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Iraq: Christian Community Faces Uncertain Future In Postwar Era

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Since the U.S.-led war on Iraq started two weeks ago, much attention has been devoted to the demands and expectations of the country's Shia Muslims, Kurds, and Turkomans. But little has been said about Iraq's Christians, the majority of them known as Assyrians and Chaldeans. RFE/RL takes a closer look at the hopes and fears of this group, whose history is intrinsically linked with that of ancient Mesopotamia.

Prague, 2 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush vowed to bring democracy and freedom to all of Iraq's ethnic and religious communities when he discussed his war plans on 16 March with Tony Blair and Jose Maria Aznar, Britain's and Spain's prime ministers, respectively.

In a joint statement released at the end of the summit, the three leaders said they would "support the Iraqi people's aspirations for a representative government that upholds human rights and the rule of law as cornerstones of democracy."

"All the Iraqi people -- its rich mix of Sunni and [Shia] Arabs, Kurds, [Turkomans], Assyrians, Chaldeans, and all others -- should enjoy freedom, prosperity and equality in a united country," the statement read.

Despite Bush's expectations, Iraq's Shia community has not welcomed U.S. soldiers as liberators. It's an attitude that stems largely from recent experience, when Washington encouraged Iraq's largest Muslim group to revolt against President Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War but failed to help the insurgents. Tens of thousands of Shia later perished at the hands of Saddam's Republican Guard.

Whether Iraq's 4-6 million Kurds will preserve the de facto autonomy they have been enjoying in northern Iraq since 1991 remains in question as neighboring Turkey threatens to send large numbers of troops into the area to prevent a resurgence of Kurdish national identity within its own borders.

Analysts also warn developments in the north could eventually pit Kurds against Iraq's Turkish-sponsored Turkomans for control over Kirkuk and Mosul, two former Ottoman cities with large oil reserves.

For Iraq's Assyro-Chaldeans, who represent the country's largest Christian community, the possible fallout of the war remains equally uncertain.

Naman Adlun is a leading member of the Association of France's Assyro-Chaldeans (AACF), which has its headquarters near Paris. He told RFE/RL the U.S.-led war on Iraq, which he describes as "illegal" and "illegitimate," has triggered mixed reactions among France's exiled Christian Iraqis.

"We're having mixed feelings. We generally oppose this war and want it to end as quickly as possible. But, at the same time, we want to get rid of Saddam. It is a little bit difficult [for us]. Our community is split into two groups. There are those who support military strikes on Iraq in the belief that they are the price of freedom. But do we really have to pay such a high price to obtain our freedom? Others oppose those strikes which the U.S. has preferred to a diplomatic and peaceful solution [to the standoff with Saddam]," Adlun said.

Iraq's Assyro-Chaldean community descends from ancient tribes which ruled over the empires of Babylonia and Assyria in Mesopotamia, as the area that lies between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers is known. Reduced to a small nation after the fall of these kingdoms, they embraced Christianity 2,000 years ago and broke with the Western Christian Church in the fifth century.

Although, historically, Chaldeans are former heretics who later reunited with the Roman Catholic Church, as opposed to Assyrians per se, both terms are now used interchangeably to designate the Aramaic-speaking people who live in Mesopotamia.

Assyro-Chaldeans have had uneasy relations with their neighbors in recent history. In the troubled years that preceded the demise of the Ottoman Empire, Assyrians and Armenians alike fell victim to the genocidal policy decreed by the Young Turks government and implemented by Turkish troops and Eastern Anatolia's Kurdish tribes. Assyrians endured additional persecutions under the modern Turkish republic.

In Iraq, hundreds of Christians perished during the 1961 Kurdish revolt against the self-proclaimed regime of Abd al-Karim Qasim, the destroyer of the Hashemite monarchy. If some Assyro-Chaldeans identified themselves with the Kurdish national movement throughout the 1960s, others felt closer to Iraq's Arab population.

Mass Assyro-Chaldean emigration took place during the 1961 Kurdish uprising and during the 1980-88 war between Iraq and Iran.

Further waves of refugees left Iraq's volatile Kurdish north up until the late 1990s, when the two main armed factions that had been controlling the area since the end of the Gulf War -- Mas'ud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) -- called a truce.

Notwithstanding the fact that Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister and Saddam's close associate Tariq Aziz is a Chaldean, tens of thousands of Christians -- mainly Assyrians -- fell victim to Baghdad's policy of forced Arabization implemented after the war in Kirkuk.

There are more than 1 million Christians left in Iraq today. The vast majority of them are Assyro-Chaldeans, but there are also smaller groups of Armenians, Syrian and Greek Orthodox, as well as Syrian and Greek Catholics.

Most Assyro-Chaldeans are concentrated in and around Baghdad. Although there is no reliable population census, Christians are believed to represent nearly 10 percent of the Iraqi capital's population of 6 million.

