Scholars call for Christian safe haven in Iraq

Christian refugees encamp on the area of archdiocese of Erbil, in Erbil, Iraq, August 16 2014. (EPA photos)
Leading Assyrian academics pen open letter to international community

Christian refugees encamp on the area of archdiocese of Erbil, in Erbil, Iraq, August 16 2014. (EPA photos)
London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Amid growing concerns about the plight of Iraq’s Christians, a group of leading international scholars of Christian language and culture in the Middle East issued a call for an internationally protected safe haven for Christians in Iraq on Monday.

The 49 scholars from universities around the world published a letter in London’s Daily Telegraph calling for “an internationally protected safe haven in northern Iraq of the kind that, 20 years ago, protected the Kurds from genocide.”

The publication of the letter follows the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) across the plains of Iraq’s Nineveh province, home to many of the country’s religious minorities, including Assyrian Christians and Yazidis, which has prompted as many as 100,000 of them to flee to the relative safety of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, including the capital, Erbil.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Nineb Lamassu, an Assyrian researcher at the University of Cambridge and co-author of the letter, said: “These people are sleeping in the streets [of Erbil]. The church NGOs and community can only do so much.”

“We don’t need a no-fly zone, we need a safe haven with international protection endorsed by the central government,” Lamassu added. “Chaldean, Nestorian, Syrian Orthodox…all differences are forgotten. There is no space, no need, no reason, it is survival or death.”

Lamassu said that without the implementation of a safe haven, he believes the Christian community in Iraq is finished: “Ancient people, ancient cultures, innocent human beings…if no help gets to them they will perish. Otherwise they will die…either we offer help or we just sit back and watch them die.”

Since capturing Mosul in June 10 this year, ISIS has turned on Iraq’s Assyrians, Yazidis, Shabaks and Turkmen, ordering them to convert to Islam, pay crippling taxes or face execution.

As well as killing thousands of members of these minorities, ISIS has reportedly driven Assyrians and Yazidis from their homes in Mosul, Qaraqosh, Tal Kayf, Bartella and Karamlesh and looted the abandoned towns and villages.

The latest ISIS offensive follows on from a wave of violence against Iraq’s Christian minority in the wake of the US-led invasion of 2003, which led thousands of the country’s Christians to flee, reducing their numbers from 1.5 million to an estimated 350,000.

The letter also follows criticism of the British government’s policy towards the violence faced by Iraq’s Christians in the wake of the ISIS assault from senior members of the Anglican Church.

The Rt. Rev. Nicholas Barnes, Bishop of Leeds, wrote to UK Prime Minister David Cameron last week, contrasting the public attention the plight of Iraq’s Yazidis has received, to the killing and displacement of Iraqi Christians.

In his letter, the bishop hit out at the “increasing silence about the plight of tens of thousands of Christians who have been displaced, driven from cities and homelands, and who face a bleak future.”

“Despite appalling persecution, they seem to have fallen from consciousness, and I wonder why. Does your government have a coherent response to the plight of these huge numbers of Christians whose plight appears to be less regarded than that of others?” he wrote.

The Pope also called for action through the United Nations to act to stop the violence against Iraq’s religious minorities on Monday.

Speaking on his way back from a trip to Asia, Pope Francis said: “in these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor.”

He added that he was considering a trip to the Middle East to show solidarity with displaced Christians.