EL CAJON, Calif. - 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.
Last week, 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 United States disagree about how best to help their families in the Middle East, where they live under constant threat of sectarian violence. Community leaders estimate there are more than 200,000 Iraqi Christians living in the U.S., mainly clustered in Detroit, Chicago, San Diego and Phoenix.
Some would like to see visa restrictions relaxed so their relatives can join them. Others hope 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 ophthalmologist 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.
Last week, a refugee advocacy group in Washington said the outflow of people from Iraq is the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world. According to the United Nations, more than a million Iraqis have fled since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, with about 3,000 people now leaving daily.
About 40 percent of those leaving are Christian, according to estimates from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Christians account for just 3 percent of Iraq's 26 million people.
"A year ago, the plight of the Christian community was not very well known," said Michel Gabaudan, a UNHCR 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 — a dream long held by ethnic Chaldean and Assyrian politicians.
"The immediate thing it would solve is the bleeding of Iraqi Christians out of the country," said Michael Youash, the director of the project.
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 meet with State Department officials in Washington and court support for the plan, which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops backs. The pair then went on a barnstorming tour 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. Sipo said his brother was planning to move from Baghdad to Nineveh before the end of the year. "But those of us in America can't tell them to stay in Iraq — that would be hypocrisy."
Even with increased attention to the refugee problem, visas to the U.S. might be hard to come by. 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 UNHCR 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. In the meantime, 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."