Patrick Goodenough / International Editor
(CNSNews.com) – The best thing the church worldwide can do for Iraq’s beleaguered Christians is support a push for a secure province for the community, an activist campaigning for autonomy for Iraq’s ethnic Assyrians said Friday.
A province in the north of the country — the original homeland of Assyrians is a rural area near Mosul known as the Nineveh plain — would provide the protection needed to persuade those many Christians who have left Iraq to return home, said Ken Joseph.
Joseph, an ethnic Assyrian, commented after the body of an archbishop was found in Mosul on Thursday, less than two weeks after gunmen abducted him at his church and killed three men with him. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki blamed al-Qaeda and said his government was committed to protecting Christians.
Paulos Faraj Rahho, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul, is the most senior Iraqi Christian to have been killed in what many believe is a concerted effort by Islamic extremists to drive Christians, a mere three percent of the population, from the country.
Iraqi Christians are being targeted by jihadists who “seek to drive them from their ancestral homes and create a pure Islamic caliphate,” said Faith McConnell, director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s religious liberty programs.
She called on American Christians to stand up for the church in Iraq, and said the U.S. government must acknowledge that Iraqi Christians were being singled out and must be protected.
Assyrians are a non-Arab ethnic group which long predated the Islamic conquest of Mesopotamia, and was among the first peoples to embrace Christianity. The Chaldean Catholics are the largest Christian denomination; others include Syriac Orthodox and Armenians.
According to the Assyrian International News Agency, previous attacks targeting Iraqi churchmen in Mosul include the June 2007 fatal shooting of a Chaldean priest and three deacons, the November 2006 abduction and shooting of a Protestant pastor, and the October 2006 kidnapping of a Syriac Orthodox priest whose abductors subsequently beheaded and dismembered him.
Hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled since 2003.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent body that advises Congress and the administration, says that according to the Iraqi government, “nearly half the members of Iraq’s non-Muslim minorities have fled abroad.”
Joseph argued that Christians abroad should not encourage Iraqi Christians to immigrate, as “this would devastate one of the last remaining major Christian communities in the Middle East and will be extremely harmful.”
“What is most needed is for individuals and organizations to support the Iraqi government in their efforts to help the Assyrian Christians and encourage their own governments to support the Assyrian province [concept].”
Joseph said he recently met with Malaki, prayed with him, and had been assured of his support for the Assyrians.
The Assyrian Universal Alliance, an umbrella body of Assyrian federations and organizations set up in 1968, has also been appealing for the establishment of an Assyrian province in northern Iraq
“Obviously, the aim of these evil people by carrying out barbarous attacks is to demoralize the Assyrians as a nation and to drive us out from our ancestral lands,” the alliance’s executive board said in a statement issued after Bahho’s kidnapping but before his body was found.
An Assyrian province would enable the community to provide its own security, it said.
Supporters of an Assyrian province base their hopes on a provision in Iraq’s constitution: “This constitution shall guarantee the administrative, political, cultural and educational rights for the various nationalities, such as Turkmen, Chaldeans, Assyrians and all other components. This will be organized by law.”
Joseph said because an Assyrian province would have to be formally approved by parliament, it would take some time.
Despite the current situation, he expressed optimism about “the possibility of a province, autonomy and ultimately a nation.”
International Christian Concern, a rights group focusing on the persecution of Christians, said in a recent report that the development of an autonomous region for Assyrian Christians “may be the only means of protection and hope so that the Christians who have fled can safely return to the land of their fathers.”