Iraqi Bishops Ask for Help Protecting their Flock

Deal W. Hudson
July 3, 2008

The numbers are stark, and the situation is getting worse. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there were 1.2 million Christians living there. Over 400,000 Christians have left the country since the war started. Many others have been kidnapped and killed; some have been crucified; a priest was beheaded, and an archbishop was kidnapped and killed.

One Chaldean and one Assyrian Catholic bishop from California presented a plan for protecting the Iraqi Christians who stay in spite of the danger and the ongoing discrimination and persecution. “The Iraqi constitution recognizes liberty of worship rather than freedom of religion,” says Bishop Sarhad Jammo of El Cajon, CA.

The bishops told me it was “a make or break moment” for Iraqi Christians, and it is up to the United States – and particularly to American Christians – to help find a solution.

My interview with Mar Sarhad Jammo and Mar Bawai Soro took place just after their meeting at the White House with members of the National Security Council. Jammo and Soro want the United States to support the establishment of an “Autonomous Area” in northern Iraq where Iraqi Christians could hold the main governmental positions.

The area they recommend is on the plains of Nineveh, a loaf-shaped area of land between the Mosul province and Kurdistan. There is already a majority of Aramaic-speaking Christians living there, as they have been for thousands of years. Aramaic is the language of Jesus, which has been spoken there up to the present day.

Of the remaining 800,000 Christians, 65 percent are Chaldeans, 25 percent Syriacs, and 10 percent Assyrians. Many Assyrian Christians are not in communion with the Catholic Church, but Bishop Soro, who is Assyrian, recently united with the Chaldean Catholic Diocese in California along with thousands of fellow Assyrians.

Bishop Jammo, whose family originates from the Nineveh plains, sees this plan as the best way to put an end to the bloodshed and persecution and provide equality of rights to the Christian inhabitants, including the rights of religious freedom and cultural expression and activity.

Bishop Soro predicted thousands of Iraqi Christians, who fled Iraq in the last few years, would return if they were not subject to discrimination on a daily basis, especially if they would have full freedom and an autonomous area of their own. “In Iraq right now Christians are second-class citizens.” Not only would the creation of this area defend and restore the Christian community, it also would provide a “stabilizing factor” in the entire region.

While the day to day hardships of Iraqi Christians have been little reported, some of the atrocities have received worldwide attention. The kidnapping and crucifixion of Christian children made the headlines, but it was the kidnapping and killing of Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho that elicited protests from both Benedict XVI and President Bush.

The day of my interview with the bishops, the New York Times broke the story that the reason for Rahho’s kidnapping and execution was his refusal to continue paying protection money to Muslim gangsters. Rahho somehow used his cell phone to call friends telling them not to pay any ransom for his return. His body was found twelve days later.

The bishops think their proposal is getting serious consideration by the Bush administration. They hope that their advocacy will develop into a concrete result.

Their proposal is titled “The Christian Initiative for a Successful New Iraq.” This autonomous area would be established within the constitutional frame of Iraq, and would not be any kind of entity separate from Iraq, as some have suggested. Nevertheless, it would have a parliament “elected by all the adult Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people of the area,” as a component of the Iraqi population.

The bishops’ initiative faces serious political challenges. A source very familiar with the situation told me that the idea of an autonomous area would have to be approved at many levels, beginning with the local governments who share the Nineveh plain, the Iraqi government including Prime Minister Maliki, various countries including the U.S., and the UN and its Security Council. Further, the proposal for an area under “Christian control” might actually increase anti-Christian tensions even further.

Bishop Jammo and Bishop Soro have heard these objections before, but they are not deterred. “I don’t see how the situation can get any worse,” said Bishop Jammo. When I asked him if the solution was the implementation of the Iraq Constitution,” he replied: “The Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian People should have constitutional equality with Arabs and Kurds and that equality should include an Autonomous Area.”

While Christians in Iraq are being persecuted every day and deprived of their constitutional rights, the United States is bending over backward to maintain good relations with the Muslim community. In May, Maj. General Jeffrey Hammond held a meeting with Muslim leaders after a soldier used a Koran for target practice.

Gen. Hammond told them, “In the most humble manner, I look in your eyes today and I say, please forgive me and my soldiers.”

The proposal the Chaldean and Assyrian bishops offer the United States is simply to ask for the same level of respect for Christians struggling to remain in their Iraqi homeland.

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