ANKAWA, Iraq – A small ceremony this week marked the start of construction of the new Syriac school called “Meltho” in Ankawa, Erbil. The building of the school is under supervision of the Syriac Orthodox Church and supported by the Hungarian government. Syriac Orthodox bishop of Mosul Daoud Sharaf and the Hungarian official representative in Erbil attended the ceremony and inspection of the start of construction. His Eminence Daoud Sharaf blessed the start of construction with prayers.
Ankawa is a town near Erbil with a predominantly Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian population and the Kurdish Region in Iraq has an estimated 150,000 Syriacs, mostly in Ankawa, Erbil, Nohadra (Dohuk), and Zakho. Of these, tens of thousands are IDPs from Mosul and the Nineveh Plains. After ISIS in 2014 occupied large swaths of land in northern Iraq, some 120 thousand Syriacs from Mosul and the predominantly Syriac Nineveh Plain fled as the Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces were no match for the ISIS jihadist’s fanatics. Moreover, the little protection forces Syriacs had in the Nineveh Plain – and the Yazidis in Sinjar- the Peshmerga had disarmed.
Most of the Nineveh Plain residents fled to the Kurdish Region in Iraq or Bagdad.
Syriacs in the Nineveh Plain
His Eminence Daoud Sharaf in the pre-ISIS period resided in Mosul but moved to Ankawa after ISIS took over the city. He took care of the tens of thousands of Syriac IDP’s from the Nineveh Plain.
So far, only an estimated 60,000 Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians have returned to the Nineveh Plain and there are domestic and foreign powers pushing to change the demographic composition of the Nineveh Plain. The Nineveh Plain is a region where the Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians desire self-representation for their people, comparable with the Kurdish Region in Iraq, within the possibilities of the federal Iraqi constitution.
Bishop Sharaf is a supporter of such “a Christian home in the Nineveh Plains under international protection”. At a 2017 reception at the European Centre for Law and Justice, he expressed his disappointment in the passive attitude of governments, ignoring the situation of the Syriacs and other minorities in Iraq;
“We Syriacs, are the original inhabitants of this land, then we became a minority and now we are merely refugees in our own country.”
His Eminence said at the reception that Syriacs want to return to a safe and secure Nineveh Plain. According to him the creation of a safe area for Syriac Christians is achievable if the international community supports and protects such an area.
“Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds: they all have got their territory. Christians, he asked, must also have a right to live in peace, they need a secured home”.
After ISIS, Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian political parties convened at the 2017 Brussels conference in the European Parliament “A Future for Christians in Iraq”, which brought the case for federal self-rule for the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people in Iraq on the agenda of international forums and put it in the agenda of international organizations. Two Syriac patriarchs were present, His Holiness Joseph Younan III of the Syriac Catholic Church and His Holiness Aphrem II of the Syriac Orthodox Church.
Below: Signing of the 2017 Brussels Position Paper by Romeo Hakkari (Beth Nahrain Democratic Party), Yousif Yaqoob Matti (Beth Nahrain Patriotic Union), Saeed Shamaya (Chaldean Democracy Forum), Samer Azzo Dawood Kozel (Chaldean National Congress), Shamsadeen Gorgees (Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council), Nashat Faraj Samoi Abasah (Chaldo Ashor), and Najeeb Naser Elias Banyameen (Syriac Assembly Movement).
Syriac Education in Iraq
The federal constitution of Iraq acknowledges Iraq as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Arabic and Kurdish are the official languages, but all Iraqi citizens are guaranteed educational rights in their mother tongues, including Syriac, in the areas where they live. Any language outside Arabic and Kurdish can become an official language if so approved by referendum.
In Iraq, Syriacs are a recognized people under Assyrian and Chaldean, and have the right to establish their own schools and teach their language alongside the official curriculum. Regional government funding is allocated for Syriac schools, teachers, and textbooks. Language organizations and educational institutions as the Soraya Foundation for Media and Culture based in Ankawa have been set up in Iraq. A Syriac curriculum has been developed which is taught at Syriac schools in the Nineveh Plains and the Governates of Dohuk and Erbil.