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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

As Monday's target date for Iraq's new constitution approaches, the framers of the document are addressing a fundamental tenet of democracy, protecting the rights of minorities. Christians form one of Iraq's oldest populations and one of the country's most vulnerable minorities. Along with their neighbors the Kurds, Christians suffered persecution by the Baath regime and were expelled from their homelands in the north. Today there are over three million Iraqi Christians in the worldwide diaspora. Almost a million Christians remain in Iraq and many want their land back. That's created new problems with the Kurds. NPR's Jackie Lyden traveled to northern Iraq and has this story.

(Soundbite of river flowing)

JACKIE LYDEN reporting:

The upper Zab River, which cuts across northern Iraq, cleaves through a pastoral mountain landscape. The villages that once clung to the mountainsides above it formed the bedrock of the ancient pre-Christian community. The Assyrians had their empire in the north. The Chaldeans also followed an apostle of Christ. Both the Orthodox Assyrians and Catholic Chaldeans share one ethnic identity and language. Abdul Ahad Franso(ph) grew up in the village of Omra(ph), a mountaintop hamlet that overlooked southern Turkey. He's over 50 now, his hair gray, but he's still a compact, barrel-chested man.

Mr. ABDUL AHAD FRANSO (Iraqi Christian): (Through Translator) It was a part of paradise of God because there were fruits, water, and everybody was living here happy, or that they living very simple life but very happy life.

LYDEN: This happy life ended in 1961 when Omra was destroyed by the Iraqi army for the first of four times. Men, women and children died from sporadic bombardment across northern Iraq. This intensified under Saddam Hussein, who destroyed more than 200 towns and churches, many of them over a thousand years old. Desperate young Chaldo-Assyrian men like Abdul Ahad took up arms. In 1979 the Christians formed the underground Assyrian Democratic Movement. Sometimes they fought alongside the much bigger Kurdish resistance. They were idealistic and completely outmatched, and hundreds were captured and their leadership executed.

(Soundbite of door opening)

LYDEN: Amir Arara Odisho(ph), 46, pushes open a door at the Assyrian Democratic headquarters in Baghdad, housed in a former prison. Amir and a friend show us a tiny cell painted and tiled in red with red lights. Amir Odisho says he had a nervous breakdown in a red room like this one at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.

Mr. AMIR ARARA ODISHO (Iraqi Christian): Twenty-two of Assyrian Democratic Movement members, we were together in a room like this.

LYDEN: The room is about three-by-three meters square. It looks like it could hold six people. The Omra fighter, Abdul Ahad, is also with us. He too was imprisoned in Abu Ghraib, sentenced to die in May of 1985. He awaited his execution on death row.

Mr. FRANSO: (Through Translator) During my four months' time in death row, more than 6,012 persons have been hanged, executed.

LYDEN: Prisoners were executed in groups of 20 on the gallows on Wednesdays and Sundays. Abdul Ahad could hear them going by--the Sunni, Shiites and others, shouting defiance, and everyone united as political prisoners against Saddam Hussein.

Mr. FRANSO: (Through Translator) Each day at 4 PM when they were taking the 20 persons, groups for executed, you can hear the loud songs and the loud slogans, you know, that everybody was shouting against the regime at that time. I can still remember that the sounds of those to be executed, you know, coming from the execution places just below my cell.

LYDEN: On February 6th, 1985, three young leaders of the Assyrian Democratic Movement went to the gallows shouting, `Someday your head will be beneath our feet.' A few months later, at the hour he was to die, Abdul Ahad's life was spared. Still, he remained in prison for 12 more years until 1997.

(Soundbite of bird chirping)

LYDEN: While Amir Odisho and Abdul Ahad and scores of Assyrian Democratic Movement fighters languished in prison, Saddam Hussein was implementing genocide in their northern homelands. For 18 months between the spring of 1987 and the late summer of 1988, Saddam Hussein's general, Ali Hassan al-Majid, used poison gas on tens of thousands of northerners, Kurds, Christian and other minorities, trying to neutralize vast tracts of the restive countryside. Iraqi forces targeted three different broad swaths of Christian territory in northern Iraq, including near the city of Amadiya.

Bishop RABAN AL-CASS(ph) (Bishop of Amadiya): One day was 25 August 1988, morning at 8:00. We heard the voice of a airplane.

LYDEN: Raban al-Cass is the bishop of Amadiya. He remembers the day chemical bombs were dropped there.

Bishop AL-CASS: They vomited, they cried. The tears, they came down from them eyes. And among them there were my uncle, my cousin. From that, I remember, after two years my uncle was dead.

LYDEN: Oh.

Bishop AL-CASS: His name was Saddak(ph).

LYDEN: I'm sorry.

Bishop AL-CASS: After 10 years, my cousin, she dead. Another cousin also died; Madlin(ph), his name was. All birds they were killed.

LYDEN: The the birds were killed.

Bishop AL-CASS: The birds--no bird in the region.

(Soundbite of bird chirping)

LYDEN: Half a rugged day's drive away is what is left of the village of Mer Kagia(ph), which means `mountain garden' in the Chaldo-Assyrian language.

Mr. GIRGISH LAMONE(ph) (Iraqi Christian): (Through Translator) This village date about 400 years ago.

LYDEN: Girgish Lamone says Mer Kagia was bombed the same day, August 25th, 1988, with chemical weapons. He's among the handful of villagers who live in rude huts here, farming in the summertime. He speaks through an interpreter.

Mr. LAMONE: (Through Translator) We love this place. We are from here. We will stay even--you look how our house, how is it? But we will stay here.

LYDEN: Mr. Girgish, you're 80 years old. Did you think you would ever see the Christians come back to these mountains?

