kurdistan's Minister of Finance and Economy and a Christian member of the governing Kurdistan Democratic Party, Aghajan has financially supported thousands of Christian refugees from the south while calling for a Christian region attached to Iraqi Kurdistan.
"I demanded the right of autonomy for our [Christian] people -- Chaldean, Syriac, Assyrian -- to be fixed in the Kurdistan Region Constitution," Aghajan told Compass by e-mail.
Aghajan publicly backed a statement last month by five Christian political parties calling on drafters of Kurdistan's Regional Constitution to guarantee an autonomous Christian area in the Nineveh plain, Iraqi Christianity's ancestral homeland north of Mosul.
"Since the Nineveh plain falls within the expanded boundaries [of the Kurdish region], we propose to include in the constitution a clear text of our people's right to autonomy within the said plain," the November 10 document stated.
Kurdish leaders' initial response was positive.
"It is their right to have their rights recognized and fixed in the Kurdistan Regional Constitution, including their right to autonomy in Nineveh plain," Iraqi Kurdistan Prime Minister Nejervan Barzani said in a December 6 press conference. "This is our permanent policy."
But some Christian leaders have opposed any plan to cede the area to Iraqi Kurdistan, saying that Christians and other minorities need a completely separate federal state.
Most vocal on the international scene has been Pascale Warda, former Iraqi Minister of Displacement and Migration.
Warda visited the United States in October to drum up support for a separate federal state for non-Muslim minorities in the Nineveh plain, a plan supported by the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM).
The ADM's campaign has been fueled by reports from the Assyrian International News Agency that Kurdish police and militia have been terrorizing Christians. According to a December 18 Religion News Service article, Kurds have also seized land owned by Assyrian Christians.
Compass sources in the area were unable to confirm these reports. In a November interview with Zinda Magazine, Iraqi Kurdistan's Christian Tourism Minister Nimrud Baito denied outright allegations that Kurds were taking Christian lands.
Despite negative reports, Kurdish leaders appear to have made a sincere bid to attract Christians to their northern region.
"We welcome any Christian brothers who choose to come and live in Kurdistan, whether temporarily or more permanently," Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani said in December 2005. "You are free to accept this fraternal co-inhabitance and to help in the building of your country."
Christian finance minister Aghajan has made good on that promise, constructing more than 100 new villages and churches for Christian refugees.
"Over 5,000 houses have been constructed for Christians, in addition to schools, health centers, Internet centers and occasion halls," Aghajan told Compass.
Even Kurdish Muslim converts to Christianity enjoy a wide range of freedoms traditionally limited to the historic churches, building churches and openly identifying themselves as Christians.
"I'd rather see a Muslim become a Christian than see him become a radical Muslim," Kurdistan's regional prime minister told Radio Sawa in May.
But incorporating a Christian Nineveh plain into Iraqi Kurdistan is more complicated than squeezing a guarantee into the new Kurdish constitution, up for vote in April 2007.
The real test for any form of autonomy would be winning the required approval in Iraq's national parliament in Baghdad, where minority Christian ministers would need to bargain for the backing of Kurdish or Shia groups.
Three districts that constitute the Nineveh plain would also need to hold separate referendums to obtain self-government, within Iraqi Kurdistan or otherwise.
Kurdish forces currently occupy the districts and provide security, though the area belongs to the Mosul governorate under Baghdad's central government.
Many of the villages surrounding Mosul, the biblical city of Nineveh, are majority Christian. But the plain remains diverse, holding Yezidi, Shebek, and Sunni Arab groups. Observers told Compass that any referendum for autonomy would likely need at least a coalition of Christians and Yezidis to succeed.
It is highly unlikely that Iraq's Sunnis, who currently control the Mosul government that administers the three districts, would support a plan for any form of minority autonomy.
And that is where problems may begin, Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk Luis Sako told Compass.
One of the few Iraqi clergymen to raise his voice on the issue, Sako said he expected that any announcement that Christians were pursuing their own region would violently backfire.
"We have 300,000 [Christians] in Baghdad, Kirkuk and Basra, and in most cases they will have problems, maybe even be persecuted for that," the archbishop said. "Others will say, 'Get out of here, go to your own area.'"
