Christians in Iraq, who trace their faith to the biblically recorded Pentecost and who have refused to be dislodged in the face of Islamic attacks and Mongol hordes over the centuries, are hammering out a course for future worship, and it includes a plan for a Christian province.
Delegates from Iraq’s 16 predominantly Christian political parties and groups have hammered out an agreement to form the province on the Nineveh plains in Northern Iraq.
Delegates gathered in the Kurdish provincial capital city of Erbil and unanimously voted to petition the Iraqi government to approve the request for a self-governing Christian territory in the land Iraqi Christians say was the first predominantly Christian nation.
Assyrian Alliance spokesman Ken Joseph says that many people didn’t believe formation of a Christian province was possible.
“We had a meeting with the prime minister, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, and he said he didn’t think it was possible. Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani said the same thing. He said that Iraq’s Christians have been in such a difficult situation and honestly couldn’t believe that something like this was possible,” Joseph stated.
“The 16 major parties got together in Erbil and they specifically agreed on a province for the Christians in Iraq,” Joseph said. “This province will allow an indigenous language, a parliament and allow us to persuade the refugees living in neighboring countries that they can come home because they have a place of their own.”
Assyrian Universal Alliance Americas representative Carlo Ganjeh says that ethnicities aside, some of the necessary constitutional criteria for a province were already in place.
“If you have more than one district, you can organize a province and in the Nineveh plains area we have close to two districts we can use to establish a province for the Assyrian Christian people,” Ganjeh explained.
Listen to an interview with Ganjeh:
“The first task will be to draw the boundary lines in the province to put the districts together,” Ganjeh added.
He also says that he hopes the Assyrian Christians can increase their membership in the parliament. Increased representation will help the Christian community deal with the 500,000 Christian refugees currently living in Jordan.
Joseph says the joyful mood in the room was tempered by what the Assyrian Christian community in Iraq sees as Western indifference.
“The first view, and this is very disappointing for us, is because we seem to find very little concern for Christians in Iraq. The disappointing part is that support from Christians throughout the world has been so low that Iran is more supportive of the situation of the Christians,” Joseph explained.
“The different views are that Christians should just leave Iraq, and we hear this quite consistently from Christians we go to for help. They said that Iraq like the Middle East is a Muslim area and Christians should just emigrate to friendly countries, but this is deeply offensive to Iraqi Christians,” Joseph said.
“Assyria was originally the first Christian nation. The Christians are the indigenous people the country,” Joseph added.
Joseph says he encounters another opinion from Western Christians.
“The second view is that they should just become part of Iraq in general and should not ask for any particular area,” Joseph continued.
Joseph says the third view is that the Christians should just agree to become part of the Kurdish province under a Kurdish government.
Listen to an interview with Joseph:
Joseph says that none of those alternatives is acceptable and again wonders why Christians in America and the West are hesitant to assist the Assyrian churches.
Ganjeh says he understands why some Americans are reluctant to openly support Christians in Iraq because of the delicate nature of Middle Eastern negotiations. However, Western churches can do something concrete.
“The major problem Christians have in the area is unemployment. People don’t really have jobs and we don’t have economic stability. If you don’t have economic stability you don’t want to stay there,” Ganjeh observed.
“The best thing the Christians can do to help the Christians in Iraq is to give them an economic basis in order to survive. The have the culture, but they don’t have the infrastructure to deliver their products to the market,” Ganjeh continued.
Joseph says that some Iraqi officials, like Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, recognize that Christians have a long history in the area that is present-day Iraq.
“He said very simply that the Christians of Iraq are the original people of the country and they [have] more right than anybody to be there and should obtain a province,” Joseph related. “The foreign minister put it very plainly that the Kurds have Kurdistan; the Christians of Iraq are even more deserving of an area for themselves.”
Joseph says that the Assyrian Christians desire for a province is comparable to the Welsh, the Scots and other groups who have a self-governing territory.
Joseph explains that the next step is to submit the proposal to the government for action.
Ganjeh says the parliament should be ready to act.
“We have five members of parliament and hopefully in the next few days we can submit the proposal to the government to legalize that and hopefully we can organize the province,” Ganjeh added.
Some analysts have stated that the situation for Christians in Iraq is worse since the American-led operation to remove Saddam Hussein. The Assyrian Alliance spokesman Ken Joseph says that’s not true.
“I was there under Saddam Hussein. I was there when we brought in the first relief to cross the border following liberation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Life under Saddam was an absolute nightmare – a horror,” Joseph observed.
“I remember that if the phone rang, or if somebody came to the home unannounced, everyone went into absolute panic,” Joseph observed further.
Joseph adds that the regime practiced retribution against those who did not cooperate.
“One of my relatives was in Abu Ghraib prison for four years simply because she refused to sleep with an Iraqi government official,” Joseph explained.
“Another was in Abu Ghraib for seven years simply because he belonged to an Assyrian organization. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Joseph continued.
“I was just there a few hours ago and the situation for the Christians in particular and the Iraqis in general is the difference between Eastern Europe under communism and Eastern Europe following the fall of communism,” Joseph further explained.
“As in any transition from a totalitarian police state to a free society there are obviously going to be growing pains,” Joseph stated.
“People who say that things were better under Saddam simply weren’t there,” Joseph said.
A report in Christianity Today noted that the region’s Christians came on the scene during Pentecost in Acts 2:9 “when Luke noted the presence of Parthians from Mesopotamia. Soon the Gospel spread to Mesopotamia from Edessa, known today as Urfa, which is located in southeastern Turkey.”
The report said Christians in the region even today speak the Syriac language, a close relative of Jesus’ own Aramaic mother tongue.