Kurds Provide Safe Haven for Christians

By Kenneth R. Timmerman/Newsmax.com | 4/24/2008
The Kurdish regional government in Northern Iraq is providing a safe haven to several thousand Iraqi Christians who have fled persecution in other parts of the country, government officials and local pastors told Newsmax.

Unlike refugee camps set up for some 100,000 Shia Muslims fleeing attacks from Sunnis, which are closely monitored by Kurdish security forces, Christians have been encouraged to live anywhere.

“Christians in Iraq need special attention, because they’ve been suffering because they are Christians,” Deputy Prime Minister Omar Fattah told Newsmax in an exclusive interview in Erbil. “Maybe we give some instructions to others where they can go, but to Christians, never, because we are not afraid they will be terrorists.”

Some have been given government land and building materials to construct a house. Others have rented homes from friends, or are being put up in temporary shelters thanks to local churches and international donors.

“Those people are our citizens, and when they are coming to Kurdistan they are most welcome, and we will provide them with all possible assistance,” the Kurdish deputy premier said.

Since U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in April 2003, around 2,000 Christian families have moved into Ainkawa, a historic Christian town on the outskirts of the Kurdish capital, Erbil.

“Most people came when the terrorists told them they must pay the jizya or they will be killed,” Ainkawa mayor, Fahmi Mehti Soltaqi, told Newsmax, referring to a “protection tax” levied on non-Muslims according to Shari’a law.

Scores of refugees interviewed by Newsmax here and in Amman, Jordan, told harrowing stories of receiving death threats from al-Qaida thugs delivered to their homes in Baghdad.

The terrorists told them that as Christians, they had no right to remain in a Muslim land without submitting to Muslim rule. To escape the jizya, some Christian refugees said they were told they must marry one of their daughters to a Muslim. Instead, when they could, they fled.

Tragedy lurks just beneath the surface, even in this peaceful part of Iraq.

Mayor Soltaqi’s new office assistant, Eghraa Ramzi, is an example. She fled with her daughter from her home in the Karrada district of Baghdad in June 2007, after Islamic terrorists said they would kill them if they didn’t pay the jizya. Now she handles computer services for the municipality.

Rita Yuel is another. If you met her on the street, you would think she was just an attractive 23-year-old university student. But when you talk to her and learn her story, unmistakeable sadness emerges.

Rita used to live in Daura, a Christian neighborhood of Baghdad, until the Muslim terrorists drove her and her sisters and others to flee in August 2006. “The terrorists were torturing people in the house next door,” she said.

Her father stayed behind to work and guard the house. Last April, he promised to join his family in the north for the Easter holidays, but he never arrived.

Rita and her mother learned later that he and two other Christians had been abducted at gunpoint by masked men at a roadside teahouse on the outskirts of Baiji, midway between Baghdad and the north. “He was kidnapped one year and eight days ago, and we don’t know where he is or if he is still alive. We hope that he will return,” she said.

The governor of Irbil Province, Nawzad Hadi Mawlood, recalls the heady days just after the liberation of Iraq in 2003, when Iraqis from all ethnic backgrounds were suddenly free from decades of darkness.

“The terrorists destroyed the dream of the Iraqi people,” Governor Mawlood told Newsmax. “Christians had no militia to protect themselves. They were easy targets,” he explained. “Today, for them, Kurdistan is an option.”

His government has opened special schools to meet the needs of Christian refugees who speak Arabic and not Kurdish, the official language here. “We have done everything we can to integrate Christians into Kurdish society,” he said.

“We are not going to refuse them. They are Iraqi. We know what they are running from.”

On Sundays, the many Christian churches in Ainkawa — some of them dating from the 9th century — are packed with worshippers. Families walk the streets without fear. Restaurants and shops are open. Even more importantly, it is the only place in Iraq where Muslims can adopt the Christian faith without fear, pastors and government officials tell Newsmax.

“All Iraq should be like Ainkawa,” said William Warda, the president of the Hammurabi Organization for Human Rights, an Iraqi group advocating for Christian political rights. But even in this safe haven, once darkness falls, metal barriers block the streets, guards with AK-47s emerge to protect the churches, and Kurdish security police control traffic trying to enter the area.

Asked about this, Deputy Prime Minister Fattah was resigned. “We are afraid of the terrorists, too.”

Terrorist groups are constantly probing the layered security of the Kurdish region to find weak points, he explained. “If they see a church in a Christian area, they see that it is a peaceful area and perhaps they will attack.”

One former Royal Marine, Dan F., who manages a local security company that caters to expatriates visiting or working in the area, lives in a heavily guarded compound in Ainkawa.

