WASHINGTON, October 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Bombed churches, a beheaded clergyman, and the massacre of 13 women and girls. In the last month, these are just the most extreme acts of violence carried out against Christians across Iraq.
In Mosul, Father Boulos Iskander Behnam was kidnapped by men seeking retribution for Pope Benedict's comments about Islam. His severed head and limbs were found piled atop his body. In Baghdad, the Church of the Virgin Mary in Baghdad was just the most recent Christian church to be hit by a bomb blast. An estimated 30 have been attacked in the past three years.
In the southern city of Al-Basrah, where crowds burned an effigy of the pope last month, Christian women routinely don veils to avoid public attack.
From Mosul to Al-Basrah, segments of the Sunni and Shi'ite communities are seemingly becoming united in their hatred of Christians, who have been in Iraq for nearly 2,000 years. They are considered one of the original Iraqi peoples. Biblical references to sites in Iraq are numerous.
When Saddam Hussein was still in power, the country's estimated 1.2 million Christians lived peacefully side by side with Sunnis and Shi'ites, but after Hussein was arrested, they became a target of violence. In some quarters, they are associated with the majority Christian armies of the United States and Britain, who many Muslims believe are waging a modern-day crusade against Islam. A particularly vulnerable group are Christians owners of liquor stores, which Muslims disdain and frequently firebomb.
"Today we are specifically targeted," says Pascale Warda, an Assyrian Christian and former minister in the Iraqi transitional government. "Why we are targeted, we don't know. All Iraqis are targeted, yes, but today, Christian Assyrian, [one of the] original peoples of Mesopotamia, of Iraq, ... are, like [other] minorities, in a very sensitive situation."
Autonomy As A Protection
Warda was in Washington this week to raise her voice about what she described as "a real dark phase" for Iraq's Christians, and to try and convince members of President George W. Bush's administration to support the idea of an autonomous province in Iraq where religious minorities could live without fear.
She is the public face for what is now a three-year-old campaign in Iraq to develop a neglected area located to the north and west of Mosul, called Ninawah Plain, for such a settlement.
A self-governing province, she believes, the only way to stop the violence and the flow of Christian refugees out of Iraq. Citing the UN, she said that "36 percent of refugees are Christian. Why? We are targeted in our church, in our schools, [for] our personal [habits]: 13 Christian women two weeks ago were kidnapped and killed. Why? Because they didn't wear the traditional Islamic veils."
And life for refugees is, she said, very tough. "No country wants to help them, no one likes to really recognize what they're living through every day," she said, describing the situation of Iraqi Christian refugees that she met in neighboring Iraq as "very bad."
Now the director of Iraqi Women's Center for Development in Baghdad, Warda insists that the proposal is not for a "Christian empire" separate from Iraq. Christians, and all Iraqis, she said, want to participate in the democratic development of the country but cannot do so if they are being forced to flee for their lives.
An estimated 200-300,000 Iraqi Christians have fled to surrounding countries since the war began. Only one Christian currently serves in the 275-member Iraqi National Assembly.
Stopping the Christian exodus is in the best interests of both Iraq and the United States, Warda argues, because their presence ensures that Iraq remains a diverse country that embraces the democratic ideals of tolerance and multiculturalism. The Christian voice, she said, is a voice for democratization.
Time For 'Kindertransport'?
Michael Youash, of the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project -- the group that brought Warda to Washington -- said the delegation has met with staff members of the National Security Council, State Department, and Vice President Dick Cheney's office. He said the response had been polite and at times warm, but not enthusiastic.
Father Keith Roderick, the Washington representative of the religious-rights group Christian Solidarity International and the secretary-general of the Coalition for the Defense of Human Rights, appeared at the press conference with Warda to "stand in solidarity" with the persecuted Christians of Iraq.
"It's striking that during the month of Ramadan, which has been such a violent month for religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq, that there hasn't been any form of protest aimed at the defense of these minorities," he said.
Roderick criticized the Organization of Islamic Countries for not reacting when Father Iskander was beheaded in Mosul, and decried the fact that no Muslim leader in Iraq has protested.
"The problem," he said, "is that no one has raised that call within the Sunni or Shi'ite communities, or the Kurdish community, to end the violence against others: against the Assyrians, Chaldeans, Mandeans, Turkmen, Yezidis, and Shabak. Their blood is flowing freely in Iraq."
He also endorsed the idea of an autonomous province. While he emphasized that this would not stop the violence in large cities such as Mosul, Baghdad, and Al-Basrah, "it would provide a place where people can go for sanctuary if they need to," adding that "it is not a safe haven but it is an autonomous administrative unit, by which the affairs of the persecuted minorities are governed by themselves, and they have an opportunity to participate in the federalist system which is developing in Iraq."
Roderick noted that although the U.S. Iraq Study Group -- headed by former Secretary of State James Baker -- is currently considering a proposal to divide Iraq along ethnic lines, the Assyrians are asking for something that is already in the Iraqi constitution: a provision already exists enabling the creation of independent governorates.
"The law exists in theory but in implementation it's another matter," he continued, "and implementation will not happen unless there is a policy of the United States, or of Congress, to make a resolution to recognize the existence of this Assyrian governorate for these minorities."
He added that the crisis in Iraq reflects a larger pattern in the Middle East. In 1900, Christians comprised just over 20 percent of the region's population. In 2000 that figure was just below two percent.
Roderick said some of Iraq's smaller Christian groups are considering undertaking a project like the World War II "kindertransport" that took Jewish children from Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Austria to Britain to escape the coming genocide. He said that is increasingly becoming an attractive idea, especially if the notion of a province on Ninawah Plain does not succeed. Saving the children of these minorities for the future is essential, he said, "otherwise they will not exist."