Bartella, IRAQ - Thousands of Christians fleeing persecution in other parts of Iraq have returned since 2004 to ancestral lands in the Nineveh Plain, just north and east of Mosul.
While they have escaped the Islamic militias who slaughtered family members and burned down their houses and churches in Baghdad and Mosul, now they face a new battle. Today’s enemies are poverty, joblessness, and despair.
Jamal Dinha, mayor of Bartella, a large Christian village east of Mosul, painted a dire picture of the life these persecuted Christians now face in this Kurdish-controlled safe haven.
“The situation in our region is critical. Our young people are unemployed. We have IDPs [internally-displaced people] from everywhere. Our infrastructure is bad. Our cultural and scientific institutions don’t exist. We have no electricity, bad water, broken streets.”
The despair is driving many families to emigrate a second time to Syria and Jordan.
“Many families leave after they have stayed here for awhile and see there are no jobs and they give up hope,” echoed Bassam Ballo, mayor of Tel Kaif, the largest city in the Nineveh Plain. “At least in Jordan and Syria, there is electricity and water.”
The plight of these Assyrian/Chaldean Christians has been aggravated by the collapse of any central government authority in the Nineveh province, to which they officially belong, and by the actions of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which is seeking to annex this fertile land where Christians have lived for two thousand years because it is believed to contain rich oil resources.
While the Kurds are providing much-needed security and emergency refugee housing, they also are seeking to manipulate the Christians for political gain though a sophisticated system of patronage, local officials, refugees, and international aid, organizations told Newsmax.
“The goal of the KRG is clearly to get this land under Kurdish control,” said Dr. John Eibner, CEO of Christian Solidarity International. “As Christians are driven out of the Nineveh plain, this place will become a great museum of churches and cemeteries. And ultimately, the churches will end up as mosques. The Christian community in Iraq is on the verge of extinction.”
To stem the exodus of Christians from Iraq, Eiber and his organization teamed up with William Warda and the Hamurabi Human Rights Organization, an Assyrian group, to distribute food parcels last week to 100 of the neediest families in the ancient village of Karamlesh.
By coincidence, the day of the food distribution began with a somber church service to commemorate the 40-day anniversary of the murder of Chaldean Archbishop Paulos (Paul) Faraj Rahho, who was abducted on February 29 after celebrating mass at the Holy Spirit Church in nearby Mosul.
Bishop Rahho is buried in the local church, recently refurbished with funds from KRG Finance Minister, Sarkis Aghajan.
As she was waiting to get her food parcel, 74-year old Noneh Toma came up to Dr. Eibner and grabbed him by the arms.
“I cannot see because I have been crying for so long,” she said. “They burned my house in Baghdad, so I have come here. I have nothing. Please help me. Please help me,” she pleaded.
Once home to the palace of the Assyrian emperor, Sargon, many parts of Karamlesh today are little more than a glorified slum. Aid money from Baghdad that was supposed to go to the IDPs has been returned unspent by the Kurdish government, in part because the Nineveh plain lies outside its administrative boundaries.
“This crisis is the fault of the government of Iraq,” Dr. Hekmat Hakim, one of the drafters of the Iraqi constitution and a supporter of Aghajan, told Newsmax. “They have $30 billion in cash just sitting there that has not been used.”
But the State Department has singled out the KRG Finance Ministry as a source of the “considerable hardship” faced by Christians in the Nineveh plain.
In a congressionally-mandated report last November, the State Department noted that aid specifically earmarked to help displaced Christians in the Nineveh plain was being distributed unevenly by the KRG Ministry of Finance, and that Kurdish security forces had committed “human rights abuses” against Christians.
Ban Noor Shaba, 28, fled Baghdad in 2006 after her brother was kidnapped by the Mahdi Army of Iranian-backed cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
He worked for a foreign contractor; she worked in the Green Zone. They fled when the Mahdi army told them they planned to blow up the building where they were living, and came to join family members living in Karamlesh.
