Iraqi Christians cling to last, waning refuges
Al Qaeda-linked militants and Kurdish ultranationalists are both pressuring Iraq's largest Christian enclave.
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He later called the priest, according to the resident, and told him who he really was and demanded that he pay the tax, but the priest refused. Now, heavily armed men stand guard all around Karamles.Skip to next paragraph
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The men are members of a new militia called the Church Guards and they are present in many villages in Nineveh Plain and are being funded by Sarkis Aghajan, a multimillionaire Assyrian Christian businessman who is also the minister of finance for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
"We have no government, it's all thanks to master Sarkis," says Father Danna of the Bartella church, which on a recent visit was ringed with a contingent of these guards. "All I get from the American officials, who visit me, is empty talk and souvenirs."
Mr. Aghajan's portrait is on the wall of the church recreation center. He has spent millions of dollars in Nineveh Plain and inside the Kurdish-controlled region on churches, homes for the displaced, and on community projects, says Danna.
Aghajan has strong ties to the top leaders of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which has established outposts in nearly every town and village in the plain. These compounds are frequent targets of car bombs. Government forces in the area are dominated by Kurdish peshmerga, an elite Iraqi fighting force, and KDP intelligence officers. Kurdish flags and banners praising KDP leader Massoud Barzani are everywhere.
The squeeze from Kurds
To the east of the Nineveh Plain, Kurdish nationalists are pressing hard for the area to join the adjacent semiautonomous KRG. The fate of the area, and whether it would become part of Iraqi Kurdistan, is to be decided in a referendum in accordance with Article 140 of the Constitution.
The community itself is bitterly divided over what they should do. Many see joining the Kurds as a move for self-preservation and some semblance of autonomy in being part of an area where many Christian enclaves already exist in relative peace. Others say this level of independence can be achieved via Baghdad.
Danna says the Kurds have promised autonomy and special status to the Christians if they join Kurdistan.
"We are protecting them from terrorist attacks," says Muhammad Ihsan, Kurdistan's minister of extraregional affairs, about the heavy Kurdish presence in the Nineveh Plain, adding that Christians and Kurds have always had "great relations" and that his government would "respect" the ultimate wishes of the people.
The Plain is home to other minorities like the Shabak and the Kurdish-speaking Yazidis, who suffered devastating attacks last summer in another part of Nineveh. Places like Bahzani, Basheeqa, and Sheikhan, where Yazidis dominate, are already de facto part of Kurdistan.
"No doubt our future is more secure inside Kurdistan," says Romeo Hakari, a leader of a political party that joined a special council formed one year ago and backed by Aghajan to promote this vision.
But not everyone agrees. The strongest opposition comes from the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM).
Shmael Benjamin, a former party leader based in Ainkawa, says Kurds, Assyrians, and other minorities all suffered from Saddam Hussein's policy of resettling Arabs in northern Iraq known as "Arabization." Now the Kurds, close allies of Washington, seem to be doing the same thing with "Kurdification."
The ADM's power base in the plain is in Talkeif, the westernmost town nearest Mosul, which has a significant Sunni Arab population as well. Young men in military fatigues carrying AK-47s guard the party's headquarters next to the main church.
Johnny Khoshaba, a blogger in Talkeif, was arrested last month and taken to a prison inside Kurdistan for speaking out against Aghajan, Kurdish practices, in the area, and the alleged corruption of church figures. He says he was released only after signing a pledge to stop his writing.
"This scream is for my church and our liberty," says the blog's banner.