Network of Iraqi Reporters for Investigative Journalism

Network of Iraqi Reporters for Investigative Journalism

A year after Catastrophe… Iraqi Christians between mallet of staying home and anvil of immigration to the unknown

208

Bassem Francis – Saman Noah

Two thousand years after coexistence, worship and psalmodies, Christians have no existence there, churches’ bells no longer sound, whereas hoisted crosses were downed, after the state of “Islamic Caliphate” converted their churches into depots for their ammunitions and military equipment, and scorched each and every thing falling into their hands, including scriptures and treasures that date back to a long history.

Mesopotamia’s Christians recall the scene of storming their cities and villages of  Plain by militants of ISIL “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” in June 2014, imposing their Sharia law that does not recognize equality in rights, and placing its deeply-rooted citizens, who have been living on the soil of this land for thousands of years, between three specified options; either to convert to Islam or pay poll tax or leave for good. That happened after they had been brutally dispossessed of their monies and properties.

Within hours, their ‘Sharia fatwa Emirs’ have decisively made up their minds, with hundreds of greedy fighters behind them, thirsty for invasions’ booties. Tens of thousands of Mosul’s and  Plain’s Christians have no choice for salvation, other than fleeing away hurriedly to the neighboring Kurdistan Province, leaving behind them their ancestors’ territories that had been embracing them for centuries.

Since then, roughly 130,000 of the plain’s Christians have been living under extremely difficult human conditions, since most of them stay in makeshift camps or in under-construction buildings, lacking the badly needed housing requirements, and under the burden of deteriorating economic conditions and high employment rates.

Those Christians regard the aids offered to them by churches and humanitarian organizations as mere compassionate solutions for a rather big problem, that is getting deeper and deeper day after day, a problem that is closely related to a whole people’s destiny.

” We were living in Mosul quite contented, practicing our daily routine lives in spite of the fragile stability in the city. But today we’ve lost any glimpse of hope; besides losing all what we’ve been tirelessly harvesting for years. And here we have to choose between staying without being given even the simplest human rights, or between immigration, which requires lots of money that is hard to  be secured now, after we’ve been robbed of the last penny we have.”, says Youssef, a Christian in his 50s.

“Now we know nothing about our destiny. Our future is mysterious. We cannot imagine any journey with no definite destination. All doors are locked before our faces.”, says Hanna, who was once living in a poor neighborhood in ancient Mosul, where most of the city’s churches are located, about 29 of them, and who is now living with his kids in a not completely -built room in Arbil – says while wiping his teary eyes and looking at his kids’ faces.

 

Exodus Attrition

“When we left that day we were given promises and reassurances to be back home soon, but that has not and does not seem to happen, we lived bitter months. Some have nothing to buy badly needed medicines. And now a whole year passed and nothing changed. Can anyone ever tell what the future is storing for us? Can we find someone whom we can trust?” says Ilias, Hanna’s companion, in the course of speaking about his very own ordeal.

Many Christians unanimously feel that same sense of ‘despair’ for both the present and future, as result of the crack that has befallen the social fabric of their society, not to mention the other economic and political tensions, and above all the absence of a safe haven for Christians; are all decisive elements pushing Christians to immigration.

Estimates revealed by some Christian clerics and human rights organizations issued in April 2015, indicate that roughly 5-7 Christian families emigrate daily from Kurdistan, which received those who had fled away from Mosul and  Plain.

Hence, some Christian clerics warn through the language of figures that the Christian existence in Iraq has become actually threatened with the increasingly escalating rates of ceaseless immigration and after their number has seriously decreased from over one million and a half prior to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, to less than 500,000 now.

Michael Al-Mouqadassi, archbishop of Al-Quoshmass , reveals that there exists ‘an outside plan aiming at encouraging Christians to immigrate’. He also warns against the unending immigration waves that have badly affected the Christian existence, in spite of the presence of the majority, who still stick to staying where they belong, particularly those in  Plain. “We are not encouraging immigration in all cases, neither can we prevent It.”, he says.

