New urgency for an old idea: Nineveh

The militant Islamist rampage across Iraq has intensified calls for a Christian “safe zone,” even as it has made the task of achieving it more difficult.

The jihadists, who call their movement the “Islamic State,” have “carried out ethnic cleansing on a historic scale in northern Iraq,” leaving “hundreds, possibly thousands” dead or kidnapped, Amnesty International a Sept. 2 report. More than 900,000 religious- and ethnic-minority Iraqis, about a quarter of them Christians, have fled to Kurdish-controlled regions and elsewhere. Many of those with means are queuing up to leave Iraq for good.

Now is the time, advocates say, to carve out armed, self-governed spaces within Iraq, to protect Christians and other minorities, and provide some reason for despairing refugees to remain in their homeland.

“People are talking about it, and people are requesting it and are demanding it,” said Mar Awa Royel, secretary of the Holy Synod of the Assyrian Church of the East, and bishop of the church’s California diocese. The Church is among several of the Syriac Christian tradition that traces their lineage to the apostles and language of Jesus — and to the region that today spans parts of Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

Royel and others who promote a Christian safe zone within Iraq acknowledge it will take military force to clear out the militants. That phase began in August with American airstrikes on militant positions, and has intensified as a coalition of countries mounts a counter-offensive announced Sept. 10 by U.S. President Barack Obama, and endorsed by a meeting of more than 40 world leaders in Paris on Sept. 14.

“It is absolutely necessary, and this has been made very clear to all of the parties on the ground, including our churches, who have just about had enough.”

--Robert DeKelaita, Chaldean Assyrian Syriac Council of America

A long-time goal

The Eastern churches, whose members count themselves as descendants of Mesopotamia’s earliest inhabitants, have lobbied for a distinct Christian-run area for as long as Iraq has been a country. In 2011, The US-based Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project called it “a stated political objective of all major Assyrian political groups and institutions.”

In January, the idea advanced its furthest when Iraq’s Council of Ministers agreed “in principle” to carve out a segment of the Ninawa Governate, in the northwest corner of Iraq, as a new province called Nineveh Plain. Two other new provinces, encompassing the cities Tuz Khurmatu in the northeast and Fallujah in central Iraq, also were proposed to accommodate other minority groups.

The Nineveh Plain “will strengthen the political representation, but also it will strengthen the economic life of the area,” Iraq’s minister of the environment, Sargon Lazon Sliwah, told World Watch Monitor at the time. Sliwah, a Christian, said he added the Nineveh Plain to a list of other proposed new provinces under discussion within the Council.

The case for Nineveh Plain then: “The government is getting stronger, and the security situation is getting stronger; the economic situation is also getting better,” Sliwah said.

“This decision marks a pivotal point in the life of a new Iraq and its drive toward democracy, security and cultural preservation for all its inhabitants,” The Assyrian International News Agency trumpeted.

Then came the June assault by the jihadist group calling itself the Islamic State, or IS, sweeping out of Syria and across northern Iraq, through the country’s Christian heartland to the gates of autonomous Kurdistan in Iraq’s northeast. Hundreds of thousands of non-Sunni Muslims, Yezidis and Christians fled the militants’ advance. A steady report of horrors emerged from the region: Women raped and sold; men herded into ditches and executed by gunfire; children abducted; churches demolished.

A new urgency

The case for Nineveh Plain now: “It is absolutely necessary, and this has been made very clear to all of the parties on the ground, including our churches, who have just about had enough,” said Robert DeKelaita, treasurer of the Chaldean Assyrian Syriac Council of America.

“Even Muslims now say ‘This is abhorrent,’ and for the first time, I have seen even Muslim Arabs come out and say ‘This is absolutely and completely unacceptable to do this to this Christian population. We should do something for them. Something should be done for the Christian population.’ That, we didn't hear of before,” DeKelaita, a Chicago immigration attorney, told World Watch Monitor.

During the IS summer onslaught, the Assyrian Council of Europe issued a call to implement the January proposal, as did the Assyrian American National Coalition, among others.

Emanuel Youkhana, an archdeacon of the Assyrian Church of the East based in Germany, pleaded for the world’s help.

“I really hope the international community will push for a political setup to have Nineveh Plain an administrative unit as a governorate, and to commit to protect it and support the infrastructure and economy,” he said. “This will be the only assurance to the Christians and Yezedis in Nineveh Plain.”

Not all Iraqi Christians are waiting for help. National Geographic reports that a small group of Assyrian Patriotic Party members has purchased firearms and joined Kurdish Peshmerga defence forces in northwest Iraq, though not in fighting roles. Kurdish Regional Government President Massoud Barzani has said Kurdistan will accept Assyrians volunteers in its armed forces.

