Metro Chaldeans meet to mount relief efforts for harried Iraq Christians

bilde12.jpgGregg Krupa / The Detroit News
SOUTHFIELD — When his phone rings, Nabil Roumayah knows it’s more bad news from Iraq.

“My friends and family are calling all of the time and telling us that people were shot and killed because they are Christian, and there are cars going around with loudspeakers saying all Christians should leave their homes or become Muslim,” said Roumayah, a Chaldean activist. “We have a lot of people in our community who live there.” bilde3.jpg

Iraq has been a less violent country over the past year, but not for Christian minorities. In a spasm of violence over the past three weeks, they have paid even more of the costs of the war Having fled Basra and Baghdad as early as 2003, Chaldeans and other Iraqi Christians arrived in Syria, Jordan and the United States. Some went to northern Iraq, in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, the homeland for 2,000 years of the Catholic Chaldeans, who speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ. Among the few religious groups in Iraq with no militias, the Chaldeans fled their homes and moved into churches, monasteries and tents in open fields.

Now, with remnants of al-Qaida in Iraq and bands of organized criminals harrying them, they are on the move, yet again, amid what international relief agencies call some of the worst circumstances facing people displaced by war anywhere in the world.

“How can all of these families be forced to leave and no one does anything?” said Bishop Ibrahim N. Ibrahim of the Chaldean Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle, a jurisdiction of the Chaldean Catholic Church, based in Southfield. “It really is an organized crime against humanity.” bilde21.jpg

Chaldeans, who live in Metro Detroit in larger numbers than anywhere outside Iraq, have set an organizational meeting for tonight in Southfield to mount relief efforts.

“We are talking about the survival of Christianity in Iraq, the original Christian community in the world,” said Dave Nona, a member of the board of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce and the Chaldean Assyrian Council of America.

“The persecution in Baghdad started three or four years ago, with the bombing of a church, the kidnapping and killing of priests; ransoms were paid — lots of ransoms,” Nona said. “Within the past year or so, when al-Qaida was driven out of Anbar Province, a lot of them moved to the north, to Mosul, and a lot of these elements and a contingent of fundamentalist Sunni elements in Mosul started this latest round of persecutions.”

In the past month, more than 9,000 were driven out in what Chaldeans in Metro Detroit say is an effort at ethnic cleansing.

“There is fear and panic because this has become like the genocide of Christians in that area,” said Joseph Kassab, executive director of the Chaldean Federation of America, in Farmington Hills.

“We need global leaders and communities throughout the world to step up and act to save a people from extinction, there.”

U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has interceded for months with the Pentagon to force more attention on the Christian minority. U.S. Rep. Joe Knollenberg, R-Bloomfield Hills, helped secure tens of millions in new U.S. aid for the area. And Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, urging protection for the Christians, representation in the Iraqi government and asylum in the United States if Christians have “a well-founded fear of persecution.” bilde31.jpg

“They need physical protection, and they need it immediately,” said Levin, who has worked to have Christians made a permanent part of the police force in the area. “Our general is right there, right now, and he is taking steps as we speak and we have been in contact with him by e-mails.”

One group in Iraq supporting Christians is the Shi’a Muslims. The Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani has called for their protection and participation in the government. Muqtada al-Sadr has vowed to use his displaced Mahdi Army as “human shields to protect our Christian brothers and sisters.”

Nikmat Hakeem, an international lawyer from Sterling Heights who is Chaldean, is working toward a designated homeland for the Christians, which would be known as the Nineveh Plain Administrative Unit. Last week, Hakeem called Michigan with good news: the Kurdish constitutional committee had just recommended including the Christian minorities in the autonomous region.

“This is a big thing,” an excited Hakeem said, through an interpreter. “The Kurds have gotten behind it and included it in their proposed constitution, and they have a large number of people in the central government. To get such a plan, down the road, the central government would have to approve.”

The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Bush administration officially oppose autonomy for any group, saying it would lead to carving up Iraq.

Many local Chaldeans say a homeland is the only answer. And they say American policy in Iraq has led to nothing less than a battle for the existence, in their native land, one of the earliest Christian communities in the world.

“I just got an e-mail this morning that a family of five was killed in their house last week, after the threats were made,” Roumayah said. “This is about surviving now.”