The city of Mosul in the northern Iraqi state of Ninawa has always been one of Iraq’s most ethnically diverse. It is home to more ethnicities and religious sects than most. However between 2003 and 2008, as the city devolved into chaos with militias virtually running the place, it was the Christians of Mosul, who had lived in the area for around 1,800 years already, who were being targeted.
Over one hundred Christians were killed and many thousands of others faced a campaign of intimidation that ranged from kidnapping and death threats to graffiti telling them to convert to Islam or face the consequences. A major reason for this was the fact that extremists were targeting Christian Iraqis as part of their campaign against other sects and against occupation forces. In 2008, the state’s governor told Western news agencies that he believed al-Qaida, a mainly Sunni Muslim extremist group, were behind the terror campaign in Ninawa and elsewhere in Iraq.
Although Mosul used to be home to one of the biggest populations of Christians in Iraq, over the years this has changed. Around half of the estimated 20,000 Christians that used to live there before 2003 have fled, either out of the country or to more peaceful parts of it. Some figures also suggest that around 40 percent of all displaced persons inside Iraq are Christian – a significant fact when one considers they make up a very small percentage of the population.
As a result there have been several calls made for the establishment of an independent Christian-majority territoryinside the state of Ninawa, that would include a number of small towns and areas where most of the population is Christian.
Maan Basim Ajaj is the advisor on Christian affairs to Ninawa’s governor. He spoke to NIQASH about who exactly is behind the attacks on Christians and why a semi-autonomous Christian region is such a bad idea.
NIQASH: Who do you think is behind the attacks and intimidation campaigns against Christians living in the Ninawa area?
Maan BasimAjaj: Christians have lived side by side with Muslims in Ninawa for around 1,400 years. And over that long history, there had been no problems between them. Relations have been brotherly, based on mutual respect and patriotism [for Iraq]. However after the US-led invasion of Iraq, armed groups with foreign agendas came to this country and began to target Christians, Christian property and Christian churches. Over one hundred Christians have been killed here and the historical Tahira church was bombed twice as were a number of other churches.
The point of these attacks is to isolate the Christian community from the rest of Ninawa. They want to ghettoize Christians in one area or they want to intimidate them into leaving the country altogether. The same methods have been used against Christians all over Iraq.
I also think there are two other major reasons why Christians have left Mosul. There’s the deterioration that has happened in the economic situation between 2003 and 2008 as well as a severe housing crisis. This has seen many people migrate to the outlying Hamdaniyaor Tal Keef areas. Many have also moved to the [semi-autonomous region of] Iraqi Kurdistan, which is known for its stable security and economic prosperity. It is also notable that for some time the government in Iraqi Kurdistan was providing housing for displaced groups coming in from other parts of Iraq.
NIQASH: How have Ninawa’s Christians reacted to the campaigns of threats and intimidation?
Ajaj: Displacement and migration are the two biggest impacts. It’s also important to remember that unlike with Arab or Kurdish sects, Christians often don’t have tribes or extended clans to protect their interests. A weak state, both locally and at a federal level, [which could not protect them] meant that many Christians didn’t have any other option but to leave.
NIQASH: Is it just that being a Christian is a problem in Iraq, where 97 percent are Muslim?
Ajaj: Those who targeted Christians have political agendas which have nothing to do with religion or ethnicity. During the years when attacks were increasing on Christians in Mosul, my Muslim neighbours would never let me leave the house. They were worried I might become a target and they used to do my shopping for me, they also accompanied my children to school.
There are other similar examples. In the chaotic aftermath of the fall of [former Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein, the Archbishop Mar Paulos Faraj Rahho – who was kidnapped and killed by an armed group in early 2008 - called upon Christians to protect their local mosque. And Muslims have been called upon to protect churches by their religious leaders too.
NIQASH: What are your thoughts on the idea of a semi-autonomous Christian province in Ninawa that might operate in a similar way to how Iraqi Kurdistan does today?
Ajaj: The idea … was welcomed by some Christian parties, it was backed by those from outside the region and also significantly promoted. However Ninawa’s Christians were against the idea from the very start. And eventually the project was thwarted because the majority of parties backing it didn’t have any popular support and in fact, many lived outside the country. Additionally there was no consensus on the nature of the new entity or its geography.
If I had personally seen any benefit in the creation of a separate province for Christians then I’d be the first to demand it, and to struggle to ensure its formation. But I actually believe that if this happened, the creation of such a district would have a disastrous impact on all the Christians living in Ninawa.
NIQASH: Why “disastrous”?
Ajaj: Because numbers from right around Iraq show that Christians never make for a majority in any of the areas in which they live. This means that forming an administrative or federal division will never serve their best interests. They will never win enough votes in any election to allow them to take up high ranking political positions. And that’s why the formation of a region would be disastrous; it is also why this proposal has failed.
NIQASH: You seem very confident that this proposal will never become a reality. Why are you so sure it has failed?
Ajaj: Christians in Ninawa are independent but they want to see Iraq united and strong. Experience has taught us to reject any outsiders’ ideas - such as the proposal for an independent Christian region. Even those who supported ideas like this have also come to the conclusion that it’s not going to happen. And local Christians don’t think there’s any point in even discussing such proposals because they’re simply not feasible.
For example, everyone was happy when Qaraqosh [a Ninawa city with a Christian majority population, that is also known as Hamdaniya] became a district because this helped increase services to the area: government departments opened branches there and a hospital, school and other facilities were built. If the proposal to create a Christian region in Ninawa had been driven by administrative concerns like that, then I would have tried my best to see this happen. However local Christians have come to realize that the proposal was driven more by ethnic and sectarian motives.
NIQASH: There is a university being built in Hamdaniya. Could this be construed as Christians moving toward independence inside the state?
Ajaj: Not at all. Those who graduate from the university will serve Ninawa and ultimately, all of Iraq. The university is being built there because of [unstable] conditions in Mosul. And the facility will not just be for Christians – it is also open to Arabs, Kurds and others, all of whom will benefit given the density of their different populations in the area. And I could add that there is also a plan to build a university in the city of Tal Afar. Tell me, is Tal Afar intending to become independent?
NIQASH: You’re so opposed to a separate Christian region that you actually visited the Vatican and a number of European countries to get support for that position. How did that go?
Ajaj: I visited France, the Netherlands and Sweden - and the Vatican was my last stop. I went as a representative of the Ninawa state government with a delegation composed of three Christian representatives from Mosul, Tal Keef and Hamdaniya.
We held a number of seminars and meetings in order to make sure that the voices of those Christians in Ninawa, who reject the idea of being isolated from the world, are heard. We were fully supported by the people we visited. At the Vatican we met with a number of high ranking Christian leaders from the Middle East and Arab regions. All of them urged us not to compromise Iraq’s unity and to preserve the country’s sovereignty.