niqash | Muhammed Abdullah | Mosul | 14.11.2008Iraqi Christians are growing fearful that they will be forced out of Iraq as a result of conflict between the country’s political groups over the status of Ninawa province. As tension has escalated in recent months, Christians in the province have found themselves under increasing threat and many have fled.
On Wednesday two Christian sisters were killed in the province’s capital city of Mosul.
The province, inhabited by a multi-ethnic mix of Kurds, Christians and Arabs, is disputed between the central government and Kurdish political parties who want to annex parts of it to the autonomous Kurdish region.
As the Kurdish and central governments vie over control of the province, Christians in Mosul have been violently attacked and Mgr Louis Sako, the Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk, has warned of “a strategy to drive out the entire Christian community from Iraq.”
Of late, the attacks on Christians have occurred with increasing frequency and some 12,000 Christians have fled Mosul city as a result. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) many of these refugees have made their way to north-eastern Syria.
According to a source close to Sako, speaking on condition of anonymity, “the stance taken by some Christian parties calling for self-rule in Ninawa Plain and in other areas in Dahouk and Erbil in the Kurdistan region may be behind the killing and displacement of Mosul’s Christians.” He said that these demands for self-representation threaten the interests of the Kurds in controlling some of the disputed areas.
Kurdish parties have denied responsibility for the acts of violence which have resulted in the death of more than ten Christians. But several groups have made accusations against them. Arab tribes in Ninawa province say that the Kurds are responsible for the migration of more than 600,000 Christian since 2003. And, in a recent press conference, Osama al-Nujaifi, an Arab MP for the Iraqi List, said that violence against Christians had been driven by the Kurds in order to divide and gain control of parts of Ninawa province as a step towards annexing these areas to the Kurdish region. The Kurdistan alliance reacted strongly to his comments calling for his parliamentary immunity to be lifted so that he could be tried for the accusations which they say are false.
Despite the tense relation between the central government and the Kurdistan regional government resulting from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's attempts to reduce the influence of Kurdish Peshmerga forces in disputed areas, al-Maliki has avoided blaming the Kurds for the displacement of Christians. Instead he accused “terrorist groups” of being responsible for the acts against Christians.
Al-Maliki issued orders to Ninawa’s operational command to take all “necessary and immediate” measures to ensure the return of Christians. The Prime minister also pledged to supply more security forces from Baghdad to protect churches and Christian neighborhoods in Mosul, stressing that government forces will remain in the province to protect Christians and to ensure their return. However, observers say these measures are probably attempts to take advantage of the crisis in order to place more government troops to Mosul so as to force Kurdish forces out of the city. Al-Maliki’s has already sent 3,000 government security forces to the west of Mosul to reduce Kurdish influence.
As a result of the repeated attacks, some Christians are amplifying their call for self-rule in Ninawa Plain and in some other areas within the Kurdistan region. Christian parties say that without self-rule they will lose their rights in the face of assertive Kurdish and Shiite domination.
“[Christians] do not have influential parties and do not possess the means to protect themselves like other sects,” said the source close to Sako. The fear for many Christians is that their voice will not be heard and they will be left helpless in the face of political conflicts between the Kurds and Arabs. They point to the rejection of minority rights in the initial provincial election law as a sign of the dangerous days ahead for minority groups.