Columnists > Voices

Defend them all

Christianity in Iraq should not be confined to Nineveh Plain

Issue: "Ethiopia's new flower," May 31, 2008

When is a Washington attempt to help Iraqi Christians something that would stifle many of them? Look at an omnibus appropriations bill the U.S. House passed this month that includes $10 million "for programs to assist vulnerable Iraqi minority groups, including Christians"-primarily relief and development projects for one area, the Nineveh Plain.

Keep in mind that Christianity in Iraq is a many-splendored thing. It includes Armenians, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Mandeans who trace their lineage 1,500-plus years back, and a panoply of Protestants-Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and others. Some meet in ancient churches where a priest may heave open a Scripture text inscribed by hand in a.d. 400. Some meet in small houses on white plastic chairs with Arabic-language paperback Bibles handed around.

The church's diverse nature is worth noting because important voices claiming to speak on behalf of persecuted Iraqi Christians-including leading journalists, well-respected Christian human-rights activists, a few members of Congress, and key UN envoys-are calling for creation of a Nineveh Plain autonomous zone to be set aside for Assyrian/Chaldean Christians. The Assyrian International News Agency (aina.com) and the Assyrian Democratic Movement (and one of its party officials, William Warda), along with a few others, have led the way in lobbying these activists to believe that Assyrians constitute the majority of Christians in Iraq.

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Warda, now vice president of the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization, a group with Sunni origins and ties, hosts a variety of English- and Arabic-language websites nearly xenophobic toward other Iraqi minorities, particularly the Kurds. He has acted as tour guide to Newsmax editor Kenneth Timmerman, Christian Solidarity International head John Eibner, and others who've visited the region. But some Christians in Iraq believe that Warda and other activists are pushing for the Assyrian zone to block other churches and evangelistic activity-similar to the tactic used by the Russian Orthodox Church to lock arms with Moscow and render newer religious activity illegitimate.

A UN panel has also jumped into the dispute by recommending the formation of a Nineveh autonomous region to protect "Chaldo-Assyrians," even though that circumvents Article 140 of Iraq's constitution, which provides for the autonomy of parts of four northern governorates, including Nineveh, to be decided by referendum. If a vote were actually taken, one Assyrian who works in Nineveh told me, "most people here would vote against it." They believe it would give Christians fewer rights than they have now, he said.

The Nineveh autonomy campaign, say church leaders, ignores the reality that being a Christian the world over means allegiance to a creed. The idea of ethno- or geography-centric Christianity is actually an Islamic idea imposed on Christians under Muslim rule. That may help to explain why three years ago the Assyrian Democratic Movement joined with the Islamic Union of Kurdistan to issue a public statement calling Iraqi evangelicals attending a conference in northern Iraq "a new suspected movement [that] intends to distort the case of harmony and religious fraternity in Kurdistan by evangelizing the Muslims and Christians."

Iraqi Christians clearly face persecution from militants who have forced them from their homes and worship. Christians (perhaps 2 percent of Iraq's population) account for 25 percent or more of Iraqi refugees who have fled to Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon-but many have remained. In Baghdad an Anglican congregation, despite bombings and the death of its pastor at the hands of insurgents, is this year growing again. An Assemblies of God congregation and a Catholic church-both besieged and beleaguered-are sharing burdens, one providing blankets and food for the other's homeless, the other providing shelter for believers who are afraid to stay in their homes at night.

In the north, house churches are havens for those fleeing Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk, and other endangered cities. These congregations out of necessity are drawing believers from eclectic backgrounds: One I visited last fall had Baptists, Armenians, Chaldeans, Pentecostals, and at least one convert from Islam. Few have jobs or permanent housing, yet they are bearing one another's burdens-truly following in the footsteps of the earliest churches. They need less ethnic political protection and more multi-ethnic political freedom. Washington hands should look past sectarian propaganda and work to defend them all.

If you have a question or comment for Mindy Belz, send it to mbelz@worldmag.com.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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