By Judit Neurink
An ancient Assyrian monastery in the Kurdistan Region. Photo by Judit Neurink
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The American Mesopotamian Organization (AMO) is demanding an official apology from Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani for the murder of Assyrians by Kurds in the past. Thousands of Assyrian Christians were killed in the region in the last century.
“Just as the Kurdish try to get recognition for the Kurdish genocide, we ask them to accept their responsibility for the killings of the Assyrians in this region,” says David William Lazar, head of the AMO in Los Angeles.
Many of the Assyrians were killed by Kurdish troops working with the Ottomans and later the Iraqi Kingdom, he says. “Compare how the German government later took responsibility for the Holocaust under the Nazis.”
Lazar leads one of the political groups that together represent around half a million Assyrians living in the United States, and lobbies with American politicians for their rights and the recognition of the Assyrian genocide of 1915.
His organization recently made the news when it furiously deplored a message from Barzani on the occasion of the Assyrian Martyrs Remembrance Day on August 7 — the first time that Barzani sent such a message — on the 80th birthday of the Semile massacre.
The massacre was ordered in 1933 by the Iraqi government under King Faysal, and conducted by a Kurdish general, Bakr Sidqi. It did not only hit Semile but dozens of other Assyrian villages in the region between Duhok and Zakho.
The death toll was officially put at 600, but unofficially at 3,000. Thousands of Assyrians fled the country, and the head of the Assyrian Church of the East was forced into exile. Even today, the church is led from the American city of Chicago.
In his message, Barzani expressed his “heartfelt consolation to the victims of that savage, dreadful massacre which the Iraqi regime carried out at that time.”
He added that the August 7, 1933 catastrophe in the Semile area “is not erased from memory and is evidence of the fact that all the constituents of Kurdistan equally opposed the catastrophes, the lack of acknowledgement and the oppression.”
Lazar calls that message offensive.
“He (Barzani) called us Kurdistani components,” he says from his home in Los Angeles. “We are a proud nation of thousands of years. Kurdification of our ethnicity is unacceptable,” he adds, saying it “is a continuation of Arabization” that happened under ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
Lazar expresses fear that the Kurds want to “eradicate our Assyrian identity and culture.” He objects to the fact that the KRG calls Assyrians “Christian Kurds,” while they are ethnically not Kurdish at all. “Don’t call us Christians, which is our faith. Our ethnic background is Assyrian.”
One of the aims of his organization is the creation of an autonomous state for the Assyrians on the Nineveh Plains between Mosul and Duhok. That is one of the so-called disputed areas, governed by Baghdad but which the Kurdish Region wants to add to its map.
It is already under Kurdish administrative and military control, and the KRG has offered to make the Assyrian dream come true under its rule. It has even placed a clause on the issue in Kurdistan’s draft constitution.
But Lazar stresses that the new Assyrian province should be tied to Baghdad, and formed under article 140 of the Iraqi constitution. A proposal for five new Iraqi provinces is already on the table in Baghdad, including Nineveh. “We believe in a unified Iraq, we want to keep the country one,” Lazar says.
He says that he plans a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan later in the year. “I have nothing against the Kurds. They are misinformed. We just want them to behave as civilized people and treat all citizens alike,” he adds.