Even as civilians, Christian Iraqis should be able to defend themselves, Royel told World Watch Monitor.

“The men need to be armed. They need to be given the means so they can defend themselves,” he said. “And that needs to be done as soon as possible.“

“Is it possible practically? Maybe not at this point.”

--Mar Awa Royel, Holy Synod of the Assyrian Church of the East

Never more daunting

But now that IS forces have driven out hundreds of thousands of Christians from their villages in the north, even Royel says it’s unlikely a Nineveh Plain province will become reality soon.

“Is it possible practically? Maybe not at this point,” he said. “The fleeing has stopped, at least, but humanitarian-wise, there is a great need among the people there. I can't say for certain, but practically, it may not be possible at this time.”

The window of opportunity narrowed when the jihadist offensive drove nearly all Christians out of Mosul and surrounding Christian towns, said Frank Wolf, a member of the US Congress, co-chairman of the congressional Caucus on Religious Minorities in the Middle East, and a close follower of the Iraqi Christian situation. There are just too few Christians left in the Nineveh region, he said.

“Now, you're probably past the point,” Wolf told World Watch Monitor. “Most of the Christians who have left have gone north, to Kurdistan. The opportunity is going to be some carve-out areas in Kurdistan. The Kurds should be encouraged to continue to defend them. But Kurdistan is on the defensive, because (IS) has weapons.”

Supporters of the Nineveh Plain idea agree IS must be driven back before Christians and other religious minorities can, or will, return to take up managing their own autonomous province. And that, they say, will require military force. Since Aug. 7, US forces have launched about 160 air strikes on IS positions, but airstrikes alone won't defeat ISIS, Wolf said. “It's going to take a lot more than that.”

Obama’s Sept. 10 pledge to expand airstrikes, in coordination with Iraq and a coalition of regional governments — whom he said would be counted on to press the jihadists with ground forces — is a necessary first step, proponents of the Nineveh Plain say.

“Absolutely. First and foremost, there has to be a military response,” DeKelaita said. “These people have to be forced out of the homes that don't belong to them, the villages that don't belong to them, the churches that don't belong to them.”

Catholic Church leaders, in perhaps less direct language, have nonetheless endorsed resistance to IS. Roman Catholic Cardinal Fernando Filoni, who traveled to Iraq from Aug. 12-20 as the personal envoy of Pope Francis, said the Church “will always be against war.”

“But these poor people have the right to be defended,” Filoni said Aug. 21 to the Vatican’s mission news agency, Fides. “They have no weapons, they have been driven out from their homes in a cowardly way, they have not engaged the enemy.”

Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako of Iraq has reported “urgent and effective international support” is needed, “knowing that silence and passivity will encourage ISIS fundamentalists to commit more tragedies.”

Even so, Sako has “never supported” efforts to create an autonomous Christian enclave within Iraq, the Italian newspaper La Stampa has reported. Opponents of the proposal have said a separate province would isolate Christians from their fellow Iraqis of all faiths.

The Washington, D.C.-based Religious Freedom Coalition reported in 2011 that the mayor of the historically Assyrian town of Tal Kaif could not find much support for the idea.

“We have problems with some church leaders,” the coalition quoted the mayor as saying then. “They say if the Nineveh Plain becomes a province, our churches in Baghdad, Mosul and Basra will become museums.” Churches, whose numbers already were diminished at that time, have lost hundreds of thousands of members in the three years hence.

And there is the concern that concentrating Iraq’s Christians into a single region would only make them easier to target. For his part, Environment Minister Sliwah said it’s hard to imagine Christians being more threatened than they are already.

“Terrorists are terrorists,” he said. Province or no province, Sliwah said, jihadists of the so-called Islamic State will be a threat to Iraq’s Christians.

After his August visit to Iraq, Cardinal Filoni appeared to create some room to consider the idea of Nineveh Plain.

“Iraq is a composite country, a political-geographical expression which appeared from 1920 onwards, where the extent of the country is not perceived as uniformity but as multiplicity” Filoni told the Catholic News Agency. “The authorities and the bishops speak of a mosaic of presences, cultures, and religions. Of course if this mosaic remains intact it has its own beauty and a future. But if one begins to remove the tiles, sooner or later everything can fall apart.”

Now that the jihadist assault on northern Iraq has torn much of the country apart, “Iraq is a country to be rebuilt, and can remain united only if such units and the respect of different identities find space,” the Catholic News Agency quoted Filoni as saying.

