ERBIL, Kurdistan Region— Head of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains have called for the establishment of a safe haven under international protection for the country’s increasingly persecuted Christians.
The three main Iraqi Churches, the Syriac Catholic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Chaldean Catholic Church have in a joint statement Friday called on authorities to set up a safe haven for the Christians in the volatile Nineveh province where diverse ethnic and religious group have long clashed over territory and dominance.
“The security and protection of Christian localities in Nineveh Plain, a free zone, and international protection, under United Nations, away from conflicts and rivalries,” the head of the Churches write in the joint statement calling for safeguarding the “rights of Christian communities in historical Nineveh Plains.”
The statement comes amid public announcements from a Shiite cleric who in challenging remarks described the country’s Christians as “infidels.”
In his public statements Ali Mousavi, head of the Shiite Waqf bureau, an influential Shiite institution in the country, has said the Christians who chose not to convert to Islam must pay taxes, the so called jazzya, or leave the Muslim areas.
“Jihad should be implemented in regard to the Christians in order for them to convert to Islam, either they will become Muslims or we must fight them, or they ought to pay jazzya,” Mousavi said to his followers recently prompting wide Christian condemnations.
The Iraqi government has in the past offered arms and combat training to Christian recruits who have volunteered to join a new force based in the disputed Nineveh province. Also the Kurdish Peshmerga troops have patrolled large parts of the Nineveh Plains which include many Christian localities.
Iraq was home to more than 1.5 million Christians before the country plunged into a sectarian conflict in the mid-2000. But many left the country after systematic attacks on their neighborhoods in Baghdad and elsewhere.
According to reports from the office of Human Rights Committee in Kurdistan Region, the number of Christians in Baghdad has decreased to around 90,000 over the past decade with many of the young Christians leaving for exile.
“The Christian communities in historical Nineveh Plains should be granted their rights to administer their affairs in relation to other communities, according to the constitution and the law and the 1957 census,” the head of the Churches write in the statement.
As of last December, Government officials said that more than one hundred churches and monasteries in Mosul alone have been demolished by ISIS militants since 2014. But Christian sites have also frequently been targeted by extremist groups elsewhere in the country including the 2010 October attack on the Syrian Church in Baghdad that killed over 50 people, including many worshipers.