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Iraq's Christians Want a Province of Their Own
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For the first time ever, Christian leaders have formally demanded the creation of a province in the Ninawa Plain, east of Mosul. No one can predict whether their demand will be met. Some people are in favour, because it will encourage Christians to stay in the country, while others say that creating such a province will only isolate Christians from other Iraqis. The demand came three weeks after the bloody attack on the "Our Lady of Deliverance" Church in Baghdad on 31 October 2010. On that day, a group of gunmen besieged those attending Sunday Mass, and blew up explosive devices, belts and bombs when security forces stormed the church to free the hostages. Fifty eight people were killed, including the seven Iraqi commandos, and 75 others were wounded. Al-Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for the attack and announced that it would continue to target Christians in the country. After this incident, a wave of attacks against Christians swept the cities of Baghdad, Mosul and Basra, forcing hundreds to leave their homes and seek shelter in the Ninawa Plain and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Others have chosen to leave Iraq and seek shelter elsewhere. The Ninawa Plain, with an area of more than five thousand square kilometers, equal to both the regions of al-Muthanna and al-Qadisiyah in southern Iraq, is inhibited by more than half a million people. The area consists of three districts: al-Hamdaniya, Sheekhan and Tallkeef. It is inhibited by a Christian majority, but there are also other ethnicities and followers of other religions such as the Yazidis, the Shabak and some Shiites, Turkmen and Arabs. Christians living in this region speak the Syriac language. After 2003, the Iraqi government allowed the use of this language in most of the region's schools. Christian parties and organisations have held two meetings: one in the city of Erbil in November 2010, and the second in the capital, Baghdad in January 2011. The outcome was a memorandum to the presidencies of the republic, the parliament and the council of ministers, demanding the creation of a province for "Chaldo-Assyrian Syriac people" in the Ninawa Plain, and the establishment of autonomous rule for Christians in areas where they constitute a majority in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. It said that "the creation of a province in the Ninawa Plain for our people and other ethnic and religious groups, is the constitutional solution to the suffering of our people who are being targeted by terrorist attacks." In addition, the memorandum demanded that the Kurdistan presidency should activate Article 35 of the region's draft constitution "which grants our people self-rule in the region and addresses other abuses in the villages against our people." It also called upon the government to "postpone its decision regarding land owned by Christians and to give people sufficient time to return to their villages and lands to settle legal-related issues." Yonadim Kana, a member of Iraq's parliament and head of its Christian Rafidain bloc, said that the demand to form a new province is constitutionally guaranteed under Article 125, which stipulates that "this constitution guarantees the administrative, political, cultural, and educational rights of the various ethnicities, including the Turkmen, Chaldeans, Assyrians and other groups, and is regulated by law". Kana, whose bloc occupies 5 seats in parliament, added that until 1958, Iraq was made up of 14 provinces, but after 1958 several new ones were created, including Salahuddin, which was once only a neighbourhood, Najaf and Dahuk. "The creation of a new province requires a political decision by parliament," Kana told Niqash. "We will demand that the issue is discussed and we want guarantees that the constitution is implemented." But he strongly disapproves of the Christian exodus from Baghdad or other provinces, even if a new province is created. "Our Christian people should stay in the provinces where they were born and where they have lived all their lives," he stressed. Christian leaders believe that the creation of a Christian province will prevent hundreds of people from seeking asylum in Europe and will preserve their presence, which has been gradually dwindling in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. They say that the calls by some European countries encouraging a Christian exodus are against the aspirations of the Christian people. They are conspiracies meant to distort the social fabric of Iraq, and empty the country of its original components. Unofficial estimates state that before 2003, there were more than a million and a half Christians in Iraq. Today, there are only a half a million, with many Christians emigrating to Syria, Jordan and Western Europe. Christians deny that there are religious or sectarian dimensions behind their claim for a new province. They say that their demand is based solely on administrative, geographical and service-related reasons. Shomael Benyamin, a politburo member of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, told Niqash that a new province was not limited to Christians only. "We want a province which gathers together all people from different ethnicities and religions who live in the Ninawa Plain, particularly as these areas lack services because of their distance from the centere of Mosul province." But the creation of a new province, he believes, will also stop the migration of Christians out of Iraq. "Those who are targeted inside Baghdad and other provinces will seek shelter in the new province temporarily and will return to their provinces when there is no more danger," he said. In spite of several reassurances made by Christian leaders to other Iraqi groups, only the two traditional Kurdish leaders - the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani and the Kurdistan President, Masoud al-Barzani - have openly welcomed the establishment of a Christian province in the Ninawa Plain. Some observers believe that the Kurds' support for this idea is the first step towards annexing these areas to the Kurdistan region, particularly since they are located within the disputed areas, whose annexation the region has been demanding for more than seven years. But the Christian leader, Kana, believes that it is the people who should decide whether they want these areas and others to be annexed to the Kurdistan region, or if they remain part of Mosul province. Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Mosul, is totally against taking any part of Niwnawa's Plain from his province. "Such an act would harm the Christian community and isolate Christians from the rest of the Iraqis," he said. He accused those demanding the creation of a new province of having personal and political interests, and said that it was unlikely that the demand would be implemented. "There are many obstacles preventing the creation of a new province in the Ninawa Plain", he said. "It is located in the vicinity of Arab areas, there are no economic activities taking place in this area and people live off the work they do in other regions."

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