Assyrians in Iraq face a stark choice: convert, die or leave

12-15-2010-10-28-21-am-50450241.JPGElmer Abbo
November was a fairly quiet month in Iraq. An estimated 298 civilians were killed in bomb explosions or shootings. The November lull followed one particularly bloody day on Oct. 31, when gunmen wearing suicide vests jumped the security wall at the Chaldean Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad. Claiming they were members of al-Qaida’s Iraqi affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, the gunmen held more than 100 congregants hostage. Iraq Security Forces attempted a rescue that evening. Blood and pieces of human flesh sprayed onto the church altar when gunmen began to shoot and blow up the hostages. They murdered 58 worshipers, including two priests. After the massacre, the ISI issued a statement that defined churches as “The dirty place belonging to the infidels that Iraqi Christians have long used as a base to fight Islam.” The group promised more attacks, declaring all Christians as “legitimate targets.” The church attack was the first time that most Western media had covered any news of the Assyro-Chaldean community in Iraq. In larger context, the Assyrians are targets of persecution from Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis. Lacking the power or influence to defend themselves, they are in danger of disappearing as a community in Iraq. “I will clearly say this: What is happening in Iraq is, at the minimum, ethnic cleansing. Other people will say it is genocide, even if the numbers are not there, because the Assyrians are being killed in a deliberate and strategic way,” said Dr. Elmer Abbo, assistant professor of medicine, University of Chicago Medical Center, and executive director of the Assyrian American National Coalition. “We’re being oppressed to the point where we’re being pushed out of the country. Sometimes, it is under direct force where people come to your door and say ‘convert, be killed or leave.’ Those are the options. Whenever there’s a church bombing, it says: You are not welcome here. Leave, or we will kill you.” Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, approximately 1.5 million Assyrians lived in Iraq. Today, around 600,000 remain. This minority community descended from the Aramaic-speaking indigenous population of Mesopotamia. They adopted Christianity in the first century C.E. The current persecution represents a rapid acceleration in a long history of oppression that dates back, to the Assyrian Genocide of 1917-’18. As the Ottoman Empire began falling apart, the Young Turks (the late Ottoman Empire leadership) instigated a series of violent mass-murder campaigns against Christian minority communities that included Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians. “Three-quarters of the Assyrian population was killed at that time,” said Dr. Abbo. “That clearly was a genocide. Since then, there have been episodes of persecution and systematic marginalization of Assyrians in Iraq. But, at least we were left alone for the most part until the current war. That put us in the crossfire.” The Assyrians were left alone largely because Saddam Hussein, dictator of Iraq from 1979 to 2003, was a nationalist. In a land artificially created out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, composed of multiple ethnicities and religious sects, Saddam saw Arab nationalism as the key to uniting Iraqis. Nationalism – and Saddam’s use of political terror – worked to unite Iraq until the U.S. invasion of 2003. In post-Saddam Iraq, both Arab and non-Arab communities (especially Kurds) made bids for power. Vulnerable non-Arab minorities, like the Assyrians, have become targets of discrimination in many aspects of social and political life in Iraq and the Kurdish Autonomous Region. More worrisome, the Assyrian community has turned into soft targets for al-Qaida and other fundamentalist Islamist organizations. “It’s important not to frame this issue entirely as an attack against Christians,” insisted Dr. Abbo. “It’s much more than that. We are Christian. But, before we were Christian we were Assyrian. “Framing it as a Christian problem only undermines our claim and our right to be in Iraq. We belong in Iraq, because we’re indigenous to Iraq. This is our homeland. We shouldn’t be in Iraq to preserve Christianity, but because Iraq is our homeland. “Iraqis are attacking us because we are Christian, and some of the persecution is tied to identifying us to being proxies to the West. But, in a larger political context, the leaders in Iraq are afraid if they give us rights or grant us authority over land, some kind of semiautonomous control, that would lead to a fracturing and destabilization of Iraq. “In the north, the attacks by the Kurds against us are completely geopolitically driven and have nothing to do with religion. The Kurds have aspirations to expand the Kurdistan Regional Government into the lands that we claim. Our claims to have authority over our own land challenge the Kurdish aspirations. And, it gets more complicated than that, because much of the land within the Kurdish region was originally Assyrian. “Of course, there are elements in Iraq who are anti-Christian. But, that cannot be the justification for American action. America can’t be seen as going into Iraq to save a bunch of Christians. That wouldn’t be received positively in Iraq. It would reinforce the element of foreigners being seen as crusaders. If America is going to help Assyrians, it has to be as helping the indigenous people of Iraq stay in their native land.” The often-stated reason for Operation Iraqi Freedom was to help create a democracy in Iraq. In theory, that means all sorts of people – including minorities – should be able to live freely in Iraq. To operationalize freedom in Iraq, the U.S. could have leaned on the Iraqi leadership to create structures that guaranteed the rights for all its citizens. That might have meant the implementation of policies that would guarantee rights for all minorities in Iraq. For example, the U.S. could have supported the creation of a local police force in the Nineveh Plain, where the Assyrian population is concentrated. At one time, factions of the Iraqi government passed a law to support this idea. But, the Kurdish Regional Government blocked all talk of a local police force in the Nineveh Plain. And, the U.S. chose not to interfere. “More important than local police forces, what we are trying to achieve is the implementation of Article 125 in the Iraqi Constitution that allows for the implementation of a local administrative unit,” said Dr. Abbo. “This would allow minorities to administer their local affairs. We’d like to see the development of an administrative unit in the Nineveh Plain, the area where the greatest number of Assyrians still lives. “Even if things quiet down, the opportunities for the next generation of Assyrian children may not be there. We’re finished as a community in Baghdad, at least for several generations. The only alternative I see is to create an Assyrian center in the Nineveh Plain. We’re not talking about autonomy or an independent state, but a place that is sustainable with a growing economy. We could sustain a community in such a place. “Our population was relatively stable before 2003. But, the persecution we’ve suffered since the war has been devastating. I do think the U.S. needs to recognize that Assyrians are seriously in threat of suffering significant cultural collateral damage. The U.S. has the moral obligation to see that this cultural extinction will not happen.” Obviously, the Iraqi government should provide effective security measures in Baghdad, Mosul and other areas where minority groups are targets of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. With the disappearance of its indigenous people, there will be no democratic future for Iraq. The church massacre in Baghdad did generate some reaction from the international community, more so than in the past. But, the overall reaction has been weak. The Assyrian community in the United States has charged that instead of a serious global discussion of the ethnic and religious cleansing of the Assyrians, the political reaction in the West has been to avoid the issue altogether. If this condition persists and no serious efforts are taken for the protection of this people, they will flee Iraq. Is any Western country ready and willing to receive thousands of refugees? Is any government willing to orchestrate a safe mass exodus and relocate the community near already established Assyrian communities, so that the integration into a new life will not be a complete culture shock? This is the historical precipice at which the Assyrian community finds itself, said Dr. Abbo. “For the first time in history, there are more Assyrian people living outside our traditional homeland than inside. There are concerns that if our people continue to leave the country, in 10 years, our culture will cease to exist in our homeland. Then, how long will our culture continue to exist in foreign lands that we emigrate to? If we become a culture fully in the diaspora, the legitimate concern is that we will cease to exist as a distinct culture in a few generations. So, when people say this is a genocide, this is the possible future they are playing out in their minds.”