Iraqi Christians Search for New Homeland

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EDITOR'S NOTE: We're taking a look back at some of the top stories of 2008. This is one of them. For updates on these stories, search the Christian World News archives on the web.

NINEVEH PLAINS, Iraq - Christians and non-Muslims in Iraq are being targeted in a brutal campaign by Islamic militants.

Since October, some 13,000 Christians and other minorities have been driven from their homes in the northern city of Mosul. More than a dozen Christians were assassinated.

Now some Iraqi Christians want to create a separate, autonomous region for their community.

War Weary

Layla Behnam, and Iraqi Christian, says she's tired of being persecuted by radical Muslims. Since 2004, this Iraqi Christian from Mosul has endured relentless threats from extremists in her neighborhood.

"I've received letters demanding that I convert or die," Layla said. "My family and children are constantly harassed and told that we don't belong in this country."

So now she's thinking about moving out.

"I hate to leave my city of birth, my culture, and my friends," Layla said. "But I'm forced to consider it especially after what I and others have gone through."

Since 2004:

     - Priests have been beheaded

     - Christian leaders kidnapped

     - Churches bombed

     - Unveiled women burned with acid

     - Men killed for owning a music store or beaten for selling alcohol for communion.

The list goes on.

George Mayah is documenting these and other atrocities committed against minorities.

"This is ethnic cleansing and nobody seems to care," Mayah said.

The Nineveh Plains

But the hills around northern Iraq give Layla and countless Christians a glimmer of hope for a place to call their own.

The Nineveh Plain is home to Assyrian Christians, who trace their roots to the time of Noah.

In the last couple of years, wealthy Christian businessmen have poured millions of dollars into the region to build churches, schools and homes for displaced Christians.

It's all part of a plan to turn the Nineveh Plains into an autonomous region for the Christians of Iraq.

Among those leading the effort for a Christian enclave is Paulus Mangeshi, a leader in the Chaldean community.

"The idea is that we would have a place run by Christians, have our own flag, our own government, our own security forces," Mangeshi explained. "Right now, we don't have any political representation in the government, we have no voice. It's like we don't even exist in this country."

The region includes more than 300 towns and villages with a majority Christian population.

As the violence here in Mosul increased, Christians have become more open to this idea of an autonomous region - an area where they can not only practice their faith, but live in freedom.

Layla said, "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." 

Sticky Road Ahead

But the idea is fraught with political controversy. The Nineveh Plain borders the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Several main towns are under their influence. And Kurdish leaders would like nothing more than to see that influence extend across the Plains.

The Iraqi government on the other hand balks at the thought of Kurds gaining more territory. Baghdad would rather the Plains come under their direct control.

The dispute continues.

Adding to the controversy, the Iraqi government last month decided to abolish guaranteed seats in the parliament for minorities. This sparked protests by Christians.

All this has left Layla and other minorities wondering again if they have a future in their own homeland.

*Original broadcast November 4, 2008.

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