The future of Iraq depends as much on melding the many differences between its Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish groups as on integrating its smaller ethnic and religious communities. Among its largest minority sects are Christian Assyrians, who comprise 800,000 of Iraq’s 27 million inhabitants, or 3 percent of the population. But after a rise in attacks by Muslim extremists and political persecution, a growing portion—roughly 100,000 Iraqi Christians since the U.S.-led invasion of March 2003—has either fled the country or been displaced, says Michael Youash, an Iraqi Christian and project director of the Washington-based Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project.
Many of them flee to nearby Muslim countries like Syria or Turkey. Syria alone is home to nearly 250,000 Iraqi Christians who have fled their country since the first Gulf war, according to a recent UN report. The most recent series of attacks targeting Christians came on January 29 when four churches were struck and three civilians killed. “We live in a climate of fear,” said Benjamin Sleiman, Roman Catholic Bishop of Baghdad, in a January 30 interview with Agenzia Giornalistica Italia. But he added: “I am certain that there is no premeditated plan against the Christian minority [in Iraq].”
Integration of Christians into Iraq ’s political hierarchy has come slowly. Just one Christian—Younadam Kanna, of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM)—was elected to Iraq’s 275-member parliament last December. Cfr.org’s Lionel Beehner spoke with Kanna about the status of Christians in post-Saddam Iraq, the recent attacks against them by insurgents, and the plight of Christian refugees in the region.
Tell me a little bit about the status of Christians in post-Saddam Iraq?
In general, we are very pleased for the first time in history to be recognized officially in this country. In the beginning, I was a member of the Governing Council for the Christians and Chaldo-Assyrians. Later on, we were in the [Transitional] National Assembly as well. I mean, politically, there’s a big change. We are free to have televisions, radios, and publications; we are free to educate our kids in our model-language schools. The constitution recognizes our language—Aramaic—as an official language in our region.
Explain the breakdown between Chaldeans and Assyrians in Iraq.
Those are the names of one nation, but different churches and different denominations. The Catholic Assyrians are called Chaldeans. Now we call ourselves Chaldo-Assyrians, for example, as a political agreement to unite ourselves. We all have the same language, the same ethnicity, the same historical roots. The problem is the leadership of the Church, which is not united. This is the reason why we are so weak in this country. The names have historical roots, but mostly belong to the Church differences. We have a national movement, the Assyrian Democratic Movement, for example, and we are all together in this, regardless of Church or region.
So you’re saying Christians in Iraq act as a united bloc?
The differences between us are seeded by those outside of our community. Of course, like other Iraqis, we are suffering because of this transitional period of instability and the security lags in Iraq, the same as our other brothers, the Kurds and Arabs.
How were Christians in Iraq treated under Saddam?
We were fifth-degree citizens. What I mean is first degree were Arab Sunnis, second were Arab Shiites, third were Kurds, fourth were Turkmen, and we were the fifth. Yes, the country was more civil, but the regime was a dictatorship—killing people, discrimination policies, etc. We were never accepted to be in the military as leaders or high-rank officials unless we accepted that we are Arabs and not Assyrians. Several hundred thousand Christian Assyrians fled from Iraq during Saddam’s time, especially after 1991, when he adopted his faith campaign and closed all our businesses that were dealing with liquor or alcohol. More than 300,000 Christians fled after [the first Gulf War].
But weren’t some Christians, such as [former Deputy Prime Minister] Tariq Aziz, high-ranking Baath Party officials?
Two or three guys—no more than that—who Arabized, which means they denied their religion and identity as Assyrians.
Which issues are most important to you as the lone Christian in parliament? I’d imagine you’re involved with issues related to national identity.
First, we will try for an amendment to the constitution, which was under the control of two blocs, the Kurdish and Shiite coalitions. So the preamble of the constitution we are not happy with. We want to add some amendments to make it more fair and equal to all Iraqi people. Second, the religious role of Islam in the state, we have to take care of that. So we must be very careful when we are legislating rules for explaining articles of constitution, because it could be explained in two ways—[first, the letter of the law, and second, according to Article 2 of the constitution, which broadly says all laws must adhere to Islamic principles]—particularly as it pertains to democracy principles, women’s rights, minority rights.
How will you as a Christian amend the constitution if your party has just one seat in parliament?
Over 50 percent of the national assembly has, if not the same opinion, a similar view of those articles. The Shiites make up maybe 45 percent. If [there are no amendments], then we will not have a stable Iraq .
So you will form coalitions with non-Shiite groups?
Yes, but even with Shiites. Because Article 2 says no legislation shall contradict with Islam principles, [there are, in effect, two bodies of law]. No one can say which or how many principles—100, 200, 300 principles?
Were you disappointed by the outcome of December’s elections? After all, the new electoral system was set up to benefit smaller parties whose support was spread out over the regions. Yet Christians only won one seat. Were you surprised?
I’m sorry to say but the way the distribution of those compensatory seats was designed by the major parties for themselves and far away from the spirit of the law. We were supposed to get two seats—one in Baghdad, one as a compensatory seat. But our seat in Baghdad was swallowed by Sunnis and others. Still, I am very happy the political process is going forward. It’s a matter for transition. In the future, we may get more than ten seats.
Is part of the problem that hundreds of thousands of Christians are fleeing Iraq? Isn’t that diminishing your voter base?
Yes, in Saddam’s time more than 300,000 fled Iraq. Nowadays, only less than 100,000 have fled, but not only to neighboring countries but also to the north. [Christian Chaldo-Assyrians] fled their neighborhoods and cities for other locations in Iraq. For example, Karbala is one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq because it’s a tangent point between Fallujah and Najaf, between the most extremist of Sunni and Shiite [cities]. And now we are there as victims of those two. We are not targeted. So they leave this region to go north. In Syria , more than 50 percent of the Christian refugees were there during Saddam’s time, and they are still there.
Will they move back to Iraq once it’s stabilized?
Yes, like in Beirut . Once peace came, the people came back.
Over the weekend a number of Christian churches were targeted. Is it your impression that Christians are being targeted by insurgents more, and if so, why?
This was a reaction by the fanatics by the bad jokes done by some journalists in Denmark and Norway . It was only a message. It wasn’t an attack on Christianity.
You mean the cartoons in Denmark ?
Yes. It was a reaction from extremists for the bad-color sketches of [Prophet] Mohammed.
One of the recent attacks was in Kirkuk. What will happen to Christians there if and when the city is handed over to the Kurds, as some expect in late 2007?
We have a community among the majority Kurds in [the northern provinces of] Dohuk and Arbil. And they are living in good relations. We have some individual encroachments here and there. But we have been together since 1991. I was a member of the regional assembly there. We have forty-three modern-language schools there. But maybe Kirkuk may be a time bomb for relations between the federal and regional state. It’s a big problem, but not because we are Assyrian or Christians with the Kurds or with the center. Most of our people are in Kurdish neighborhoods.
What about Christian relations with Turkmen?
No problems. Bad situations only come from al-Qaeda [in Iraq] and extremists.
So just to be sure, you’re saying that recent attacks against Christians as we witnessed over the weekend are not pushing Christians to flee Iraq?
I don’t think so because previous attacks were to draw the attention of the international community. It was only five among ninety-five attacks that month, the previous one in August 2004. People said this was an attack against Christianity. It was not.
Do Christians expect to win a cabinet post in the coming government?
Yes. According to Article 3 in the constitution, all Iraqi communities and sects must be represented in the cabinet.