Is creating a new Christian-dominated province in northern Iraq a solution to the plight of Christians in the country? Well, that is the question being raised after Iraqi Christians proposed the idea and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani expressed support for the call, which came after a bloodbath in a Syrian-Catholic church in Baghdad in October.
Representatives of Assyrian, Chaldean and Aramaean Christians in Iraq are proposing the creation of an autonomously administered region for their people in the Ninewa province in the northern part of the country. "In the Ninewa plains, Christians, Shabak, Yazidi and Muslim Kurds make up the majority of the population. Thus the Assyrian/Chaldean/Aramaean demand is completely justified," says the president of the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP), Tilman Zülch.
"Most importantly, autonomy for the region could help protect the smaller ethnic and religious communities if this area is connected to the peaceful Iraqi-Kurdish region," Zulch said this month. "The situation there has been safe for years, and the policies of the regional government concerning nationalities is exemplary for the entire Middle East region." The Christian communities in Iraq seem to be suggesting a smaller version of Iraqi Kurdistan -- a largely autonomous region with less oversight by the national government.
"The constitution of Iraq permits the formation of autonomous regions and provides for a referendum on affiliation, including for parts of the Ninewa," according to Zülch. "The referendum must be held soon, as it is in the best interests of the security of all minorities." Talabani, in a French television interview last week, supported the creation of a new province where Christians are the majority.
"There are regions with Christian majority in Iraq and we do not have an objection regarding forming a special province for Christians in Iraq," he told France 24 television. "Protecting Christians is a holy duty for Iraqi government and all political blocs," he said, adding that the dominant Shiites have expressed their readiness to form armed teams to help and protect Christians.
Iraqi Christians had enjoyed privileges under the Saddam Hussein regime. They were among the best educated Iraqis and ran successful businesses. Saddam's former deputy Tareq Aziz is a Chaldean Christian. The Christians were concentrated in Basra in the south, Mosul in the north and Baghdad in central Iraq.
Their religious freedom was never challenged while Saddam remained in power. In the early 90s, there were one million Christians in Iraq. The number dwindled since then, with many finding refugee in the West and elsewhere if only to escape the impact of the UN sanctions imposed on Iraq following its August 1990 invasion and seven-month occupation of Kuwait.
Between 700,000 and 800,000 Christians remained in Iraq at the time of the 2003 invasion and ouster of the Saddam regime. It is estimated that their number today is around 500,000. According to Zulich, since 2003 more than three quarters of the 400,000 Christian inhabitants have fled Baghdad with its five million people.
Since the 2003 US-led invasion of the country, they have been targeted for intimidation, oppression and violence. Churches are routinely vandalised; Christian-owned shops are attacked; Christian women are forced to follow the Islamic dress code; and Christians are warned to leave their homes and get out of the country. Many of them do not dare to go to mass or send their children to a Christian school for fear of militant attacks.
Most have fled to neighbouring Syria and Jordan and sought refuge in Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other countries through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Many succeeded and others are waiting for their turn. Few of them are willing to return to the misery they suffered in their country.
The worst violence against Iraqi Christians came on Oct.31 this year when gunmen on the Church of Sayedat Al Najah (Our Lady of Salvation) in Baghdad and took dozens of worshippers as hostages. The operation, claimed by Al Qaeda, appeared to have been aimed at using the hostages as bargaining chips to secure the release of prisoners in Iraq and two Egyptian women the group said were held by the Coptic Church in Egypt after they converted to Islam.
However, the plot was thwarted when US-backed Iraqi security forces stormed the church. About 50 worshippers and two priests as well as all the gunmen were killed in the ensuing battle. Since then, attacks have continued. Improvised explosive devices and rockets targeted Christian homes in several neighbourhoods of Baghdad, killing and wounding dozens and causing severe damage to the buildings.
Iraqi Christians leaders argue that a semi-independent micro-province for their folks could well encourage many to stay and could encourage Christians in other parts of the country to move there. On the other hand, others argue, creation of such a province could also add to the "internal "borders" separating the various religious and ethnic groups in the country.
It is unclear whether the Christian call for a separate province will be seriously followed up and such an area will be created. In the absence of a safe haven, Iraqi Christians, who have a long history in Iraq, face the prospect of being wiped out, something that the many invaders of the country failed to do. It is slowly happening now, and the sole responsibility for it lies with George W Bush, who, in his then capacity as US president, ordered the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 that tore apart the religious and ethnic fabric of the country.