The archbishop said that he doubted the Nineveh plain could be made secure, sandwiched as it is between the Arab and Kurdish regions.
"Christians cannot live in isolation -- we are in the north, we are in the middle of Iraq and we are in the south," Sako said. "Wherever we are living, we should cooperate with citizens. We don't have to create a ghetto."
But some leaders pointed out that attacks on Christians were already on the rise before any plan for Christian self-autonomy was publicized.
"We've been seeing attacks against our people in the Mosul area anyway," commented Tourism Minister Baito, a strong supporter of Christian autonomy within the Kurdish region and head of the Assyrian Patriotic Party.
"The Kurds want to work with us to show the United States and Europe that they are democratic and look after minorities," said Paul Koshaba, the leader of a Christian tribe that in 1964 split from one of Iraq's largest Christian communities, the Assyrian Church of the East. Koshaba has been working to heal the rift, believing that only a united church can survive in Iraq.
"This is our last chance," Koshaba told Compass in a new village constructed by Aghajan outside of Dohuk last month. "We have to grab it now or it will slip away from us."
Personal Struggles of Iraqi Refugees
Bundled against the cold, a handful of Iraqi Christians served their guests hot sweet coffee in a blown-out concrete school building, all that remained of their village in northern Iraq last month.
Three months ago, the village of Havrez lay completely deserted, empty since Saddam Hussein's forces destroyed it in 1978. Until recently, anyone willing to follow a faint set of tire tracks through farm fields to find Havrez could be forgiven for assuming that the lone concrete structure was still vacant.
But two weeks ago, Iraqi Kurdistan's Christian finance minister, Sarkis Aghajan, began funding the construction of new homes for 25 Armenians from Baghdad who returned to the village outside Dohuk city as part of an increasing flow of Christians forced northward and abroad by escalating violence in Iraq's south.
"Some 40 houses will be built urgently as a first stage before the snowfall in order to house those miserable families," a member of Aghajan's staff told Compass.
For the villagers, day-to-day survival supersedes debate over a safe haven.
"The UNHCR gave us warm tents, but they collapsed under the heavy rains last week," one villager told Compass. Now all the women and men sleep in two large concrete rooms, the windows covered with tarp to retain some heat while they await their new homes.
Like many members of the refugee village, Adis Yohannes Markar was a former car electrician in Baghdad. He does not know how to raise crops and has no source of income at his new home in the middle of farming country.
"This is my father's village and my grandfather's, it is my home" he replied, when asked why he didn't move to the cities of Zakho or Dohuk, where he might have practiced his trade.
"These are the poor people of Iraq who have nowhere else to go," explained one visitor to the village. Most Christians with the means to do so have already left the country, and a second wave of refugees -- the poorest of the poor -- have been moving steadily to the Kurdish controlled region in the north.
The influx of refugees has fed unemployment and dramatically increased the cost of living.
"The biggest problem here in the north is economical, not religious," the Christian deputy governor of Dohuk, George Shlimon, told Compass last month. "People fleeing north have no experience farming ; they need jobs."
But most refugees prefer unemployment in the north to sectarian violence in the south.
Islamic gangs have begun implementing a tax on Christians in the city of Mosul, Christian sources still in the city told Compass. Those who refuse to pay are often kidnapped and killed.
"The sheikh at the mosque next to our house told Muslims over the mosque loudspeaker not to buy houses from the Christians because the land was already theirs," a Christian from Mosul told Compass in Dohuk last month. The former bank manager had fled north with his family after his home had been bombed for refusing to pay 3 million Dinars (US$2,276) to a local gang.
Last week, three Armenian Orthodox brothers were killed at their car repair shop in Mosul while physically resisting a terrorist group that had attempted to take them hostage, sources in the city told Compass.
In a separate incident last week, a Christian man identified only as "Khayri" was killed and his young child held for ransom. The captors initially demanded US$50,000 for the child's return but eventually accepted US$35,000 from a relative, sources in Mosul said. The Christian's widow and two children have now moved to the predominantly Syrian Orthodox village of Bartalla, 25 kilometers (15 miles) east of Mosul.