Why Iraqi Christians are against the establishment of their own autonomous region

  • Written by:

Yonadam Kanna, the secretary-general of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, is seen in Baghdad, Dec. 15, 2004. (photo by GETTY IMAGES/Wathiq Khuzaie)
BAGHDAD — The secretary-general of the Assyrian Democratic Movement and member of the Iraqi parliament, Yonadam Kanna, spoke to Al-Monitor about the unwillingness of Iraqi Christians to establish an autonomous region of their own or call for an administrative or geographic split from Iraq.

Kanna said that the Council of Minister’s decision to make the Ninevah Plains a governorate on demographic grounds did not equate with the establishment of an autonomous region, describing any step toward that end — which is based on religious or sectarian motivations — to be “racist” and incompatible with the values of Iraqi Christians.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Kanna called for the need to “protect the Christian constituency of Iraq.”

The text of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  There are those who call for a Christian autonomous region in Iraq. But in your capacity as the representative of Christians in Iraq’s parliament, you have failed to submit any official request to that effect. Have you taken any steps toward that end?

Kanna:  As Christians and representatives of the Christian constituency in Iraq’s parliament, we have neither called for the establishment of an autonomous region nor demanded secession from Iraq, or even the isolation of certain areas from the rest of the country. What happened was that some European and American parties — as part of their strategies to defend Iraqi Christians — demanded, through statements or press releases, that Iraqi Christians be given an autonomous region. In other words, those who made such demands are people outside of Iraq, while we — who work hard in parliament — espouse the principles prescribed in Iraq’s constitution and proclaim the importance of living as part of a single homeland that unites Iraqis of all ilk. We further think that calls for the establishment of an autonomous region are racist in nature and serve to isolate us from one another.

Al-Monitor:  What delayed transforming the Ninevah Plains from a province to a governorate? What was the reasoning behind your call to institute such a transformation? Was it based on religious, demographic or political grounds or motivated by a fear that Christians would be deprived of a place of their own in Iraq?

Kanna:  Iraq’s Council of Ministers decided on Jan. 21, 2014, to change the status of the Ninevah Plains — which is situated in the northern Iraqi governorate of Ninevah — from a province to a governorate. But the security situation that has gripped Iraq since June 10, 2014, and the Islamic State [IS] overrunning the province, delayed the implementation of procedures to transform it from a province to a governorate. Said Cabinet decision was based on demographic and not religious or sectarian grounds; whereby, prior to IS’ control of the province, its inhabitants were estimated to total half a million people. In addition, the Ninevah Plains hold special symbolism for Christians in its capacity as a remnant of ancient Ninevah.

Al-Monitor:  Do you envision the institution of local or international protection for Christians in Iraq? Do you have aspirations that go beyond the Ninevah Plains, with other regions being declared exclusively Christian?

Kanna:  We never stopped calling for Christians to be protected here and abroad. That is part of our right to live in our homeland — with such calls for protection including the governorates of Ninevah and Salahuddin. But grievances concerning the so-called disputed territories between the central government in Baghdad and the one in Erbil hindered moving forward with those plans. We have inherited an old problem that delayed embarking on many a step, due to Saddam Hussein’s regime Arabizing areas inhabited by Kurds and Turkmens. In truth, all these disputes must be resolved pursuant to Article 140 [of the constitution] — for, if the parties failed to resolve them, they shall be referred to international arbitration, or to the United Nations if arbitration also failed. We think that this problem must be resolved as quickly as possible, otherwise Iraq’s problems will only be exacerbated and greater conflicts will ensue — which will affect all Iraqis. Minorities will be the most affected, as well as Arabs living in Kurdish areas, because there are some over there who view them as minions of Saddam.

Al-Monitor:  Is there backing from specific countries or the Vatican for the anticipated Ninevah Plains governorate or to a broader Christian plan in Iraq?

Kanna:  Not at all. There is no backing for the Ninevah Plains governorate from any European, non-European country or the Vatican even. The establishment of the governorate is purely administrative in nature and was brought about for demographic and not sectarian reasons. We would like to affirm here that we do not draft racist discriminatory proposals founded on religious, sectarian or factional bases. Whomever outside Iraq works on adopting such measures is ignorant of our country’s geography and demographic makeup.

Al-Monitor:  How many Christians remain in Iraq today? Do you expect higher rates of emigration by Iraqi Christians during the coming years?

Kanna:  There are those who endeavor and plan to empty Iraq of its Christian constituency. But we assert our attachment to our land and identity and we shall never give anyone the chance to remove us from our motherland. When Saddam’s regime fell in 2003, Christians numbered approximately 1 million people, down from the 1.4 million figure recorded in the last census of 1987. But following the waves of killing, forced displacement and threats throughout the past 12 years — particularly subsequent to the incident at Our Lady of Deliverance Church — emigration from Iraq increased and the number of Christians dwindled to half a million. This number may be further reduced in the coming years because the successive Iraqi governments that ran the country after 2003 monopolized power and adopted discriminatory, religious and sectarian-based agendas, prompting Christians who lacked any form of protection to leave the country for fear of being persecuted.

Al-Monitor:  What is the number of Christian homes seized in Baghdad? Did you try to recover them? And who stands behind those appropriations?

