U.S. Iraqi Christian Community Debates How to Help Relatives
EL CAJON, Calif. (AP) -- For the past three years, Raad Khalaf has worried that every phone call to his suburban San Diego home would bring bad news about his sister in Baghdad.
On Friday, the phone rang with good news instead: His sister had reached Dubai on a temporary visa, joining the growing flight of Christians from the relentless violence in Iraq.
"Now the question is what happens when the visa expires," said Khalaf, an insurance broker who arrived in San Diego decades ago by way of Paris. "This is a remedy, but it's not a permanent solution."
Expatriate Iraqi Christians living in the U.S. - a community that estimates its size at about 200,000 - disagree about how best to help families in the Middle East targeted in sectarian violence.
Some would like to see visa restrictions relaxed so their relatives can join them in the U.S., where enclaves of Iraqi Christians have formed in Detroit, Chicago, San Diego and Phoenix. Others call for the creation of an independent administrative zone in the northern Nineveh area, the ancestral homeland of Iraq's Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians - mainly ethnic Assyrians and Chaldeans who proudly trace their lineage to Babylonian times.
"As a people, we survived the Mongols, the Turks and the Arabs," said John Michael, a Chicago opthamologist whose cousins recently left for Syria. "We don't want this violence now to be the death knell of this ancient culture."
Christians have been targeted by militias for murder and kidnapping - in part, some say, because many are likely to have family abroad able to pay ransom demands as high as $50,000.
Church bombings and other sectarian attacks have spiked since Pope Benedict XVI sparked a wave of anti-Christian anger with statements he made in September seeming to link the prophet Muhammad's teachings to violence. In October, a priest in the northern city of Mosul was kidnapped by a group demanding that he retract the pope's statements. He was eventually found beheaded.
Many are now abandoning jobs and property in southern Iraqi cities and fleeing to neighboring countries, mainly Syria and Jordan, or returning to their ancestral villages in the relatively peaceful north.
A refugee advocacy group in Washington last week said the outflow of people from Iraq is the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world. More than a million Iraqis have fled since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, with about 3,000 people now leaving daily, according to the United Nations. And while Christians account for just 3 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, they make up almost half of those fleeing the country, according to estimates from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
"A year ago, the plight of the Christian community was not very well known," said Michel Gabaudan, a U.N. representative in Washington. "But that has changed, because we now have very clear evidence that they have been persecuted."
One Washington group, the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project, is using the crisis to revive a proposal for creating an autonomous zone for Christians in the Nineveh plain, near Mosul, like that of the Kurds.
"The immediate thing it would solve is the bleeding of Iraqi Christians out of the country," said Michael Youash, the director of the project.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops supports the plan - a dream long chased by ethnic Chaldean and Assyrian politicians. Two senior Iraqi Christian political figures, the mayor of the Christian town of Tel Kaif and a member of the Assyrian Democratic Movement party committee, recently traveled from Iraq to make a pitch to State Department officials in Washington. The pair then traveled to a number of Iraqi Christian communities across the country to drum up support.
Despite professing sympathy for the idea of an Assyrian homeland in Iraq, many in San Diego worried it will take too long to negotiate any workable deal.
"For those who are staying, of course we need to try and create a safe haven," said Said Sipo, the leader of a community association whose 21-year-old nephew was kidnapped and ransomed for $4,000. "But those of us in America can't tell them to stay in Iraq - that would be hypocrisy."
Sipo said his brother was planning to move from Baghdad to Nineveh before the end of the year.
Even with increased attention to the refugee problem, though, visas to the U.S. will likely be hard to get. Just 198 Iraqis were granted refugee status in 2005, and the State Department's total ceiling for refugees from the entire Middle East for 2007 is 5,500 people. That's a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis - Christian and Muslim - the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says are living in limbo outside the country.
Hazim Dally, whose 58-year-old cousin was gunned down last year on his way to work, is trying to help secure visas for his widow, daughter and elderly parents to join his family in San Diego. He sends them a few hundred dollars each month and waits for their calls.
"Every time I talk to them we cry on the phone," said Dally. "Everything is so uncertain."
By Allison Hoffman
Who are the Christians of Iraq?
