On the plains of Nineveh

By Christopher Howse / Telegraph 
Among the two million displaced people within Iraq are tens of thousands of Christians. Over the past three and half years, some 44 per cent of Iraqi refugees in Syria have been Christians. The million Christians in Iraq in 1990 have dwindled to perhaps 600,000.

Christians have experienced violence by Islamist groups from both the Sunni and the Shia sides, with bombing of churches, kidnapping, rapes, shootings and evictions. Christians who had moved to Baghdad and relative safety 50 years ago have now fled to the north of Iraq.

advertisementBaghdad’s Catholic seminary and university (strangely to our ears named Babel College) have been relocated to Ankawa, a town of 15,000 in the Kurdish region. A far more radical idea was under discussion at the synod of the Chaldean Church last month at Alqosh, 20 miles from Mosul. That is: to set up a “Christian enclave” in the Nineveh plain.

All these places are steeped in antiquity. Christians have been here from the very beginning. The language of the Chaldean Christians is Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, which was spoken by Jesus.

The Chaldean Church, the largest Christian group in Iraq, is in communion with the Pope. The Church in the East is the next biggest group. It derives from Christians who were not present at the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451, which agreed some important teaching about the nature of Jesus Christ. As a consequence, and through geographical isolation, divisions grew between the Church of the East and the Chaldeans. Only in 1994 did real hopes for reunion rise, with an agreed statement on Christology.

The notion of a Christian enclave in Iraq already has a troubled history. After the First World War, Christians, many displaced from parts of the new Turkish republic, gathered in the north of Iraq. Thousands served in the Iraqi Levies under the British mandate. But no separate “Assyrian” Christian territory was established, and a year after the setting up of the independent Kingdom of Iraq in 1932, some 3,000 Assyrians were massacred. The designation “Assyrian” for Christians in Iraq can be confusing. Some see themselves as a separate ethnic group and heirs to the ancient Assyrian civilisation of the region. Others attach the label to one part of the Church of the East.

The wars of the past decade have brought their own disasters and tensions. Even at the Chaldean synod last month seven bishops from the north were absent. Among them was Dr Louis Sako, the Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk since 2003. He is a strong opponent of the Nineveh plain scheme. “A village there that once had 2,000 residents, now has a population of 3,000. There

are no jobs, schools, university; services are lacking,” he says. “Where could we put 30,000 people from Baghdad,

Basra, Kirkuk and Mosul? A Christian ghetto would mean endless violence as in Palestine and Israel.”

He sees the whole of Iraq as historically suitable for Christian homes. “The problem is not between Christians and Muslims,” he says. “The problem is fundamentalism which excludes others, annihilates them for religious or ethnic reasons. The solution is to encourage a culture of pluralism, help people acknowledge one another as humans and recognise in each other an absolute value.”

Proponents of a Christian enclave argue that it could become a recognised administrative unit in a federal Iraq. The Nineveh plain near Mosul already accommodates a large Christian population and minorities such as Yazidis. (The Yazidis, about whom I wrote here in 2003, adhere to a strange religion apparently related to Zoroastrianism; they refuse to eat lettuces.) Opponents fear it would

merely represent an embattled buffer zone between Arab Muslims and not always hospitable Kurds.

In any case, if Iraq is torn apart by warring Arab Muslim factions, no Christians, whether Chaldean, Assyrian, Coptic or Armenian, will find a safe

place to live there. These ancient Christians will die or follow thousands of their cousins into exile.