Kanna:  The factions that espouse chauvinist extremist ideologies — which tried in past years to empty Iraq of its Christians — are the same ones that today through new figureheads and symbols are trying to seize the homes of Christians in Baghdad. They are gangs and militias that exploit the backing of certain political parties to break into the homes of absent Christians, and if the home is occupied, paperwork is forged in land registries through people of influence there. During the past two years, my own tedious personal research has revealed that 50 Christian homes were seized in Baghdad. There may also be other homes that I am unaware of. Unfortunately, such is the case: People from outside of Baghdad are evicting the city’s original inhabitants, forcing them to emigrate and manipulating the ownership of their property.

Al-Monitor:  Where do you stand vis-a-vis the popular demonstrations held in Baghdad and other governorates? Did Christians take part in them?

Kanna:  The tragic situation endured by Iraqis for many years, the loss of their assets and the lack of social justice were factors that contributed to the rise of a popular movement whose goal is the restoration of rights abrogated by the political parties that ruled Iraq. I find those demonstrations to be legitimate calls for reform. Yet we warn against some parties riding the coattails of these demonstrations and hope that the latter remain true to their distinctive national character. Without a doubt, Christians took part in said demonstrations — not in their capacity as Christians, but as Iraqis seeking to bring about change and establish a civic state that respects the rights of all, away from the logic of a state governed by radical Islamic parties.

Al-Monitor:  Do you still claim to be “marginalized”? Or does the situation in Iraq today compel you to postpone demanding your rights?

Kanna:  Christians are marginalized in the current and two previous governments. There are no Christian ministers in the current Cabinet, and we were also excluded from certain important posts that should have been ours commensurate with us being an important and essential component of the country. But, unfortunately, the major parties always endeavored to marginalize us and treated us as if we were not the children of this land. Even in defending Iraq and the Iraqis, we were excluded and deprived from the opportunity to partake in the war against IS.

Al-Monitor:  But the Popular Mobilization Units include a faction called the Babylon Brigade, led by Rayan al-Kaldani. How then do you say that you are excluded?

Kanna:  The head of that armed faction does not represent Christians, and his participation as part of the Popular Mobilization Units in the fight against IS is in his own personal capacity. We believe in the importance of us participating in the war against terrorism, but this person is not affiliated with us and commands between 20 and 30 fighters. For whatever reason, the media has exaggerated his role; particularly in light of the church objecting to him being addressed as “sheikh,” since there are no sheikhs in the Christian faith. In addition, the church to which his father belongs sent two communiques to the government renouncing him and declaring that he did not represent it. Yet the government ignored the issue and some continued to view him as a Christian fighter who represents the rest of the Christians, while the truth of the matter is much different.

Al-Monitor:  Do you have a military wing? Will it be part of the National Guard project?

Kanna:  Yes, we do have the Ninevah Plains Protection Units, the first 600-men regiment that was established eight months ago. But the constant disputes between the Baghdad and Erbil governments have prevented it from taking up positions to protect certain areas. Following the coordinating efforts that we undertook, the regiment now has barracks being readied in the Alqosh region of Ninevah governorate. The regiment needs modern weaponry, as its current armament is composed of light and medium weapons because neither the peshmerga nor the Iraqi Ministry of Defense have supplied us with any weapons. With proper support, the force’s numbers would swell to 5,000 fighters.

Al-Monitor:  What is your stance vis-a-vis the dispute between Baghdad and Erbil? Has it affected you as Christians?

Kanna:  We regret seeing the disputes continuing between Baghdad and Erbil, as well as their inability to reach effective solutions leading to the rebuilding of the country. These disputes have greatly affected the situation in the country and created a void exploited by terrorism and corruption. All Iraqis have been harmed by these disputes, but we are the ones who suffered the greatest harm, particularly in the Ninevah Plains region. We have been under the protection of the peshmerga since the days of the [US] civil administrator, Paul Bremer. But, unfortunately, the peshmerga was unable to protect us and IS overran the area. Since then, we have been prevented from forming armed forces to protect our areas, and as such, those problems were the main repercussions arising from disputes between the Baghdad and Erbil governments.

Al-Monitor:  Do Iraqi Christians receive financial or advisory support from the Vatican?

Kanna:  The Vatican’s support for Iraqi Christians is intangible because its capabilities are extremely limited. Yet through its affiliated institutions and civil society organizations, it did offer positive support to displaced Christians when they faced the dire consequences of IS’ occupation of their lands. It is well known that the Iraqi government offered refugees 1 million dinars [$891] per family, only to later abandon them. In any case, the Vatican’s work is purely humanitarian.

Al-Monitor:  What are your expectations concerning the future of Iraq’s Christians?

Kanna:  Our fate is tied to the strategies and agendas of the Iraqi state. It will be a positive future if Iraq heads toward becoming a secular civil state. But if it becomes a radicalized religious state, then we — as all Iraqis — shall face imminent doom, for any religious state must be based on discriminatory racial principles. We hope that the international community would exercise pressure on neighboring countries to unite their efforts against terrorism, instead of causing added discord among Iraqis leading to increased religious extremism that would greatly obscure the future prospects of Iraq as a nation.