Kanoon I = December
U.S. Iraqi Christian Community Debates How to Help Relatives December 15, 06
Deviousness of the Kurdish officials December 14, 06
Iraq Insurgents Threaten Attacks Against Christian Women December 14, 06
Gifts for the Children of Nineveh December 13, 06
Help Our Assyrian Children December 13, 06
Iraq : Another Pries Feared Kidnapped December 10, 06
Iraq shapes the Assyrian cadet's background, future December 10, 06
Jordan, Syria May Close Borders to Iraqi Refugees December 9, 06
Visitors from Iraq December 8, 06
Assyrian Delegation in the European Parliament December 8, 06
Private Saudis Said to Fund Iraq Insurgents December 7, 06
Terrorists Bomb Church in Iraq December 7, 06
Iraq Is the Fastest-Growing Refugee Crisis in the World December 5, 06
Iraqi Christians plead for help, tell of 'ethnic cleansing' December 5, 06
Assyrian Christians 'Most Vulnerable Population' in Iraq December 5, 06
One Priest Killed in Iraq, another abucted December 5, 06
Comparing the Muslim and Christian Conceptions of God December 4, 06
Assyrian Delegation from Georgia Visits North Iraq December 4, 06
Another clergy murdered in Mosul December 4, 06
Dutch EP Member Inquiry Into Assassination of Assyrian Leader December 3, 06
Assyrians: Iraq's Overlooked Victims December 2, 06
Christians for Assyrians of Iraq Plan Demonstration December 2, 06
Iraq's Vatican Ambassador Seeks More Help December 2, 06
Assyrian Delegation At the European Parliament December 1, 06
Relief Agency Sheltering Iraqi Chaldean Refugees in Turkey December 1, 06
The Turkmen: Eerie Silence in Northern Iraq December 1, 06
Tishrin II = November
Plight of Iraq's Christians Gets Worse November 30, 06
Sadr Followers Target Assyrian School Girls in Baghdad November 30, 06
"Mass Grave Discovery" In Turkey As Pope Continues Trip November 30, 06
First cuneiform inscription of Rabat Tepe 2 discovered November 29, 06
Kidnapped priest released in Baghdad November 29, 06
Turkish President Vetoes Christian Property Rights Law November 29, 06
In Lebanon, a Crisis for Christians November 28, 06
Christmas presents for the Nineveh Kids November 28, 06
Sweden to Investigate Assyrian Mass Graves in Turkey November 27, 06
Assyrian Leader Assassinated for Advocating Assyrian Autonomy Nov. 27, 06
Europe and the Ambiguities of Multiculturalism Nov. 26, 06
Opening Eyes To Plight Of Assyrians Nov. 25, 06
A Safe Haven for Assyrians is a Must Nov. 24, 06
‘Lies in Turkish’ Nov. 24, 06
Lebanon in shock after killing of Christian politician Nov. 22, 06
A lecture entitled "Massacres and Resistance Nov. 22, 06
Britain's House of Lords Discusses Assyrian CaseoNov. 20, 06
Baghdad: priest missing, feared kidnapped Nov. 20, 06
Kurds remove Arabs and Assyrians thru violence Nov. 19, 06
Kurdish Officials Employ Saddam Hossain's Tactics Nov. 19, 06
Nuri Kino on Swedish National TV argues the Assyrian cause Nov.18, 06
Professors Dr. Otto Jastrow and Shabo Toroyo Assyrian Dictionary Nov.16, 06
Bishops, commission plead for help for Iraqi Christians Nov.15, 06
Turkey Tries to Escape Its History Nov.14, 06
Terrorists Blast Iraqi Church Nov.12, 06
The Non-reaction to the Murder of an Assyrian Priest Nov.12, 06
Turkey Gives Non-Muslims the Right to Own Property Nov.12, 06
Hermit Assyrian nun is anything but reclusive Nov.10, 06
Fresh Concern Expressed About Iraq's Assyrians Nov.10, 06
Silencing Ancient Echoes: Iraq's Christians Nov. 9, 06
The Non-reaction to the Murder of an Assyrian Priest Nov. 9, 06
Iraqi bishop calls for Christian gathering: unite to be counted and more secure
Nov. 8, 06
Proud Assyrian Survivor Can Move on Nov. 7, 06
Assyrian Genocide Victims Discovered In Turkey: Report Nov. 6, 06
DONNY GEORGE former Chairman, Board of Antiquities, Iraq Nov. 6, 06
Assyrian areas in northern Iraq as shown in a map by Newsweek Nov. 3, 06
Church calls for action over violence toward Christians in Iraq Nov. 2, 06
