July 25, 2017
The Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI) interviewed Mr. Loay Mikhael, the Representative of the Christian Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council to Washington.
WKI: Thank you for this opportunity. What is the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council?
Loay Mikhael: The council was founded in 2007. There was a conference held in Ankawa- Arbil with 2000 participants from all over the world, and they founded this council to follow up with the recommendations and resolutions. The council is a political entity. We have a lot of members in Iraq and Kurdistan as well. We have to members of parliament in the Iraqi government and two members of parliament of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Also, we used to have ministerial positions, but right now, the minister resigned for some reason. We also have members of municipal councils as well. In Baghdad. In Mosul, we used to have. In Erbil and Dohuk.
WKI: Can you tell us briefly what is the history of Christians in Iraq?
Loay Mikhael: Well the Christians of Iraq, ethnically, they are Chaldeans, Syriac and Assyrians as well. So, we’ve been there before Christianity. We’ve been there before Islam. Before any emergence of other [religious] communities in the area. So, the Christians have been there since the founding of Christianity, 2000 years ago. There are many sects of Christians. There are Chaldean Catholics. There are Syriac Catholics and Syriac Orthodox. And you have Assyrian Church. So, all these together, they call themselves Christians. I know there are a lot of sects, a lot of ethnicities, but if you talk to anyone in these groups, they will tell you “we are one people, one group.” We speak one language. We share one history. Because of the historical thing and the political backgrounds, everybody calls themselves different. Some, they call themselves Chaldean. Some, they call themselves Assyrian and some Syriac.
WKI: Demographically, what is the most populous group? What are the less populous groups? Where can you find them in Iraq?
Loay Mikhael: They used to be before 2003 everywhere in Iraq. You can find them in Basra, In Baghdad, in Mosul, in Nineveh Plain, and Kurdistan: Dohuk, Erbil. Everywhere. But the majority used to live in Nineveh Plain itself. Those are the ancestral homeland of the Chaldean Assyrian Syriac Christians.
The majority of the Christians are the Chaldeans. They are about 65 to 70 percent of the Christians in Iraq. And they are Chaldean Catholic. After that, you have Syriac Catholics and Syriac Orthodox. Lastly, there are the Assyrians. Also, you have Protestants and Armenians. All these. After the invasion, starting since 2004 and up, we became targets of the extremist groups. Targets of some gangs that want to get rid of the Christians. Some of this was done systematically to eradicate Christians from Iraq. So their situation [Christians in Iraq]: 1.5 million and now they are 250,000 people living in Iraq. Different groups target them. Different sects. And not only Christians but also other vulnerable minorities like Yezidis and others. We became victims. We became the scapegoat of the political parties between the political agenda[s] of the surrounding countries.
WKI: With the drastic drop in population, where have the Christians gone?
Loay Mikhael: After 2004, when the attacks started on the Christians, Christians started to flee from Basra to Baghdad. Also in Baghdad, they started to become targets. Attacks on their houses, their community, kidnappings, assassinations here and there. The Christians felt to leave to more secure areas and to find shelter. So, they moved to Mosul. That was before 2014. So, they move to Mosul, and there they start to become targets of the extremist people of terrorism: Explosions and Car bombs. From there, they moved to the Nineveh Plain where they found more security because of the majority of Christians inhabitants there. So the Christians were welcoming them when they were coming from the south.
When ISIS attacked Mosul in 2014, in the Nineveh Plain, they fled to Kurdistan region. Kurdistan became a safe zone for them. Overnight, 150,00 people fled from Mosul and Nineveh Plain to Kurdistan seeking shelter, security and I was there. I was there when it happened. We received tens of families. We put them in our buildings and our house. Helping them and providing what they need.
WKI: Do you think that the safe zone in Kurdistan has been fulfilled? You talk about going from one place to another to another, only to have to leave again. Until the war is over, do you think there is going to be safety for Christians in Kurdistan?
Loay Mikhael: I mean, if you look since 2003 till now, if you look at the Iraqi map, if you look at the presence of Christians in Iraq, where the Christians have been attacked mostly has been in the south. Basra, Baghdad, and Nineveh Plain. There was never any attack conducted to the Christians in Kurdistan by terror groups or on the governmental level. Like telling people to attack Christians or something like that. Kurdistan has become a safe haven because they are welcoming everybody, not only Christians, Syrian refugees, Yazidis, and Even Shia and Sunnis who fled the conflict in Mosul and Nineveh Plain. So, that’s the Christians can at least find Kurdistan a place where they can live and survive for maybe temporary period until they go back to their homes and towns again. Eventually, people will decide whether they want to leave Kurdistan. I mean Kurdistan became a safe haven because they welcomed us. They opened their doors. By the way, it’s their duty to do that because Iraq is not only for the Kurds, the Arabs, the Sunnis; it’s also for the minorities. We were indigenous people. It was their duty to welcome us, to open their doors and to secure us. But the level of the living standard in Kurdistan because of the overwhelming of the refugees. As you know, people live in tents, in caravans. Some of them are living in unfinished buildings which make their life miserable. Many of them fled to the neighboring countries. We had 11,000 in Amman, and we have 7,000 in Turkey. We have several thousand in Beirut. They are seeking asylum and refuge in the European, Canadian and American countries.
