â€œOperation Iraqi Freedom,â€ the moniker for the United Statesâ€™ war in Iraq, has spelled, not so much freedom, but exile and dispersion for one of the oldest Christian peoples in the world â€“ the Assyrians.
The Central Valley town of Turlock has an ethnic club that, for over 60 years, has served as a cultural center for the small but ancient Assyrian nation. Beginning with Turkish massacres during World War I, the Christian Assyrians, centered in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), have been coming to California. These were joined by other Assyrians who fled Iran after the revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979. But the flight of refugees after the Gulf War and the current Iraq war threaten to end the existence of the Assyrians as a distinct ethnic group, said a Jan. 5 Associated Press story.
The Assyrian Church, which dates back to the earliest days of the Christian faith, eventually came to embrace the teachings of the fifth century archbishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 431. Since then, the Assyrian Church has been separated from the Catholic and Orthodox churches â€“ though a large number of Nestorian Assyrians came into union with Rome, beginning in the 16th century, forming the Chaldean Catholic Church â€“ which today is larger than the Assyrian Church.
The Oct. 23, 2006 Intelligencer reported United Nations survey, saying that over 200,000 Assyrian Christians fled Iraq after the U.S. invasion of 2003. The number of refugees increased in 2004 on account of terrorist bombings of Christian churches, as well as kidnappings and assassinations, in Iraq. By 2006, only 20,000 Assyrians remained in Iraq, according to the U.S. State Department. Though many refugees came to the U.S., others have gone to Canada and Europe.
Isaac Samow, an Assyrian Christian who lives in Modesto, told Associated Press, “My children speak my language, but what about my grandchildren? If there are no Assyrians left in Mesopotamia, how will our culture live?” Samow, with his wife and seven children, fled Iran after the â€™79 revolution.
The Assyrian American Civic Club of Turlock, with similar clubs in California and elsewhere, works to keep Assyrian culture alive with festivals as well as a radio station that carries Assyrian music and news. The club raises money to help Assyrians in Iraq. An Iranian-Assyrian, Fred Betmaleck, however, told Associated Press that the club encourages Assyrians not to leave Iraq. â€œBut, he said, â€œwhen thereâ€™s persecution, what can you do?â€
One reason Assyrians are persecuted by Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds is that they are perceived as being pro-American. Many speak English along with their Assyrian language and so work as translators.
According to the web site, christiansofiraq.com, Assyrians suffered during Saddam Husseinâ€™s wars with the Kurds with the destruction of Assyrian churches, villages, and the driving of Assyrians from their homeland. They were forced to give their children Arabic names.
â€œThe fall of Saddam which was hoped to bring peace to Iraq has unleashed religious violence against the Christian community in Iraq,â€ says the web site. â€œUnless special attention is given to their plight by the US and the Iraqi government this ancient people will continue to suffer grievously as they have in the past.â€