 

Escalating Fears

Christians of Kurdistan Province do actually share the worries of their immigrant brethren about the future. Their anxiety is primarily focused on the continual threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) who share borders with the province, in addition to the increase and enlargement of religious extremism, particularly after the province authorities announced the detainment of two cells, the majority of whom are Kurds.

Members of one of the two detained cells confessed their involvement in the car bomb near the US Consulate in Ankara neighborhood, which is predominantly Christian. They admitted that they joined ISIS ranks, being influenced by the sermons of some clerics in the province. That actually coincided with the precautionary measures taken by the authorities, where they banned the circulation of Salafist religious books, and transferred the administration of religious schools to the Ministry of Education, instead of Endowment Ministry.

Other sections of the Christian community feel uneasy about the difficulty of achieving coexistence in a society facing a difficulty in confronting extremism, with the absence the necessary laws, legislations and constitutional articles, that can secure the minorities’ rights and list it within the context of ‘equality’ on both the Iraqi and Kurdish levels.

With the objective of dissipating such fears, the Christian political powers of Kurdistan spare no effort to secure Christians’ rights in the Kurdistan Province’s draft law, which the Kurdish Parliament proceeded to introduce some amendments to its items. Some Christian officials see that the previous draft was ‘articulated to satisfy the Kurdish majority.’

 

Civil Constitution

Christian powers hope to employ ‘international sympathy’ with the Christians’ ordeal, to secure their rights and put an end to the high rates of the ceaseless immigration of its members, which have actually reached unprecedented figures, never happened throughout the long history of the Christian presence in Mesopotamia, according to Christian activists.

The Christian minority won one out of 21 seats in the Draft Constitution Committee, which was formed by Kurdistan’s Parliament  last April, and which is supposed to make its constitutional amendments in harmony with the agreement of all the political powers”.

“The draft contents prepared before 2009, constituted a prejudice and injustice against minorities’ rights, since it was articulated and pillared on a purely Kurdish viewpoint rather than being Kurdish, regardless of the fact that the province includes many ethnic, national and religious components.”, said Sroud Maqdessy, head of Mesopotamia Sons Bloc, in the province’s parliament in his criticism of the Province’s constitution.

” In the constitution’s prelude, there was a mention of the injustices inflicted on the Kurdish people, but no mention of the prejudices against the Chaldeans, or Syriacs, or Assyrians, particularly as regards Smel and Sorya massacres that were perpetrated against them early on the 20th century.”, Maqdessy elaborates.

“Both the national flag and anthem should unanimously and comprehensively embrace all components and not be confined to any specific category of the society, since that is something closely related to matters of identity, and degree of citizenship. The present anthem says we are the descendents of (Medes and Ki Khosrow), with no mention whatsoever of the descendants of Assyrians and Babylonians,” says Maqdessi expressing his view in this regard.

Maqdessi warns against Article (35) of the draft constitution which is concerned with the rights of society components in Kurdistan,” This article is completely of no avail, since it outspokenly refers to the administrative and political rights of Kaldans, Sorians, and Assyrians, including self-government in the regions, where they constitute the majority of population. This article is actually formulated in a way that makes it impossibly applicable, because there is no such majority in any specific area. Hence, the content of this article is unfeasible and needs to be amended and be made applicable on the ground.” He said.

Maqdessi calls on the formation of a higher council for the communal components’ affairs, so as to participate in applying the clauses and articles concerned with minorities’ rights, whether in the constitution or in other effective laws, in addition to making any amendments on the ‘personal status law’ so as to abolish any existing injustice thereof, and proceed to build up a constitution in harmony with the civil and secular principles ‘with a fair look to the society’

Maqdessi expresses his belief in the possibility of achieving most of the above demands by benefiting from the orientations of the international community towards Kurdistan Province in order to turn it into a ‘unique example’ in the area, in terms of democracy and equal human rights for all communal components.

However, many Christians are not actually sharing such optimism. “Christian parties have no obvious project that can secure the rights of the Christian community, neither have they any specific demands, since there are profound differences in their viewpoints. On the other hand, Kurdistan’s draft constitution will not change much, neither will it be an opportunity to equal us with the Muslim Kurds, or establish Christian administration regions or rather autonomy, since most Kurdish politicians reject this idea categorically.”, Faddy Korckis says.

