06/06/2007, 00.00
IRAQ
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An “Assyrian ghetto” in the Plains of Niniveh to save Iraq’s Christians

Politicized groups are pushing for the creation of an “Assyrian region” in the country’s north, on the border with Kurdistan. To this end, they are exploiting the anti-Christian persecution to confirm the urgency of carrying out their plan. A project being called for by those who know little of the situation in Iraq, it may be on the agenda for meetings between Bush and the Vatican.

Baghdad (AsiaNews) –Groups of politicized Christians in the United States and Europe are seeking to exploit the tragic religious persecution underway in Iraq to accelerate the creation of an “Assyrian enclave” in the Plains of Niniveh, on the border of the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan.  The plan, however, does not have the support of Catholics in the country and abroad, who refer to it as a “diabolic and dangerous” plan, the debate over which “risks creating a division” among Christians.

Closing the Christian community into a ghetto/buffer-zone between Arabs and Kurds in the north seems, for some, the only solution for salvation.  According to local AsiaNews sources, the utmost is being done to make this convincing: religious leaders are being duped, the press is being manipulated; even suffering and sorrow are being exploited.  The latest example is the murder of Fr Ragheed Ganni, Chaldean priest, whose death, along with that of three friends, is at the centre of a media circus in Iraq that even Iraqis themselves are saying is “excessive.”  An AsiaNews source says. “Ragheed, who lived and died in Mosul, sacrificed himself for the exact opposite: for peaceful coexistence, for the future of the Church in Iraq, not abroad, not caged within political or territorial borders.”

Ever since the anti-Christian campaign has become violent enough to be in the spotlight of international media, more and more articles and television coverage speak of what would be the unavoidable necessity, at this point, of creating a safe haven for this minority.  Yesterday, an article of the Eastern Star News Agency (a Sweden-based Assyrian agency) compared the situation of the “Assyrian people” (a term that is meant to include Chaldeans and Syriacs) to that of the Kurds under Saddam: they need protection.  And they go on to say that: “Assyrians are calling more and more for an autonomous Christian region in Iraq.”

Those in favour

The project for an “Assyrian ghetto” is strongly supported by the Christian diaspora in the United States, which holds a lot of sway over the Baghdad Patriarchate, by Evangelicals and by Kurdistan’s Finance Minister, Sarkis Aghajan, who over the last year has donated large sums of money for the reconstruction of numerous villages and churches in the north.

In October 2006, American Catholic bishops wrote to Condoleezza Rice to urge Washington to consider the possibility of creating a new “administrative region” around Niniveh, connected directly to the central government in Baghdad, which “could provide Christians and other minorities with greater safety and offer more opportunity to control their own affairs.”  And given that numerous Christians are seeking refuge in the country’s north, the document also suggests collaboration between the U.S. government and Kurdish authorities to ensure the security of Christians in these areas.

It is expected that the Vatican will express its position on this matter on the occasion of the forthcoming meeting – set for June 8 – between President George W. Bush and the Pope.

Those against

Various prominent figures of the Church, as well as ordinary members of the faithful, have, for some time, been pointing out the risks of a “Niniveh Project”.   In comments to AsiaNews a few months ago, Monsignor Louis Sako, Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk, acknowledged the need for an “end to the violence” but was nevertheless puzzled about the idea.  “The Plains of Niniveh,” he explained, “are surrounded for the most part by Arabs: Christians would be a handy and vulnerable buffer between Arabs and Kurds.  In my opinion, it would be much better to work at the level of the constitution and the single states to guarantee religious freedom and equal rights to the members of all faiths over the entire territory, for Christians too who live throughout Iraq.”

Iraqi laymen of the diaspora speak of a “mistaken project, even from the strategic point of view.”  “Concentrating in a single territory a community which is already being targeted, without safety guarantees, means exposing it to enormous risks: those who want to eliminate Christians from Iraq will thus have an easy time of it.”

Moreover, the north, which up to just a few months ago had been spared the violence being faced by the rest of the country, has seen the level of security deteriorate considerably with attacks against Kurdish and Christians targets in view of the important referendum on the status of Kirkuk.

Finally, Iraqi priests in Europe note that the Niniveh project “reduces Christians to an ethnic group and puts and end to the Church’s mission which is that of working and witnessing the Gospel among nations.”

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