Jersey barriers, gates, barbed wire, and armed guards posted at regular intervals impede access to his compound. And yet, despite the precautions, Dan wears a Glock 9 millimeter at all times and refuses to walk the streets. “If you want to walk around, wait a few weeks then go home, and you’ll have a 100 percent chance of nothing happening to you,” he says.

For all the problems and the tenuous security situation, no one here in the Kurdish north has any regrets about the U.S.-led invasion. “I’ve never been to paradise,” said Fattah, “but the difference between today and Saddam’s time is heaven and hell.”

Fattah’s only fear is that American troops will leave too early, before the work is done. “Mr. Bush has not only helped Iraq, he has helped the American people as well,” he said. “He took the fight against terrorism from inside America, to outside the country. If he hadn’t done that, terrorist attacks would have continued inside America.”

U.S. troops must stay in Iraq until they reach the goal of helping Iraqis achieve a democratic federal state. “We believe Iraq can become a base for democracy in the region,” he said.

In Washington and in much of the U.S. media, such dreams are derided as the fantasies of neo-conservatives.

But here on the ground in Kurdistan, which even today commemorates the 21st anniversary of a chemical weapons attack by Saddam Hussein that massacred thousands of Kurds, this hope remains alive.

Kenneth R. Timmerman was nominated for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize along with John Bolton for his work on Iran. He is Executive Director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, and author of Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran (Crown Forum: 2005).

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Christians Face Extinction in Northern Iraq
Thursday, April 24, 2008 8:32 AM

By: Kenneth R. Timmerman

Thousands of Christians fleeing persecution in other parts of Iraq have returned since 2004 to ancestral lands in the Nineveh Plain, just north and east of Mosul.

While they have escaped the Islamic militias who slaughtered family members and burned down their houses and churches in Baghdad and Mosul, now they face a new battle. Today’s enemies are poverty, joblessness, and despair.

Jamal Dinha, mayor of Bartella, a large Christian village east of Mosul, painted a dire picture of the life these persecuted Christians now face in this Kurdish-controlled safe haven.

“The situation in our region is critical. Our young people are unemployed. We have IDPs [internally-displaced people] from everywhere. Our infrastructure is bad. Our cultural and scientific institutions don’t exist. We have no electricity, bad water, broken streets.”

The despair is driving many families to emigrate a second time to Syria and Jordan.

“Many families leave after they have stayed here for awhile and see there are no jobs and they give up hope,” echoed Bassam Ballo, mayor of Tel Kaif, the largest city in the Nineveh Plain. “At least in Jordan and Syria, there is electricity and water.”

The plight of these Assyrian/Chaldean Christians has been aggravated by the collapse of any central government authority in the Nineveh province, to which they officially belong, and by the actions of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which is seeking to annex this fertile land where Christians have lived for two thousand years because it is believed to contain rich oil resources.

While the Kurds are providing much-needed security and emergency refugee housing, they also are seeking to manipulate the Christians for political gain though a sophisticated system of patronage, local officials, refugees, and international aid, organizations told Newsmax.

“The goal of the KRG is clearly to get this land under Kurdish control,” said Dr. John Eibner, CEO of Christian Solidarity International. “As Christians are driven out of the Nineveh plain, this place will become a great museum of churches and cemeteries. And ultimately, the churches will end up as mosques. The Christian community in Iraq is on the verge of extinction.”

To stem the exodus of Christians from Iraq, Eiber and his organization teamed up with William Warda and the Hamurabi Human Rights Organization, an Assyrian group, to distribute food parcels last week to 100 of the neediest families in the ancient village of Karamlesh.

By coincidence, the day of the food distribution began with a somber church service to commemorate the 40-day anniversary of the murder of Chaldean Archbishop Paulos (Paul) Faraj Rahho, who was abducted on February 29 after celebrating mass at the Holy Spirit Church in nearby Mosul.

Bishop Rahho is buried in the local church, recently refurbished with funds from KRG Finance Minister, Sarkis Aghajan.

As she was waiting to get her food parcel, 74-year old Noneh Toma came up to Dr. Eibner and grabbed him by the arms.

“I cannot see because I have been crying for so long,” she said. “They burned my house in Baghdad, so I have come here. I have nothing. Please help me. Please help me,” she pleaded.

Once home to the palace of the Assyrian emperor, Sargon, many parts of Karamlesh today are little more than a glorified slum. Aid money from Baghdad that was supposed to go to the IDPs has been returned unspent by the Kurdish government, in part because the Nineveh plain lies outside its administrative boundaries.