Tens of thousands of Christians also live in Mosul, Kirkuk, and in the effectively autonomous Kurdish north. Another 50,000 are said to reside in southern Basra, Iraq's second-largest city and a Shia Muslim stronghold.

Joseph Yacoub teaches political science at the French-based Lyon Catholic University. This expert on ethnic and religious minorities said 250 Assyro-Chaldean families have fled Baghdad and headed for Zakhu and Dohuk in Kurdistan since coalition forces started bombing Baghdad two weeks ago. The headquarters of the Chaldean Church in Baghdad recently suffered damage during a U.S. air raid and had to be relocated.

But Yacoub believes the worst is yet to come for Iraq's Christian community. "Especially for Iraq's Christian community, this war is a looming threat because of the confusion that might arise and lead to the perception that a Christian West is fighting a Muslim East. Consequently, there is a risk that Iraq's Christian community might become a scapegoat," he said.

Following the 11 September terrorist attacks on the U.S., Bush spoke of an imminent "crusade" against Afghanistan's Taliban religious militia, triggering protests across the Muslim world.

The White House's subsequent denials that its war plans had a religious connotation have failed to silence critics, however, and Bush's persistent religious rhetoric has continued to fuel suspicion among Muslims.

On 27 March, the U.S. Congress called on Bush to decree a national day of prayer and fasting to secure a quick military victory over Saddam's troops. Voicing discomfort, some lawmakers on Capitol Hill have criticized the resolution for adding fuel to the flames at a time when many Muslims are convinced that the ongoing conflict is a "war about religion."

Yacoub fears that -- despite antiwar sentiments expressed by Christian churches, including Bush's own denomination, the United Methodist Church -- the resolution might backfire against Iraqi Christians.

"[This resolution] is an extremely aggravating factor. Initially, the U.S. administration spoke about a 'crusade,' and we all know what negative impact the Crusades have left on the Arab Muslim collective imagination. Then there came the Manichaean opposition between 'good' and 'evil.' And now we have the U.S. Congress decision, which threatens to spread even more confusion," Yacoub said.

Possible intercommunal tensions are not the sole concern of Iraq's Assyro-Chaldeans.

Despite recent talks between U.S. officials and representatives of the Assyrian-American community, Iraq's largest Christian group remains in the dark regarding its political representation in any post-Saddam administration.

In the lead-up to the war, meetings have taken place in London between officials of the Bush administration and the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a U.S.-sponsored umbrella organization of groups in opposition to the Baghdad regime.

These meetings notably examined several draft constitutions for a post-Saddam Iraq, which Assyro-Chaldeans -- represented at the talks by the Kurdish-based Assyrian Democratic Movement -- say are detrimental to their community.

AACF leader Adlun said the outcome of a 13-16 December INC conference in London raised serious concerns among Assyro-Chaldeans. "Several draft constitutions were presented [at this meeting], some of them emphasizing Iraq's Arabic and Muslim character. We, of course, disagree with such a wording. What we want is a democratic and secular country. These draft constitutions remain on the table today, and nothing has been decided," Adlun said.

In a letter sent to Bush on 13 January, nine Western European-based Assyro-Chaldean associations expressed their concern at the possibility of post-Saddam Iraq being governed by Shariah, or Islamic law.

"In the draft constitution that was presented at the London conference, the reference to Islam is much stronger than in today's Iraqi Constitution. This was done under the influence of some Shia and Kurdish opposition groups. The current Iraqi Constitution says Islam is the religion of the state but nothing more. There is nothing in there that says Shariah is the root of the existing legislation, while the text that was presented [in London] is clearly Islamic. It describes Shariah as the source of tomorrow's legal norms, and the least we can say is that it raises concerns," Religious minorities expert Yacoub said.

Assyro-Chaldeans argue that they are underrepresented in opposition meetings and fear they might be equally underrepresented in Iraq's future parliament.

Some exiled Assyro-Chaldean groups have also leveled criticism at the Assyrian Democratic Movement. They accuse this group of lobbying the interests of Barzani's KDP, which controls those areas where most of Iraqi Kurdistan's Christians live.

In addition, as AACF leader Adlun pointed out, recent U.S.-sponsored opposition talks in London and Ankara have so far failed to take the large Christian communities of Baghdad and Basra into account -- a circumstance that, he implied, could lead to tensions within Iraq's Assyro-Chaldean community.

"More than 500,000 Assyro-Chaldeans live in and around Baghdad, in a part of Iraq that is not autonomous and remains under the control of Saddam's regime. They have to be taken into consideration. If we want to avoid a vision of post-Saddam Iraq centered on the north, on Kurdistan, we have to consult with them. There should be no divisions, no tensions among the Assyro-Chaldean community," Adlun said.

Yacoub said Assyro-Chaldeans insist that the territorial integrity of Iraq be preserved. "We want a democratic and secular Iraq, and we do not want Iraq to be partitioned," Adlun confirmed. "But as far as we are concerned, the post-Saddam era is clouded with uncertainty."