While some sectarian and ethnic groups have started to pull back on demands for a region of their own, similar to the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan, one Christian group continues to want their own independent state.
The Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council (CSAPC) was created in 2007 with a view to uniting Christian discourse in Iraq; all of the groups represented are variations of the Christian sect. Representatives from each group rotate the chairperson’s position regularly.
Lawyer Shams al-Deen Gewargis, one of the Council’s former heads, talked about why his group still insists on their own independent region, the impact of ongoing violence in Iraq on Christians there and his group’s position on the current political crisis in Iraq.
NIQASH: What is your group’s position on the current tensions –some would say, crisis situation – between authorities in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan and the federal government, led by Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad?
Shams al-Deen Gewargis: We believe that solving this crisis requires all of the parties involved meeting, without marginalizing or excluding anyone, in some form of national conference. The aim should be to reach agreements that consider the interests of all Iraqis.
NIQASH: The Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council was created in 2007 – has the Council achieved its aims?
Gewargis: We want to create a Christian province in the state of Ninawa, together with other ethnic, religious and sectarian components in the region. Until now, we haven’t been able to do that but we are dedicated to that aim. We are currently conducting an online referendum on this topic.
NIQASH: Why do you want to do this? Doesn’t this kind of thing just split Iraq up into conflicted regions?
Gewargis: We don’t want to divide Iraq or split it into pieces. The Christians of Iraq support a united Iraq. But we do want to have our own identity and we want to preserve that identity.
Like many other disputed areas in Iraq, this area has been suffering because there are two different administrative authorities, which has led to marginalization and a lack of state services. Because the majority of the people here are Christians, we simply think that administrative independence could ease these problems.
NIQASH: Where would this region be?
Gewargis: The Hamdaniya and the Tal Keef districts in Ninawa.
NIQASH: In fact though, hundreds of Christian families have been fleeing this area over the past few years, for fear of persecution and targeting by extremist militias. Surely this exodus has affected the latter goal?
Gewargis: Yes, it has. Mostly Christian villages in the [semi-autonomous region of] Iraqi Kurdistan are almost empty and the same is true of villages on the Ninawa plain. The rapid decrease Christian numbers has a negative impact on our political demands.
NIQASH: What challenges have Christian Iraqis had in Iraqi Kurdistan?
Gewargis: It is true that living conditions in Iraqi Kurdistan are better than in other Iraqi cities. But it is still difficult for them to find jobs and there is also a language barrier there – many cannot speak Kurdish. Additionally Iraqi Kurdistan is becoming more limited as a host – so many immigrants have sought refuge there.
NIQASH: Late last year Christian-owned stores and businesses were attacked during riots in the north of Iraqi Kurdistan. What sort of impact have these had on your community?
Gewargis: The impact has been on the economic as well as psychological level. But we still want to have a state where there is religious pluralism, freedom of opinion and where extremism is repudiated. We want a state where there is rule of law to resolve conflicts and citizens can live freely in the way they wish.
NIQASH: What do you want from the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan then?
Gewargis: We want the regional government to apply the rule of law. In my opinion, if the attacks such as those in Zakho – the arson in liquor stores and other businesses including Chinese massage parlours – happen again, they will have a negative impact on the progress of Iraqi Kurdistan and on its stability, as well as on any hopes the region may have to become a country on its own in the future.
Some international organizations measure the levels of democracy achieved by events such as these.