WASHINGTON -- A militant Islamic group in Iraq recently issued a fatwa, or religious edict, to the Assyrian Christian residents of the Baghdad suburb of Dora: Convert to Islam within 24 hours, or face death. At the same time, Muslim neighbors were instructed, over the loudspeakers of local mosques, to confiscate the property of Christians and enforce the edict.
The response was as swift: The majority of Assyrians remaining in Dora immediately gathered whatever they could carry and fled the city.
Iraq's Assyrian Christians know quite well that these latest threats are not empty promises. Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, over 25 churches across Iraq have been bombed, in highly symbolic and coordinated manners. The Islamic group claiming responsibility for the bombing of four churches in August 2004 issued a warning. "To the people of the crosses: Return to your senses and be aware that God's soldiers are ready for you. You wanted a crusade and these are its results."
Several priests have been abducted and beheaded, one in apparent retribution for the pope's public musings about Muhammed and the nature of Islam in October 2006. In March, two elderly nuns were reportedly stabbed to death in Kirkuk. Several Christian women have been beheaded or doused with chemicals for failing to wear the veil. And last October a 14-year-old Assyrian boy was crucified near Mosul.
For the Islamists, the violence has certainly had the desired effect: The massive exodus of Assyrian Christians from Iraq. The UN High Commission for Refugees estimates that as many as a third of the 1.8 million refugees now outside Iraq are Christian.
A similar percentage of the 1.6 million internally displaced within Iraq are likely Christian, many of whom have fled Baghdad, Basra and Mosul to the relatively stable Northern Iraq. The Catholic Bishop of Baghdad, Andreos Abouna, recently stated that as many as half of Iraqi Christians, perhaps half a million people, have fled the country since the 2003 invasion.
Assyrian Christians, the indigenous people of Iraq, the inheritors of the ancient Mesopotamian civilization and the world's earliest converts to Christianity, are at risk of being completely eradicated from their homeland.
In a case of tragic irony, the "liberating" international forces have done nothing to protect Iraq's Christians. Not wishing to admit the catastrophic security failure nor be seen as intervening on a religious basis, U.S. officials have simply stood aside and watched. The State Department's recent offering of 7,000 visas for refugees is not only woefully inadequate but will merely encourage the flight of Assyrians from Iraq.
The United States has been complicit with the destruction of an entire people and should be held liable for the rectification of this misfortune.
Many Assyrians have pled for the establishment of an autonomous region for Christians in Iraq. This zone would likely be situated around the Nineveh Plains, the Assyrians' ancestral homeland, where Christians still comprise the majority. Sargis Aghajan, the finance minister for the Kurdistan Regional Government and himself an Assyrian, has called for autonomy in the Nineveh Plains. He also has financed the construction of thousands of homes in the area and to the north, to prevent those Assyrians fleeing Baghdad and elsewhere from leaving the country altogether.
In March, I joined 1,200 Assyrian intellectuals and civic leaders, both from the diaspora and around Iraq, in attending a conference in Erbil which formalized Iraqi Christians' demand for autonomy. An autonomous region for Assyrians will convince those remaining in Iraq that their faith, language and way of life has a future in Iraq and persuade many of those who have fled to return.
The Bush administration and its Iraqi allies should support this development and ensure its realization. The fate of an entire people lies in the balance.
By Paul Isaac
International Herald Tribune
Paul Isaac is a member of the Assyrian Christian community in Washington and has been a leading campaigner for Assyrian rights since the invasion of Iraq.