The Christian community, the oldest, tiniest, most persecuted of Iraq’s minorities, has jumped into the divisive national fray over the new constitution which goes to national referendum in seven days. Although no more than an estimated 650,000-800,000 strong, the Christians believe that at long last, after living in the shadow of the dominant Shiites, Sunni and Kurdish Muslims, they are in a position to make a difference.
Indeed, DEBKA–Net-Weekly‘s Iraq sources report that the Vatican has decided to back the Christian resolve to vote against the draft charter, on the grounds that it opens the door to discrimination against Christian as well other non-Muslim minorities.
Thus are the Christians lining up with their old enemies, the Sunnis, against the draft which the Kurdish-Shiite bloc is presenting next week for national approval.
While this bloc controls the overwhelming majority of the population and parliament, the Christians enjoy a fortuitous geographical advantage; most of their communities inhabit the pivotal provinces of Nineveh, Salahedin, Anbar and Diyala. They are now more than willing to swing the vote against the constitution by topping up the Sunni nos to the critical two-third level mandatory for defeating the measure.
Ten days ago, the Chaldean Patriarch Emmanuel III Dely of Baghdad appealed to Iraqi president Jalal Talabani for a last-minute change or deletion of Article 2.1(a) which states: “No law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam.” He spoke for the country’s 12 bishops of various denominations when he condemned the article as permitting unjust and intolerant laws to be forced on the Christian minority. For instance, he asked, would Christian women have to wear the veil?
The bishops were not against the fact that Islam is the religion of the state. They praised the articles granting religious freedom and rights, but stressed that the draft as it stands contradicts itself on the issue of religious rights for minorities.
“A most inconvenient minority”
The indigenous Assyrians of Iraq, its original inhabitants and descendants of the ancient Assyrian empire of Mesopotamia, embraced Christianity in the 1st century and claim to be the first nation to do so. In their heyday, Marco Polo found Assyrian Christians in every corner of the civilized world, as far away as the court of the Chinese Emperor. But after their glory days, they were decimated by Genghis Khan and slaughtered by the Ottomans. Assyrian communities are still to be found in Syria, Turkey and Iran, although their numbers are thinning. In 15 years, more than half a million Assyrian Christians have emigrated from Iraq alone to more hospitable climes in the West.
Iraq’s Assyrians, who still speak the Aramaic-Syriac language of the Second Temple, belong to various Christian denominations. The largest is the Chaldean, an autonomous oriental rite that recognizes the Catholic Pope. Iraq is also blessed with Catholic and Orthodox Syriacs, Catholic and Orthodox Armenians, Protestant and Roman Catholic churches and Evangelists.
Now, ethnic Assyrians want their national rights as the oldest indigenous inhabitants of the country dating their origins back 8,000 years to be recognized in the preamble to the new constitution.
While targeted by extremist Islamist terrorists as infidels, the Christians, and the Assyrians in particular, have several large bones to pick with the Kurds of northern Iraq whom they accuse of displacing them from their ancestral lands in oil-rich Kirkuk, Mosul and Irbil – Biblical Nineveh, which was the capital of the old Assyrian empire.
They also accuse The Kurds of massive vote fraud in the January elections in Nineveh, which denied hundreds of thousands of Assyrians the vote. They claim the United States shrugged off Assyrian complaints and they will fare no better in the October and December elections. However, Iraq’s Christians scarcely rate a hearing in the capitals of the predominantly Christian West. Why is that? The Wall Street Journal once quoted US policy-makers in Iraq as referring to the Christians as a “most inconvenient minority.”
Now that minority has developed a most inconvenient bite.