Mr. LAMONE: (Through Translator) Yes. I think if the security and peace come to our country and we need roads, good roads, electricity, schools, I think everybody will come and want to live here; it's very beautiful.

LYDEN: But the effort to try to reclaim hundreds of Christian villages will take money, lots of it, to build schools, homes, roads and an infrastructure.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

LYDEN: The village of Dihay(ph) was once home to 200 families. Now it houses just 14 elderly people who live in cinder block homes with white ruffled curtains. The church has been rebuilt; the bell tower repaired.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

LYDEN: And party official Ramel Musha(ph) has brought his parents back here because Dihay is their birthplace. Were he to move his children here, though, there'd be no school. Ramel Musha says that the reclamation of ancestral land has become a passion for him and like-minded Christians.

Mr. RAMEL MUSHA (Iraqi Christian): We are here on this land before 6,000 years. We are the most ancient people living in Mesopotamia, in Iraq and in the surrounded countries. We are the Indian of Iraq.

LYDEN: You are the indigenous people.

Mr. MUSHA: Yeah. We feel that is our homeland and we are planning to make our people get back to their homelands and to their original villages from all the diaspora, from Europe, from the United States, from Australia. This is our big aim.

LYDEN: But that aim has been frustrated by tense relations between the Assyrian Democratic Movement and the Kurdish Democratic Party, or KDP, which is the dominant party in the Kurdistan regional government here. Although the ADM movement is the largest Christian party in Iraq, it holds only one independent seat in the 275-member National Assembly. In a speech there in April, Shamal Bendamin(ph), ADM's political officer, denounced the Kurdistan Democratic Party because monies given by the United States for non-Muslim reconstruction has gone directly to the Kurdistan regional government.

Mr. SHAMAL BENDAMIN (ADM): I'll show you a document somebody from State...

LYDEN: He waves a letter by the director of political affairs at the US State Department. It says that the US has funded projects totaling more than $2.6 billion where most Chaldo-Assyrians live, including more than $33 million in projects in their local communities.

Mr. BENDAMIN: They are saying that already there are $33 million for the Chaldo-Assyrian regions, but this is--it's doing by KDP, you know.

LYDEN: The KDP, he complains, will not give anyone money unless they are a member of their party. He says the majority Kurdish government is marginalizing the Christians and far from enshrining minority rights, trampling on them as Saddam Hussein once did.

Mr. BENDAMIN: This money is our money, is our country money, and if it's American, it's for all us, you know, not to use for benefit for one group against another group.

LYDEN: But hearing this, the governor of Dohuk and a Kurdistan Democratic Party official, Tomer Ramadan(ph), is dismissive.

Governor TOMER RAMADAN (Dohuk): (Through Translator) Maybe Saddam was building parks and gardens for the Christians which are unable now for us to do that for the Christians.

LYDEN: He says the Christians are getting a lot of attention from the current government.

Gov. RAMADAN: (Through Translator) There have living free. They have their TV channels. They have mass medias, newspapers, magazines.

LYDEN: And he says in any case the ADM doesn't represent all the Christians. That's true. The Kurds have a number of Christians in the government. Next door, the governor's deputy, Gerga Salamon(ph), is Christian and a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. At the moment, he's looking through papers, trying to show us how much of that US money has been spent on Christian projects.

Mr. GERGA SALAMON (KDP): They have 30 church on hold. Each one costs about 50,000 US dollars. They are paying for families which migrated from the cities to Dohuk. They're paying for them around 90,000 US dollars. And they are paying now for the streets which they are making to this village, one million five hundred thousand US dollars.

LYDEN: His list adds up to about $3 million, but that leaves $30 million in US money unaccounted for. Asked about this, the State Department says it's looking into these complaints but said that it would not be giving money directly to Christians because it would be, quote, "inappropriate to earmark funds specifically based on religious or ethnic identity, when the US mission is to foster a single national identity." That leaves Christians in a classic catch-22--not powerful enough to be a majority part of the government and excluded on the very basis of the minority rights the new constitution is supposed to protect.

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

LYDEN: There is one place, in a bend on the Habu River(ph) which forms the border dividing Syria, Iraq and Turkey where a sacred town taken over by Kurds was emptied and returned to the Christians. This is Fishkabor(ph). Here, each April 24th, Christians gather from around Iraq to celebrate St. George's Day. This year, the Kurds were evicted, the KDP paying each family about $10,000. The houses were painted, new homes built, about 60 dwellings in all. But that's far too few to house the many who want to return here. Still, as women rolled stones against the shrine where St. George is said to be buried, it was the first time in many years that Fishkabor was populated by Chaldo-Assyrians and there were speeches, picnics and songs on the loudspeaker.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer: (Foreign language spoken)

LYDEN: Up in the rubble of Omra, there is nothing but sky above. Abdul Ahad, who fought for his village stands on a pile of building stones. He was here on August 15th, 1976. It was a Sunday, the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The farmers had come in from the mountainside when the army chain. The village was dynamited, the church exploded. Children and the elderly died. Abdul Ahad joined the armed resistance that very day.

Mr. FRANZO: (Through Translator) When I drink alcohol the night, I start sometimes crying exactly on 15th of August. For that always I remember my people of which we live in those mountains. We hope one day we return back and somebody help us to rebuild all the villages because our blood has been--fell down here in this area, in these mountains.

LYDEN: And then Abdul Ahad reaches down and finds at his feet the old lintel stone from over the doorway of Omra's church. He hoists the stone to his shoulder, promising to return it if his village is ever rebuilt.

Jackie Lyden, NPR News.

LUDDEN: You can see a gallery of Jackie Lyden's photos from northern Iraq at npr.org.

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