And in spite of the fact that Christian observers and activists see that it is not quite logical to claim that the absence of laws and legislations are the only reasons behind the immigration of Christians. However, they stress on the need to amend the draft constitution in the manner that can secure self- government regions for Christians, and agree on selecting a common national flag and anthem that can represent all societal components in Kurdistan.

In addition to the abovementioned ‘pillars’, Christian lawyer, Sarkon Jacob, add extra demands including adding new articles and clauses to the draft constitution that can cope with the changes that have taken place during the past years, in terms of some civil and personal status laws, warning, ‘unless such demands can be answered, nothing can reassure Christians about their future existence.’.

 

Differences and several security formations

The Christians’ problems are not confined to the ceaseless threats posed by the Islamic State’s militants or the missing societal rights that can be granted to them in the province. There are also differences among the very Christian powers themselves, in terms of the nature of ‘the political solution and administrative formula’ that can secure the everlasting existence of the Christian community in Iraq.

Such differences have recently come into surface, as regards the issue of forming special Christian military forces, to be entrusted with securing their regions after being liberated from ‘ISIS’, since some Christian parties unilaterally announced the formation of military battalions of volunteers, and this is an indicator of the ineffectiveness of such a step, not to mention the disharmony among such military formations, particularly no final decision has been taken yet as regards the affiliation of such formations either to the Beshmerga, or to Iraq’s Ministry of defence, or to the Popular Mass.

Romeo Makary, General Secretary of ‘Mesopotamia Democratic Party’, says, “What happened about the displacement of Christians at he hands of ‘ISIS’, has led to the emergence of a new idea in the platforms of the Assyrian and Kaldan political parties. Such idea is represented in the necessity of sharing in the military and security matters, particularly in the predominantly Christian areas. We were first to table such an idea for discussion with the other parties after the catastrophe, suggesting forming joint forces, but we regretfully failed, that what urged us to form our own forces on legal basis in collaboration with ‘Mesopotamia House Union Party’.

The same step was unilaterally taken by other Christian powers, in agreement with either Baghdad’s or Arbil’s Governments, a state of affairs that actually reflects the political divisions among Christians, even as regards the security of their component and its regions.

The Assyrian Democratic Movement, the major political party for Assyrians in Iraq, announced the formation of a Christian military force in December 2014. Its main is to protect Christians from “Isis” attacks, and assist in restoring the territories occupied by “Isis”. Also in Baghdad, there was an announcement about the formation of a Christian military force called “Babylon”, within the formations of what is known as the “Popular Mass”.

Hakkaril has not forgotten to refer to the multiplicity of the military forces and the differences in terms of their role and affiliation.

“The power of Kaldan- Assyrian parties is in their unity and in submitting all their demands in one basket to avoid any gap that may weaken their position. In this way, we will have a greater influence and boost the trust of Christian component. Otherwise, there will be unwanted negative impacts. “He says.

However, Hakkaril seems optimistic about the meetings recently held by the Christian powers to unify their positions and demands. But even with the unity of such powers, which seems unlikely in the short run, yet its presence on the ground will remain weak and appear as an ostensible military force, according to a Christian former officer in Iraq’s army, who preferred to be unknown. “Under most favorable circumstances, this force will consist of a few hundred fighters with limited training and military equipment.” he says.

 

Dispossession of Christian Properties

Christians face other violations as a result of the widespread security chaos and the absence of the strong arm of law. Baghdad witnessed repeated cases of property usurpation by either common people or influential statesmen or militant groups. Christian parties and establishments say that they have been for years receiving many repeated complaints of this kind, about some Christians being robbed of their properties or being forced to sell their possessions at a very low price, or through forgery processes, or by using force. What makes landlords more and more oppressed is their inability to sue usurpers or lodge complaints in courts for fear of being killed or kidnapped.