If an autonomous province is not feasible, advocates say a halfway step – an internationally sanctioned “safe zone” – not only is necessary, but has a recent precedent: the two no-fly zones created by the United States, United Kingdom and France in 1992 to protect Iraq’s Kurds in the north, and Shiite Muslims in the south, from the repression of Saddam Hussein.

In August, a committee of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a resolution that requests the UN Secretary General to ask the Security Council to send a peacekeeping force to Iraq to create a “safe zone in the plain of Nineveh, enabling the free return of the displaced persons and the protection of the communities traditionally living in the area.”

The No. 2 in the worldwide Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of York John Sentamu, wrote to UK Prime Minister David Cameron to support the creation of UN-protected safe zones in Iraq.

After his August visit to Iraq, Cardinal Filoni told the Catholic News Agency that displaced Christians were hopeful for protection. A common refrain among Christians he visited, he said, was “ ‘If the international authorities provide a protected zone for us around our villages, our territory, we should go back there.’ ”

”“Much of this would not have happened if there had not been a war in Iraq,” he said. “I hate to say it, but that's the reality of it.”

--U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, congressional Caucus on Religious Minorities in the Middle East

Another option: Kurdistan

For the moment, Kurdish authorities have pledged to protect refugees from the threats and violence of the jihadist offensive. “We are proud that the Kurdistan Region and Peshmerga forces have been able to protect the lives of 1.5 million refugees,” Kurdish Regional Government President Barzani said via the KRG’s website.

Whether such large numbers of displaced religious and ethnic minorities can settle comfortably for the long term among the ethnic Kurds is another question.

“For those who want to stay and want to continue to make Iraq their home, or who aspire to have some kind of autonomous region, that is the best possibility that is available for them now,” Bishop Royel told World Watch Monitor.

“Is everything perfect in Kurdistan? By no means. But, we hope that the KRG is doing everything it can within its means, financially, sustainably, morally to make sure the Assyrians and the Christians in general are able to stay there. And if they choose to make the north or the KRG their region, their homeland…they should be given that opportunity. And of course, that means having a home, having a job, having food and having the structure to be able to take care of themselves,” he said.

For some Christians, however, the time has come to leave. An Iraqi contact in the Kurdish capital, Erbil, told World Watch Monitor in August that flights out of the country had been booked solid through mid-September.

“Refusing to live without dignity, more and more people think of emigrating. Whoever owns a car or gold, sells them to buy a plane ticket out of the country,” said Sister Maria Hanna, superior general of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, in a Sept. 3 letter to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

France and Australia have said they would accept thousands of Iraqi refugees escaping the violence. In August, Archbishop of York Sentamu, himself a former refugee from Idi Amin’s Uganda, asked UK Prime Minister Cameron to permit Iraqi refugees to obtain asylum in Britain. The United States has a “high responsibility” to do likewise, said Wolf, the member of Congress.

“Much of this would not have happened if there had not been a war in Iraq,” he said. “I hate to say it, but that's the reality of it.”

Royel, who serves the Assyrian Church of the East as its bishop in California, said the whole reason for an autonomous Nineveh Plain province is to give Christians a reason to stay in, or return to, Iraq.

“The hopes for having a homeland are heightened now, obviously,” he said. “I mean there is much talk about the safe haven, but it's much more difficult in doing it, in terms of people actually going back, because of the security.”

Until security is restored, he said, Western nations are obligated to provide asylum to threatened and displaced Iraqis.

“That is a moral obligation, I believe, on the part of the U.S. and every country that has taken part in the coalition since 2003,” Royel said.

From the viewpoint of his law office in Chicago, an expansion of asylum opportunities would appear to be a boon to DeKelaita. But he said asylum is not the tool to address the larger problem.

“The people who are here, it's a different story in the United States,” he said. “But the people who are there, to tell them to just pack up and leave, I think is a crime against the interest of those very people.”

The ultimate solution to the exodus of Christians from the Nineveh region, he said, is first military and then political, and its objective should be to keep Christians connected to their ancient homeland.

“The Nineveh plain can be a province under the Iraqi constitution, or it can be a region under the Iraqi constitution, or it can be a whole other separate entity under the United Nations Charter, as a no-fly-zone area, or as safe-zone area,” he said.

“Whatever format it takes, whatever mold it fits, constitutional or simply political, is okay by us as a people for now. But what it's leading to is that this entity has to have real power, it has to have the ability to teach its language, which is the Syriac or Aramaic language, to establish an identity. To be a part of Iraq or not be a part of Iraq, that is going to be up for the future.”