Iraqi Christians Want Their Own Province
MOSUL, Iraq -- In recent weeks, Iraq's Christians have suffered some of the deadliest attacks against their community since 2003.
Iraqis have called for the Ninevah Plains region to be officially declared a Christian province. Assyrian Christians, who trace their roots to the time of Noah, have historically claimed that region as home.
"We have 500,000 Christian refugees in neighboring countries. So our position has been very clear to the government. These people will not come home until they have a place to go to," Assyrian Alliance spokesman Ken Joseph said.
Joseph and leaders of 16 other Iraqi Christian organizations recently met to discuss forming a Christian province. He said just getting the different groups to agree on something as historic as this was nothing short of a miracle.
"They put away all their arguments and they got together and did it," Joseph explained.
Iraqi Christians have in recent weeks been prime targets of Muslim extremists.
The biggest attack happened on Oct. 31 when members of an al Qaeda group attacked a Catholic church in Baghdad, killing 68 people.
Iraqi believers have wondered whether it's time to leave their homeland despite calls from their leaders to stay.
"We are addressing you, our dear sons, in these difficult and hard days, appealing to you to be constant in your faith and love to the soil of this homeland, Iraq," said Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly of the Chaldean Church.
As the violence against Christians escalates, hundreds of Christian families fled to the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.
"It's the best of times. It's the worst of times," Joseph said. "It's the best of times because people have freedom. They can do things they've never been able to do before. The church can do things they've never been able to do before."
"But it's also the worst of times because you have forces that are desperate to keep the success from every accomplishing it's goals," he added.
Since the October attack, several more people have lost their lives, including a Christian shopkeeper who was shot and killed in the city of Mosul.
And as the violence in Mosul increased, Christians have become more open to the idea of an autonomous region --- an area where they can not only practice their faith, but live in freedom.
"It would be great to live in a place where I'm not forced to wear the veil or follow strict Muslim codes of conduct," Layla Behnam, an Iraqi Christian, said.
In the last couple of years, wealthy Christian businessmen have poured millions of dollars into the Nineveh Plains to build churches, schools, and homes for displaced Christians.
"The idea is that we would have a place run by Christians, have our own flag, our own government, our own security forces," explained The Chaldean Culture's Paulus Mangeshi.
An estimated 1 million Christians lived in Iraq before the 2003 U.S. invasion. Less than half of that number still remain.
Joseph and others hope a new province will persuade Iraqi Christians to come back and help rebuild their homeland.