Turkey's World War One Massacres Covered up by the Military” Nov. 2, 06
This Was Genocide, But Armenians Were Not Its Only Victims Nov. 1, 06
Autonomous Region for Iraq's Assyrians Nov. 1, 06
Tishrin 1 = October
The West Turns a Blind Eye to the Ethnic Cleansing of Christians in Iraq
Oct. 31, 06
U.S. Bishops Call for Protection of Iraq's Christians Oct. 30, 06
Hood celebrates 150th anniversary of Assyrian reliefs Oct. 30, 06
Assyrian History On Display Oct. 29, 06
Freedom of Religion Key for All in Iraq Oct. 29, 06
14 years young Assyrian boy decapitated in Iraq Oct. 29, 06
Assyrian civic club marks 60 years Oct. 27, 06
From Discovery to Dartmouth: The Assyrian Reliefs Oct. 27, 06
Sargis Aghajan: A Saint or a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing? Oct. 26, 06
Priest Sends SOS for Christians in Iraq; Faithful Flee, Churches Close
Oct. 25, 06
The World Must Speak About the ongoing Assyrian Genocide Oct. 25, 06
Iraqi Militias Conducting Ethnic Cleansing Campaign Against Baghdad's
Christians Oct. 23, 06
Pope Urges World Leaders to Help Iraqis Rebuild Troubled Nation
Oct. 23, 06
Iraq's Christian Assyrians: Living in Fear Oct. 23, 06
Assyrians built aqueducts to bring water to Nineveh predating Romans by
400 years.Oct. 23, 06
Hope for Assyrian Christians 'Rapidly Dying,' Says Former Iraqi Minister
Oct. 20, 06
Christians Live in Fear of Death Squads in Iraq Oct. 20, 06
Congresswoman Esho's Letter to Rice about the endengered Christians
of Iraq Oct. 20, 06
IRAQ: CHRISTIANS LIVE IN FEAR Oct. 20, 06
Iraq: Christian Minority Seeks Haven From Violence Oct. 19, 06
GEORGIA: Will mob halt Assyrian Catholic centre? Oct. 19, 06
Ancient ruins inspire hope in U.S. forces in Pre-Christian Iraq . Oct. 18, 06
Christian Migration From Mid-East At Heart of Patriarchs' Meeting
Oct. 19, 06
Assyrian language Lecture and Seminar in London Oct. 19, 06
Save Us from the Time of Trial Oct. 18, 06
Persecution of non-Muslims increases in Iraq. Oct. 18, 06
In Iraq, a New Level of Threat to Christians Oct. 17, 06
World Has Forgotten Iraqi Christians: Chaldean Patriarch Oct. 16, 06
Some 500 people attend funeral of beheaded priest Oct. 16, 06
Christians are vacating land of Christ Oct. 15, 06
Threats force Iraqi Christians to flee to Syria Oct. 15, 06
Turkey starts to admit it has an ‘Armenian Question’ Oct. 15, 06
Some Turks change religion as way to West Oct. 14, 06
Beleaguered Yazidi find peace high in Iraq's northern mountains
Oct. 14, 06
Beheading of Iraqi priest latest attack on minorities Oct. 14, 06
Kurdish Militia Attacks Assyrian TV Station in North Iraq Oct. 13, 06
Iraq priest 'killed over pope's speech' Oct. 13, 06
More than 35,000 Christians have fled violence in Iraq Oct. 13, 06
Prominent Assyrian Priest Beheaded Oct. 12, 06
Father Paulos Iskandar Killed by Terrorist Abductors Oct. 12, 06
Who Will Remember the Assyrian Genocide? Oct. 11, 06
Abducted and raped, young Christian women and girls are driven to
suicide in Iraq Oct. 11, 06
Was the genocide of the Ottoman Empire in1915 only against the
Armenians, or included Assyrians also? Oct. 10, 06
Traditional Assyrian Costumes Oct. 9, 06
Organisation and Substitutionism Oct. 8, 06
A Nation Without a Country Oct. 8, 06
Swedish authorities honor Malfono Gabriel Afram Oct. 7, 06
Christian husband and wife converts from Islam released Oct. 7, 06
Terror campaign targets Christians of Iraq Oct. 6, 06
In 20 years, there will be no more Christians in Iraq' Oct. 5, 06
\FIRST-PERSON: Assyrian haircut Oct. 5, 06
The Assyrians: Ignored Among Fears of an Iraqi Civil War Oct. 4, 06
Two Iranian Christians arrested in Mashad. Oct. 4, 06
Car Bombs at the Christian Assyrian shopping district in Baghdad killed 16,
injured 87 Oct. 4, 06
30 Christian families receive threats to leave Mosul - Iraq Oct. 2, 06
Mr. Sarkis Aghajan, the Finance Minister of the Kurdistan regional
Government Asks for more rights for the Assyrians Oct. 2, 06