WKI: Have you received any international support from any governments? Have you received international support from the greater Christian community at large?
Loay Mikhael: The Greater Christian community at large here in the diaspora here in the United States which is in Detroit, Chicago and elsewhere, also in Canada, they try to help through their NGOs. But, much of the aide was hard to deliver directly to the NGOs that are on the ground because the aide was going through Baghdad and sometimes through Kurdistan. So, people were complaining that the aide is not reaching them, that the aide is being taken by the bigger groups. It’s being spent on different groups. So, this was the problem; there was a lot of aid going there, but mostly the aide was given by the Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church sent few millions of Euros to the Chaldean Catholic Church to help the community to help and to build a Catholic university there in Kurdistan. So, I think the estimation number was five to six million Euros. Sometimes, people were complaining that the aide was not being delivered equally and fairly.
WKI: Have you received any aid or assistance from Christian groups in America or Europe who aren’t affiliated with governments or the Catholic Church? Has there just been general Christian support?
Loay Mikhael: Yes. There was general Christian support, but very limited. I mean for hundreds of thousands of people. The groups here cannot provide that much money to help us people on the ground. They were trying to pull their policy makers to support our communities on the ground in Iraq. That was the most what they were able to do. There were NGOs that were very helpful to assist their friends, their Christian sisters, and brothers on the ground.
WKI: Let me switch to a different note. Do you think Christians should be given preferential treatment when seeking asylum?
Loay Mikhael: The Christians were designated that they faced genocide. Congress unanimously passed a decision that what happened to the Christians, Yezidis, and others was true genocide. The U.S. Department of State, The European Union Parliament, the Canadian Parliament, and the Australian government all considered the mass killings of the Christian Genocide. So, there was a consensus internationally that what happened to the Christians was genocide. They should be treated differently when seeking asylum. For example, there are several thousand [Christians] families in Turkey. About two weeks ago, there was a video of one of the guys in Turkey, from one of the families making a live video on Facebook. He was complaining last week that a few thousand were denied asylum, denied refugee status in Turkey.
I mean this is the problem. Put yourself in their place. You’re living in Turkey. You spend all your money in three or four years, and at the end of the day, you will be denied asylum or refugee status. What can you do? So, yeah. They should be treated differently because they are designated.
WKI: Do you think this has been the continuation of a trend? What trends do you see for Christians in the Middle East in general?
Loay Mikhael: The recent trend for the Christians all over the Middle East has been that they’ve been a target systematically. By certain groups and certain governments. Certain regimes have been driving them out. These people took part in building, educating and had become a part of these societies. Egyptian Copts as you know, every day there’s a bomb targeting them, an assassination, or a beheading because of their faith. In Libya, I don’t believe there are Christians in Libya. Gaddafi kicked all the Christians out of Libya. Post Qaddafi, we also saw a lot of extremist groups take power. In Syria as well: over two million Christians. Now over one million fled Syria.
WKI: Do you think it’s been more of a government effort or more of a populist effort, coming from individual citizens or somewhere in-between?
Loay Mikhael: I mean, it’s both.. If you are a government, you should protect your citizens. So, if the Iraqi government isn’t able to protect its citizens, especially its minority citizens, Christians, and others. Then I think there is something wrong here. Why are we being attacked directly? We have been marginalized for decades. 1.5 million and now 200,000 Christians. I believe it’s at a governmental level in some cases and other times it’s on an individual level. And also, there are groups that don’t want Christians to have a presence in their town and cities.
WKI: Can you tell us about Christian representation in the KRG?
Loay Mikhael: In Parliament, there is a quota of seats for Christians allocated. There are five seats. Our council has two of five. Also, there is an Armenian seat. One single Armenian seat. We have members of municipal councils in Erbil, Dohuk, and Sulaymaniyah as well. So this is the representation we have. We also have in other governmental institutions. We have mayors. We have a lot of security officers.
WKI: Can you tell us your opinion on the upcoming Independence Referendum for the Kurdistan region of Iraq?