“This crisis is the fault of the government of Iraq,” Dr. Hekmat Hakim, one of the drafters of the Iraqi constitution and a supporter of Aghajan, told Newsmax. “They have $30 billion in cash just sitting there that has not been used.”

But the State Department has singled out the KRG Finance Ministry as a source of the “considerable hardship” faced by Christians in the Nineveh plain.

In a congressionally-mandated report last November, the State Department noted that aid specifically earmarked to help displaced Christians in the Nineveh plain was being distributed unevenly by the KRG Ministry of Finance, and that Kurdish security forces had committed “human rights abuses” against Christians.

Ban Noor Shaba, 28, fled Baghdad in 2006 after her brother was kidnapped by the Mahdi Army of Iranian-backed cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

He worked for a foreign contractor; she worked in the Green Zone. They fled when the Mahdi army told them they planned to blow up the building where they were living, and came to join family members living in Karamlesh.

Like most of the refugees here, Ms. Shaba and her husband have been unable to find work, even in the booming Kurdish capital, Erbil, a 90-minute drive away.

“They told my husband that unless you know somebody, there is no work,” she said.

Other refugees said that they were told to join the Kurdish Democratic Party of KRG President Massoud Barzani if they wanted to find a job. Most refused, and joblessness remains high.

“What you see is political patronage. That is what’s going on,” a U.S. official in the Kurdish capital told Newsmax.

Asked if she was receiving any aid from the government, Ms. Shaba laughed. “Are you kidding? [Iraqi prime minister] Maliki is for the Shia. [Iraqi president Jalal] Talabani is for the Kurds. But nobody is for the Christians.”

Kurdish officials acknowledge that discrimination against Christians exists, but insist that it is not official government policy.

“Those people are our citizens, and when they are coming to Kurdistan they are most welcome and we will provide them with all possible assistance,” Kurdish Deputy Premier Omar Fattah told Newsmax.

The aid, while welcome, has not helped these refugees to find jobs. “I will do anything,” Shaba says. “But I want to stay here.”

Kurdish Finance Minister Sarkis Aghajan has put his name on an extensive refugee housing program throughout the Christian areas. In Karamlesh, he purchased land from the local Chaldean church and built prefab housing blocks at the outskirts of town, where turkeys peck for food in piles of sewage waste as children drive by on their bicycles.

Sheep graze through trash and scrub in a dusty field just beyond the rutted dirt road at the rear of the tenements.

Although the concrete and cinder-block buildings were recently erected, already they are falling apart, many refugees complain. “We are grateful to Mr. Sarkis for these houses,” says Petros Younan Ishaq, 48, who fled Baghdad in July 2006 with nothing but the shirt on his back after his factory was bombed by terrorists and his family threatened. “But we have problems. Even the water is bad,” Ishaq said. “For several weeks now, the [drinking] water has been mixed with salt.”

Juliette Hanani, 41, and her 13-year old daughter rent an apartment in the refugee complex for 75,000 dinars per month — the equivalent of around $50. “We used to get $35 per month in aid from Mr. Sarkis to offset the rent,” she said. “But since July, we have gotten nothing.”

Refugees pay the rent for the tenements to the local “Christian Affairs Committee” established by Sarkis, while receiving aid from the same committee.

No one knows where Sarkis is getting the money that he distributes to refugees through local churches, and repeated attempts to contact him for an interview at his office and at his home in the Hay al Hediab district in Ainkowa were politely rebuffed.

Much of the money has been spent with great ostentation building gigantic modern churches of sandstone and marble, and lavish Christian cemeteries. “We have asked Mr. Sarkis to build schools, not churches and cemeteries,” said Jamal Dinha. “We see that he pays attention to the dead, but not to the living.”

Kurdish officials in Erbil boasted in interviews with Newsmax of the aid they were providing to Christian refugees who have come to the KRG fleeing persecution. But here in the Nineveh plain, the message from local Christian officials as well as refugees is quite different.

“Sarkis gives the money to the priests and the bishops, and they give it to the followers of his policies,” said independent journalist Johnny Koshaba, 34, who has written extensively about Mr. Sarkis.

Mr. Koshaba was arrested and beaten by Kurdish security forces in January because of his writings, and threatened that if he talked about his treatment at the hands of the authorities they would kill him.

“Our people are leaving Iraq,” said Father Sabri al-Maqdessy, of St. Joseph’s Chaldean church in Ainkawa. “Arabs scream about Palestinian rights, but we have nobody who talks about our rights. Without that, in 10 more years, you not see a Christian left living here.”

© 2008 Newsmax. All rights reserved.

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