Iraq’s ancient Christian communities have been decimated by jihadi Muslim terrorists who have bombed their churches, kidnapped their loved ones and summoned them to submit to Islam or die. Since the U.S.-led liberation of Iraq, roughly two-thirds of the pre-war Christian population of 1.5 million has fled Iraq.
But now Christians face a more pernicious threat - gradual extinction thanks to day-to-day harassment from the Kurdish occupation forces in the Nineveh Plain, where corruption, a lack of development funds and the continued political stalemate have led many Christians to flee the country for exile abroad.
“Christians are like the meat in the sandwich between Arabs and Kurds,” the mayor of Tel Keif, once the largest Christian town in the Nineveh Plain, told me during a recent interview at his home in northern Iraq.
Although the Nineveh Plain falls under the authority of the Nineveh governorate, headquartered in nearby Mosul and run by Sunni Arabs, since 2003 it has been controlled by militia forces loyal to the Kurdish Democratic Party of Massoud Barzani, who also is president of the Kurdish regional government.
The Kurds moved into the Christian heartland during the chaotic weeks after the U.S.-led liberation of Iraq in 2003, claiming that their militias alone could provide security for the Christians and other minorities living in the area.
And while the Kurds have provided some respite from jihadi attacks in the Nineveh Plain, their protection has come at a cost.
“We are not free,” Tel Keif Mayor Basim Bello says. “Tomorrow at the checkpoint, the Kurdish security forces will ask me why I was meeting with you and what I told you.”
Fais Abid Mikha, the mayor of Alqosh - home to a 7th-century Christian monastery and once the seat of the Church of the East - had similar complaints of Kurdish exactions.
During last year’s elections, the Kurdish security forces, known as as-Sayeesh, prevented Christians from voting for their own candidates in a repeat of the failed elections of 2005. “They went house to house, telling people to vote for the KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party] candidates and threatened them if they did not. They arrested people who spoke out and outlawed election rallies by other parties,” Mr. Mikha said.
In mid-January in Karakhosh, the largest town in the Nineveh Plain, the as-Sayeesh commander installed jersey barriers at both ends of the main street leading to the only health clinic in the area, making it impossible for residents to reach it by vehicle. There was no security rationale for the move; it was pure harassment.
More recently, the as-Sayeesh tried to prevent local Christian leaders from meeting with envoys from the U.S. Institute for Peace and the Institute for International Law and Human Rights who had come to Iraq to discuss steps the United States can take to help anchor the Christian community in Iraq.
Top officials in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) acknowledged that the security forces “were not angels,” but insisted that the KRG had “no official policy of discrimination” against Christians - and indeed, was the only Muslim-majority government in the region to allow Christians to freely practice their religion.
All Christian political leaders I met with during a recent fact-finding mission - including some who previously had favored the Kurdish occupation - believe the time for Kurdish protection and political domination is over.
“This is our biggest demand,” Mr. Bello said. “Get [KRG President Massoud] Barzani to withdraw his troops and as-Sayeesh forces from our area. We want to be a green line between the Arabs and the Kurds.”
The main Christian political parties in Iraq have formed a “minorities council” along with representatives of the Yazidi and Shabak communities and officially have demanded that the Nineveh Plain be allowed to form a separate province, or governorate, under the terms of the Iraqi constitution.
“We are not asking to put all Christians in one region,” said Smael Benjamin, a member of the political bureau of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, the best organized of the Christian parties. “Nor are we asking for a safe haven or an ethnic or religious-based entity. We simply want to have our rights, so people can see light at the end of the tunnel and stay in Iraq instead of leaving.”
The near extermination of Iraqi Christians has been an unintended consequence of the U.S.-led liberation of Iraq in 2003. There is still time - but not much - to make it right. The creation of an autonomous province in the Nineveh Plain, free of Kurdish domination, is the last best hope for preventing the mass exodus of the remaining Christians from Iraq.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is author of “St. Peter’s Bones” (Cassiopeia Press, 2011), about the persecuted church in Iraq (kentimmerman.com).