Like most of the refugees here, Ms. Shaba and her husband have been unable to find work, even in the booming Kurdish capital, Erbil, a 90-minute drive away.
“They told my husband that unless you know somebody, there is no work,” she said.
Other refugees said that they were told to join the Kurdish Democratic Party of KRG President Massoud Barzani if they wanted to find a job. Most refused, and joblessness remains high.
“What you see is political patronage. That is what’s going on,” a U.S. official in the Kurdish capital told Newsmax.
Asked if she was receiving any aid from the government, Ms. Shaba laughed. “Are you kidding? [Iraqi prime minister] Maliki is for the Shia. [Iraqi president Jalal] Talabani is for the Kurds. But nobody is for the Christians.”
Kurdish officials acknowledge that discrimination against Christians exists, but insist that it is not official government policy.
“Those people are our citizens, and when they are coming to Kurdistan they are most welcome and we will provide them with all possible assistance,” Kurdish Deputy Premier Omar Fattah told Newsmax.
The aid, while welcome, has not helped these refugees to find jobs. “I will do anything,” Shaba says. “But I want to stay here.”
Kurdish Finance Minister Sarkis Aghajan has put his name on an extensive refugee housing program throughout the Christian areas. In Karamlesh, he purchased land from the local Chaldean church and built prefab housing blocks at the outskirts of town, where turkeys peck for food in piles of sewage waste as children drive by on their bicycles.
Sheep graze through trash and scrub in a dusty field just beyond the rutted dirt road at the rear of the tenements.
Although the concrete and cinder-block buildings were recently erected, already they are falling apart, many refugees complain. “We are grateful to Mr. Sarkis for these houses,” says Petros Younan Ishaq, 48, who fled Baghdad in July 2006 with nothing but the shirt on his back after his factory was bombed by terrorists and his family threatened. “But we have problems. Even the water is bad,” Ishaq said. “For several weeks now, the [drinking] water has been mixed with salt.”
Juliette Hanani, 41, and her 13-year old daughter rent an apartment in the refugee complex for 75,000 dinars per month — the equivalent of around $50. “We used to get $35 per month in aid from Mr. Sarkis to offset the rent,” she said. “But since July, we have gotten nothing.”
Refugees pay the rent for the tenements to the local “Christian Affairs Committee” established by Sarkis, while receiving aid from the same committee.
No one knows where Sarkis is getting the money that he distributes to refugees through local churches, and repeated attempts to contact him for an interview at his office and at his home in the Hay al Hediab district in Ainkowa were politely rebuffed.
Much of the money has been spent with great ostentation building gigantic modern churches of sandstone and marble, and lavish Christian cemeteries. “We have asked Mr. Sarkis to build schools, not churches and cemeteries,” said Jamal Dinha. “We see that he pays attention to the dead, but not to the living.”
Kurdish officials in Erbil boasted in interviews with Newsmax of the aid they were providing to Christian refugees who have come to the KRG fleeing persecution. But here in the Nineveh plain, the message from local Christian officials as well as refugees is quite different.
“Sarkis gives the money to the priests and the bishops, and they give it to the followers of his policies,” said independent journalist Johnny Koshaba, 34, who has written extensively about Mr. Sarkis.
Mr. Koshaba was arrested and beaten by Kurdish security forces in January because of his writings, and threatened that if he talked about his treatment at the hands of the authorities they would kill him.
“Our people are leaving Iraq,” said Father Sabri al-Maqdessy, of St. Joseph’s Chaldean church in Ainkawa. “Arabs scream about Palestinian rights, but we have nobody who talks about our rights. Without that, in 10 more years, you not see a Christian left living here.”
By Kenneth R. Timmerman
Kenneth R. Timmerman was nominated for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize along with John Bolton for his work on Iran. He is Executive Director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, and author of Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran (Crown Forum: 2005).