Anti-Christian atrocities by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) are prompting fresh calls for the long-proposed establishment of a province encompassing northern Iraq's Nineveh Plain that could in time be a semi-autonomous haven for minorities including Christians in their ancient homeland.
For years, activists have been calling for protection and some level of autonomy for Iraq's beleaguered Christians.
The rise of ISIS has brought renewed attention to their plight, particularly with the U.S. and other governments having determined that the terrorist group's abuses against Christians and other minorities in areas under its sway amount to genocide.
On Friday, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebr.) introduced legislation calling for the U.S. and the international community to support the Iraqi authorities in recognizing a province in the Nineveh Plain, "consistent with lawful expressions of self-determination by its indigenous peoples."
The Nineveh Plain is a rural area across the north-eastern portion of the current Iraqi province of Ninawa (or Nineveh). The indigenous people referred to in the legislation are mostly Assyrians, an ethnic group whose forbears embraced Christianity as early as the 1st century, hundreds of years before the Arab/Islamic conquest of the Middle East.
Main Christian denominations include Assyrian, Chaldean Catholic, Syrian Orthodox and Armenian, as well as Protestant and evangelical.
Fortenberry's sense of Congress resolution, with 11 co-sponsors from both parties, was referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Supporters of the initiative include the New York-based Philos Project whose executive director, Robert Nicholson, addressed the issue at the annual In Defense of Christians national advocacy convention in Washington last week.
"How can Middle Eastern Christians be protected? What is their future in the region? These are the questions we're here to ask, with the belief that we can help," he said.
"After much thought, research, trips to the region, we believe that part of the answer lies in the creation of a new province on the Nineveh Plain, a 1,600-square-mile region of northern Iraq and the ancient Assyrian homeland that will be dedicated to the protection and empowerment of these Christians and other minorities as they return home after the Islamic State is rolled back," Nicholson said.
He recalled that months before ISIS overran the area, Iraq's council of ministers agreed in early 2014 to create three new provinces, one being the Nineveh Plain (the other two were in the Fallujah area and around Tuz Khormato in Saladin province.)
Nicholson argued that, as victims of genocide, Assyrian Christians and other minorities in the area deserve priority as the Iraqi government moves towards greater decentralization.
"We believe that they need: safe passage to return to their homeland; administrative autonomy; training and equipment to field their local police and security forces; protection from an international Rapid Deployment Force; first priority for economic aid and development; legal protections for their language and culture [and] greater political participation."
The Philos Project says it "seeks to promote positive Christian engagement in the Middle East by reviving an intellectually rigorous Christian approach to foreign policy."
'The cradle of Christianity'
Writing in The American Interest on Friday, Nicholson, In Defense of Christians senior advisor Andrew Doran and Institute for Global Engagement president emeritus Chris Seiple elaborated on the Nineveh Plain proposal.
"[W]e believe that the creation of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian province for the peoples of the Nineveh Plain in Northern Iraq -- one that could eventually become a semi-autonomous region within a federated Iraq -- is consistent with American values and interests."
The writers acknowledged that there would be many obstacles ahead, including challenges in winning U.S. domestic as well as other governments' support for providing the security that will be needed to protect the nascent province.
"Clearly, it will take visionary and determined leadership in the next administration to turn concept into reality," they wrote. "But without a concept, and without U.S. leadership in promoting it, there looks to be no good ending to what has already been a tragic story. This is a time for courage and steadfastness. Everyone will suffer if we cannot summon it, as the cradle of Christianity is rendered devoid of Christians."
For years the Assyrian Universal Alliance (AUA), an umbrella body of Assyrian federations and organizations set up in 1968, has been pressing for a safe haven for Christians in Iraq.
In 2010, representatives from 16 Christian organizations held an AUA congress in Irbil, and called for "a province for the Assyrian, Chaldean, and Syriac people in the Nineveh Plain in which they would constitute the majority of the population" and with its own "indigenous parliament and a security force."
When campaigning for the presidency in 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked what steps the Bush administration was taking to protect Iraq's Christians.
"The severe violations of religious freedom faced by members of these indigenous communities, and their potential extinction from their ancient homeland, is deeply alarming in light of our mission to bring freedom to the Iraqi freedom," Obama wrote, calling for "an urgent response from our government."
Since then, the situation for Iraq's Christians has become significantly worse, as reflected in the Open Doors USA's annual watch list of the world's countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.
Between 2003 and 2010, Iraq did not make the top ten of the list, but was in the high teens or low 20s each year.
In the 2011 rankings (covering events of the previous year) Iraq entered the top ten, making eighth place. In 2012 it was ninth, in 2013 and 2014 fourth, in 2015 third and this year Iraq is at number two -- second only to North Korea.
Meanwhile the Minority Rights Group International says Iraq is the third-most dangerous country in the world for minorities in 2016, having moved up two places in its annual rankings from last year. The most dangerous countries for minorities this year are Syria and Somalia, it says.