In Kurdistan Province, Christians complain about usurpation of their villages. The ‘Kaldan, Sirian, Assyrian Union Bloc’ confirms the existence of great violations perpetrated by some influential people against the Christian villages and agricultural lands.

“The usurpation of those lands was carried out by the support of some officials, in spite of the fact that the owners of usurped lands ‘own legal document proving their land ownership “, Waheeda Yaqo, head of the bloc, says. She also confirms that Christian citizens wish to be back home in their regions ‘once their lands are returned to them’, considering such violation one of the major reasons behind the exodus of Christians from the region.

 

Hopes for a better future

“The Christian parties held a series of meetings to discuss some important issues concerning the legal rights of the Christian people in general, being the indigenous owners of their noble descendants’ lands. These rights include acknowledging their existence and their legal rights in the context of the constitution’s preamble, on equal footing with all the other society components mentioned thereof.” Emanuel Khoushaba, head of the National Assyrian Party, says.

“The issue has two aspects, the first of which is that we are citizens having our very own privacy, as for the second, it is related to the national dimensions in general, and how significant the embodiment of the civil nature of the society in the constitution is, in the creation of a secular society. The name issue will also be a worthwhile point”, Khoshaba adds.

“Today we are looking forward to forming forces to protect  Plain and turning it into a protected area, but this remains subject to the application of Article (140) of Iraq’s constitution, in terms of the disputed areas between Arbil and Baghdad. It is also subject to the final positions of the two parties as regards the mechanism of application.” Khoshaba adds.

But the statements made by the leaders of the Christian powers as well as the meetings held by them, in the framework of their efforts to unify their rhetoric and visions, concerning their rights and their constitutional, political and administrative demands. And under a rather volatile security and unstable political environment, witnessing many conflicts on the national, religious and partisan levels, such demands find no echo whatsoever among the Christian popular circles.

 

The Governorate Rejected by Society

Several Christian forces have been demanding for ten years or so the establishment of a Christian-controlled governorate in  Plain within Federal Iraq. But no one, either in Baghdad or in Arbil, supported that demand, until the militants of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi occupied the Christian plain and forced over 120,000 Christians to immigrate out of it.

“Christian powers are rather weak, with no decision in their hands, even if they could have unified their rhetoric and demands. They failed in relieving the Christians’ sufferings in general, neither could they secure the Christians’ rights to autonomy or formation of special security forces to protect their regions.” Shemoueal Salioh says.

” Now who cares about us or about the liberation of our land, and who cares to ask about what makes its liberation delayed until now!, even though ‘ISIS’ have only a few number of their militants in the Christian regions of the plain. Many of the military men say that its liberation can be carried out within hours, not days.” He says.

He concludes by saying, ” Our problems have always been neglected….Nobody seems to care about the plight of tens of thousands of evacuees wishing to be back home.. Any even after liberation, who can secure they will not be attacked by ‘ISIS’ again, so long as war against him will extend to five or ten years as the Americans claim.”

Researchers and clergymen concerned with the Christian issues have been sounding the alarm bell for years, warning that the Christian existence in Iraq records its final destinations, due to the ceaseless exodus of Christians and the demographic changes their regions are now witnessing.

“From 1,400,000 Christian residents in 2003, only 255,000 -300,000 remain, and even this number is threatened to dissolve day after day due to their incessant immigration.” Researcher Saad Saloum says.

Many Christian researchers and activists seen by the author of this investigative study, estimate that Iraq with all its regions will be vacated from Christians within less than seven years, if immigration rates continue to rise as they are now.

As for the Christians’ concern about the future, and due to their security, social and religious fears, immigration still remains the first only option for thousands of Christians. “This is not an issue of emotional religious rhetoric, nor is it about different political visions, or rights that can possibly seek its way to the constitution, nor about security that can be returned in the future. Absolutely not. It is actually about the constant discrimination against Christians and the fragile coexistence with others, which is seen deteriorating day after day.” Bahgat Sameer says.

This report was done by ‘(NIRIJ Network’, in association with International Media Support Organization (IMS).

A précis of this report was published in “Al Hayat Daily” newspaper on 9 June 2015