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Iraqi Christian Minority Trapped Without a Voice in Provincial Elections
By Amer Hedow :: Saturday, January 31, 2009 :: 63124 Views :: Law & Order, Government & Society

Mosul, IRAQ – “We have to go vote.  Our love for our country makes us go and vote,” says Ibtissam Bazzi, an Iraqi Christian woman eager to cast her vote.  Christians in Iraq remain an oppressed minority and a group still under constant threat.  With the provincial elections underway, Iraq’s Christian minority find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

The Iraqi natives have faced centuries of violence.  From conquering Arab armies, the first world war genocide of the Ottoman empire (present day Turkey), to mass killings from al-Qaida in Iraq and other Islamic extremists.  Including the Kurds who have been slowly and systematically attempting to take and control land once owned by Christians.  

In the northern city of Mosul and surrounding areas the Kurds have been using their own militia to sieze more of Iraq into their semiautonomous region.  The issue came to the fore in Saturday's vote for members of ruling councils in most of Iraq's 18 provinces.

Although results are not expected for days or even weeks for that province, Kurds are expected to lose the dominance they have enjoyed here in Ninevah province since Sunni Arabs boycotted the last provincial election in 2005.

Early voting estimates say, Christians will get at least one paltry seat out of 37 council seats in the province, due to a token minority quota. But many Christians are divided about whether to back the Kurds or the Sunni Arabs in their struggle for domination in Ninevah and its capital city of Mosul.

The U.S. military believes continued Kurdish-Arab tension in the north poses one of the strongest challenges to ensuring long-lasting peace in Iraq now that Shiite-Sunni violence has ebbed

Raad Shaya, a 30-year-old Christian teacher who lives in the outlying town of Batnaya, said Christians face intimidation from both sides.

Islamic extremists recently threatened him and several Christian colleagues by placing a warning inside the minibus they used to commute to work.

"The Kurds are controlling the Christians right now," he said, lowering his voice after casting his ballot on Saturday. "There's also the threat from outside Islamic political parties.  We're not targeted because we're a minority in the middle of everything," he added.

Fears spiked in the fall with a string of murders of Christians in Mosul, driving thousands of Christian families to leave their homes for the safety of Christian villages around the city. Most have drifted back but are still afraid.

"It's better at this point but we paid a high price for it," said Bassem Bello, the Christian mayor of Tel Kaif, a mixed Sunni Arab-Christian town near Mosul. "We're working very hard to make sure it doesn't happen again."

He declined to say who was behind the attacks, which claimed up to 16 lives by some counts. But he said the outgoing provincial council had failed to protect its people.

"Whenever something like this happens we lose families. They go abroad. This is the agenda. They want the original people of this country to leave," he said. "They have certain aspirations to take over what the Christians have in their areas. Also there are extremist Islamic groups."

The Kurds already have moved to stake their claim on the nearby hilly area known as the Ninevah Plains by establishing checkpoints manned by well-trained Kurdish security forces known as peshmerga.

The sunshine flag of the semiautonomous Kurdish region to the north also flies on the top of several buildings in the villages and towns that comprise the areas, including some of the schools that were used as polling stations on Saturday.

A U.S. official said Christians need the peshmerga for protection but most have stayed on the fence because they're afraid of choosing the losing side. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Although the Kurds are expected to lose seats, they are hoping for a strong showing as a measure of support for their claims to disputed areas of Ninevah.

The Kurds also are seeking to incorporate the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in another province into their semiautonomous area, but the vote for a council there was delayed until later this year.

Christians have frequently been targeted since turmoil swept the country after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Churches, priests and businesses of the generally prosperous, well-educated community have been attacked by militants who denounce Christians as pro-American "crusaders." The body of Paulos Rahho, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul, also was found in March following his abduction by gunmen after a Mass.

Suvara Shamsun Haroun, a 25-year-old Christian woman who voted Saturday in Tel Kaif, pointed out that insurgents target all Iraqis "but sometimes they try to drive a wedge between the Arabs and the Christians."

Her mother Wirgania Shamwell expressed hope the Christian candidate chosen would help improve the situation.

"Hopefully the elections will bring security and a better future for Iraq and that's all we can hope for," she said. "Security is the main thing."

St. Joseph, MI USA

St. Joseph Chaldean Catholic Church
2442 E. Big Beaver Rd.
Troy, MI 48083
Tel: (248) 528-3676
Fax: (248) 524-1957

Congregation Organizer:
Rev. Michael J. Bazzi

Church Constructing Pastor:
Rev. Sarhad Y. Jammo

Current Pastor:
Msgr. Zouhair Toma

Parochial Vicar:
Rev. Ayad Hanna

 Current Pastor: Msgr. Zouhair Toma

Msgr. Zouhair Toma (Kejbou) was born in Telkaif, Iraq in 1947.  He was ordained a priest in Baghdad, Iraq in 1968, and accepted his first assignment to serve the community of Baquba.  The Monsignor’s leadership skills and organizational talents along with his mastery of theology were immediately evident.  He later assisted Sts. Peter and Paul in Al-Salehia, and St. George in New Baghdad.

In August, 1978 Monsignor Toma was called to serve the growing community of persecuted Chaldeans finding refuge in Australia.   Being the fist Chaldean priest to arrive in Australia he quickly established a parish for the Chaldeans in Sydney to serve their social and spiritual needs.  The parish was named after St. Thomas the Apostle and built a rectory. 

In 1989, for his incredible work he was granted the title of Monsignor, Chaldean Patriarchal Vicar for Australia and New Zealand.  Continuing his passionate work to serve the Chaldean community the Monsignor moved the Parish Center to a more accessible location and built a large church campus featuring a modern community center, residence quarters, and administrative offices in 1995. 

In 2003, Monsignor Toma added a magnificent church to replace the previous one in order to serve the fast growing community and also opened two other centers.  The first was Our Lady Guardian of Plants in Melbourne, and the second was Mar Addai the Apostle in Auckland, New Zealand.  Mar Addai in New Zealand included two very large churches along with rectories and community centers.  Overseeing the Patriarchal Vicariate for 28 years, he managed to inspire six more priests to help minister to the fast growing Chaldean community. 

In August 2006, Monsignor chose to assist the St. Thomas the Apostle Diocese in the U.S. as more Catholic churches were being built in America and address the growing need.  On October 2006, Monsignor was incardinated and appointed Pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Troy.