Loay Mikhael: About the referendum for independence, every person and every community have the right to their self-determination. The referendum is a democratic process. People will go to the polls voting for a referendum. I believe that’s a democratic process. If Kurdish people, the Kurdish nation wants to conduct this referendum and they want to become independent, that’s something that belongs to them. We as Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council are supportive of this referendum. I will say 80 percent will join this referendum and I’m very optimistic they will say yes to break from Iraq. And also, we are, the people who fled from Nineveh Plain will be willing to geographically join the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and be part of the Kurdistan. There should be a special status for the Christians in those areas to rule themselves, to become more independent and to become a province of an autonomous region. Part of the Kurdistan in the future. This is what most of the political parties, religious leaders agreed on at the Brussels Conference.
So, the referendum will be a tool to be used by the Kurdistan Regional Government to go into Baghdad and discuss, “listen, this is the opinion of the Kurdish people. 70/80 percent want to break from Iraq, and now we have to negotiate or discuss what is our borders, what is your borders…” The US made a very weak statement “This is not the right time to do it. Our priority is fighting ISIS.” But inside Kurdistan, inside the political parties, there are some political differences. Political differences should be settled before the referendum. Otherwise, as you know, Mr. Massoud Barzani is President. He traveled to Brussels. By the way, our council had one member traveling with him to Brussels as a Christian representative. Also, they had Yazidi representative, the Turkoman representative. They traveled with him also to share their opinions on the referendum.
So, if I say no for the referendum, how can I call for a province for myself in Nineveh Plain. This is self-determination, and this right should be given to every person whether it’s Kurd, Christian, Shia, Sunni, and others.
WKI: Do you have armed forces of Christians that protect their own areas?
Loay Mikhael: There was a group of Christians from the Nineveh Plain, about 2,500 their number is. They’re called Ninevah Plain Guards. Those were found in 2014, and they were really securing the areas like Telskuf, like Bakhdida, like Batmaya [areas near Mosul]. They were literally on the ground helping to prevent any explosion, any attack on the Christians. After 2014, when ISIS attacked certain groups and certain parties, they [Christian fighters] tried to form their own groups like Nineveh Plain Units (NPU), and those groups are small. Some of them are affiliated with Hashd al-Shabi [Popular Mobilization Units], some are with Peshmerga forces, some are with Zerevani [Kurdish National Guards]. I hope from the Iraqi government and the KRG who have a presence on the ground to support those forces, to make them more qualified. To secure those areas. To become part of the security and the police on their ancestral homeland near Nineveh Plain, Sinjar and elsewhere. That would give hope for the people to go back.
WKI: Do you know if the Iraqi government has any plans to rebuild the destroyed Christian areas in Nineveh Plain and elsewhere?
Loay Mikhael: No. There is no plan from the Iraqi government until now. The Iraqi government didn’t send any committee from their government to those areas to at least do a survey, to assess what is needed. So, I don’t think there is any preparation on the way for rebuilding. The war on ISIS just finished in Mosul. I don’t know if there will be a plan soon for the Mosul and Nineveh Plain. For the current time, there is no plan from the Iraqi government.
WKI: Do you think the Christian communities will allow or accept the taking of control of the Christian areas by the Popular Mobilization Units who mostly Shia militias?
Loay Mikhael: Most of the Christians rejected the Popular Mobilization Units [PMU]. They rejected Hashd al-Shabi [PMU] to secure their areas because of those forces when they kicked out ISIS from the Christian areas, they caused some problems. They burned the houses. They burned the churches. We want our forces in coordination with Iraqi forces and Peshmerga and coalition to secure the area. We don’t want Hashd al-Shabi to have a presence there.
WKI: What would your message be to the American people in general and what would your message be to the US government.
Loay Mikhael: So, the message for the American people? I’ve already spoken to many Americans from different states. Some of them don’t believe there are still Christians in Iraq, but I will say this: American people should know there are still Christians in Iraq and the Middle East. Christianity emerged from the Middle East. They should be helping the Christians in Iraq and Syria and Egypt by calling their representative in senate and house. I mean, call the administration to take action towards those communities. I am not asking for money, but I ask Americans to call your representative. Make the government move. Make the American government put pressure on the Iraqi government to save those communities. Call your representative, Senate and House, to make change, to make difference…
We are working on certain projects. There was a bill passed in the house two weeks ago, and this bill will become law in the United States if it passes in the Senate, relief for the genocided communities in Iraq and Syria. It was passed by the house unanimously. We are working on it now in the Senate, and I hope the Senate will pass this law in the United States to help the communities directly to compensate them for a certain amount of money to rebuild their houses and infrastructure in Nineveh Plain. Also, we are putting this position paper from Brussels Conference on a resolution for America to support those recommendations to be implemented on the ground politically. Vice President Mike Pence, in a lot of conferences and a lot of events, mentioned the Christians being persecuted in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere and that this needs to be stopped. I hope he means that and I hope his words will be taken in action. End
Disclaimer: The views, opinions, and positions expressed by authors and contributes do not necessary reflect those on the WKI.