Iraq is a mess. (Syria, if anything, is worse.) Millions of people
have been displaced from their homes, and in spite of the panic in
Europe's capitals about the number of refugees pressing across their
borders, most of them are still in the region. They are in Jordan and
Lebanon or in camps in (relatively) safe parts of Iraq. They don't want
to go to Europe or America, they want to go home. But even when the
fighting stops – as it will – what will a new Iraq look like? Who will
be in charge, and how will the safety of minorities be assured?
I don't understand. Islamic State can't last much longer, can't everyone just go home?
In many cases there just isn't a home to go to. The destruction in
some parts of Iraq has been total. But there have also been terrible
acts of violence committed against Christians and other minorities, like
the Yazidis, who are understandably very frightened about going home.
In some cases they were attacked by outsider extremists, but sometimes
it was their own neighbours who turned on them. There are serious fears
that a statistically meaningful Christian presence in the Middle East
might simply come to an end.
That would be terribly sad. What's the answer?
There is no simple answer, but one that seems to be getting some
traction is the idea of a new province, created in the Nineveh Plain
which is the heartland of the old Christian community. It would provide a
refuge and safe space for Iraq's Christians where they could live in
peace alongside other minorities like the Yazidis. Congressman Jeff
Fortenberry of Nebraska introduced a bi-partisan bill into the US House of Representatives on Friday calling for it.
Isn't it up to the Iraqis to decide how to run their own country?
Indeed, and the bill calls on the US and the international community
to "support the Republic of Iraq and its people to recognize a province
in the Nineveh Plain region, consistent with lawful expressions of
self-determination by its indigenous peoples".
It's still none of the US's business, though?
Strictly speaking, no, though it is still heavily involved in Iraq
and has a fair bit of diplomatic leverage. And to do Fortenberry and
others credit, at least they're thinking about what comes next.
Any support from actual Iraqis?
Yes, actually. The idea of designating the Nineveh Plain as a
separate province actually originated in Iraq in 2014.There's also an
effective and well-informed pressure group, A Demand For Action,
which "seeks the protection of the indigenous people and minorities of
the Middle East, and to create a meaningful place for them in their
ancestral homelands". It's backing this, and its spokesman Steve Oshana
told Christian Today: "The Nineveh Plain represents an unbroken link to
our ancestors, we have continously inhabited that land from the very
first days of civilization and we will always stand for our people's
right to live freely in our ancestral homeland."
The Assyrian Confederation is also behind it. Its spokesman Afram
Yakoub told Christian Today: "The introduced bill in the US Congress is a
way to put pressure on Iraqi leaders and to help put the issue on the
political agenda in the West." He also stressed it wasn't just about
creating a Christian homeland: "The Nineveh plain is home to several
different ethnic groups each with their own religion and the aim is to
empower all these vulnerable minorities by creating the Nineveh Plain
There doesn't seem to be a downside, then.
Not so fast. It's probably true that the creation of a separate
homeland for minorities, which is effectively what's being proposed,
might mean that Christians, Yazidis and others would feel more secure.
That is not a small consideration. But it also means tacitly accepting
that Christianity might disappear from the rest of Iraq and be
concentrated in a much smaller area. The centuries of co-existence,
patchy and occasionally hostile as it sometimes was, would come to an
end, and Christianity would be ghettoised in a small area. In a time
when much of the world is getting used to living alongside people of
different faiths, it seems like a backward step. At its worst, it might
further entrench the sort of divisions between peoples that made the war
possible in the first place. But as Oshana told Christian Today: "We've
already been driven from the rest of the country over the years. The
Nineveh Plain is in a way a last stand to maintain our presence in
So perhaps two cheers?
Perhaps two cheers. Anything that would give Christians and other
minorities more security has got to be a good thing. But if it puts up
walls rather than pulling them down, it's a pity.