Observers say many of Iraq's more than 1 million Assyrian Christians may be forced to flee the country because of growing sectarian violence.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says Assyrian Christians used to make up 5 percent of Iraq's total population. Then came the Iraq war. Assyrians now compose "upwards of 40 percent of [Iraqi] refugees," with most fleeing to Jordan and Syria.

Pascale Warda, former Iraqi minister of displacement and migration, said in October that the country's Assyrian Christians—also known as Chaldeans—are being targeted by hard-line Sunni and Shiite Muslims. In addition, Kurds are seizing land owned by some Assyrian Christians. They then deny the Assyrians access to water, according to the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project, which focuses on issues affecting Iraq's minorities.

"This is a dark phase for us," said Warda, an Assyrian Christian. "The situation is turning more and more [violent]."

Charles Klutz, a convert to the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, leads a congregation with many Iraqi immigrants in the Chicago area. He says Assyrians in Iraq "have to stay indoors continually, afraid to go to the shop, [that] one of these crazies will swoop down on them. They've lost churches in Baghdad because of this."

Advocates for Assyrian Christians are pushing for a multiethnic self-governing region in northern Iraq, as a haven for Iraqi minorities.

The Assyrians can be traced back to 2400 B.C. They adopted Christianity in the church's early years.

Michael Youash, director of the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project, said that after the U.S. invasion, Assyrian Christians hoped for a form of self-government similar to what the Kurds had in northern Iraq. As the war continued, it was thought better to "wait for things to stabilize," Youash said. "However, no one foresaw the severity of violence." Now, he said, "change must be pursued much more aggressively."

The Assyrians' new plan is to push for self-government in the Nineveh Plains and western part of Dohuk—their ancestral homeland. Youash said other threatened Iraqi minorities—Shabaks, Yezidis, and Turkmen—would be welcome in this protected province.

"There's much America can do to make the process smoother," Youash said, urging U.S. support for a local security force for the region.

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today's full coverage area on Iraq has articles on the country's Christians.

The Assyrian International News Agency lifts news stories from other publications without permission, but is comprehensive.

The Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East has an official site, including a section that answers basic questions about the church's origins and beliefs.

In its Iraq Emergency section, The website of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees also has statistics on Iraqi refugees around the world and a summary of UNHCR spokesperson's statements at an October press briefing.

Other news on Iraqi Christians includes:

Iraqi Christians Face Increasing Danger | The position of Iraq's small but ancient Christian community is growing more tenuous, as militant Islamists attack churches and priests. Now some Iraqi Christians want to create a separate, autonomous enclave for their community on the Nineveh Plain of Northern Iraq. (NPR's All Things Considered)
Iraq: Christian Minority Seeks Haven From Violence | A former Iraqi minister seeks to drum up support for the idea of a separate Iraqi province where Christians and other religious minorities can live in safety and peace. (Radio Free Europe)

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