Hereditary martyrs: the Christian victims of ISIS’s massacres

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By Juliana Taimoorazy
Hereditary martyrs: the Christian victims of ISIS’s massacres
Assyrian Christians who fled the unrest in Syria and Iraq demonstrate during a gathering in front of the UN house in Beirut, Lebanon, on Saturday. Photo: EPA
Woody Allen once joked that sterility is hereditary: If you don’t have any children, you won’t have grandchildren either. In my family, we pass down a different condition: martyrdom.

My great-grandfather and my great-uncle both were murdered for their religion in 1915. Decades later, my own immediate family had to flee Islamist harassment in Iran.

My colleagues’ cousins even now are hiding from ISIS in isolated villages and on mountaintops. This is the heritage of all Assyrian Christians.

The butchery last month of Ethiopian Copts in Libya was not some new kind of atrocity. It’s the latest incident in 100 years of Islamist religious and ethnic cleansing all across the Middle East.

The first genocide of the 20th century was launched by the Ottomans and the “Young Turks” against Assyrian Christians in Mesopotamia. The next victims were Armenians and Greeks. For nine long years the slaughter went on, ending only in 1923 after claiming 2.5 million victims. The Ottomans “cleansed” Turkey, and much of Iraq, of their Christians. In November 1916, the Atlantic Monthly reported:

‘“Within six months they [Young Turks] succeeded in doing what the Old Turks were unable to accomplish in six centuries .?.?. Thousands of Nestorians and Syrians [Assyrians] have vanished from the face of the earth.”’

For many years, my mother stayed silent about the genocide. But one cold night in Tehran, in 1985, as we huddled around the space heater, she finally opened up. She told me how Nana (her grandmother) was awakened in her little clay house by violent knocks. Nana’s nephew George burst in. He threw himself down on her sickbed and wept for a solid minute. Then he reared up and whispered the news: “Nana, they killed Uncle Augustus. Those merciless animals cut his body into pieces and made me bring it home in a rice bag — our ration bag.”

At the news that her son was dead, Nana collapsed. Her cries filled the cold, desolate room. Nana’s husband, a priest of the Ancient Assyrian Church, had been murdered the year before — dragged behind his horse by Muslim neighbors. The following year, another family member would be shot by his Muslim servant.

I breathed very slowly, committing to heart my mother’s every word. She ended with this: “Juliana, you need to know stories like this. Someday, you must share them with your children. It was not only our family who gave martyrs for our faith in Jesus Christ. There are hundreds of thousands of families like us.”

I wept in silence, and soon I was alone. She left me to reflect on what all this meant. In the cold, quiet room I made a solemn commitment: to spend my life fighting for the most vulnerable, giving witness for the persecuted, whoever they might be.

Now 30 years later, I sit in a warm house in America, beside the same gentle woman, my mother. Now I am the one telling recent, appalling stories of religious persecution, but to an incredulous wider world.

The victims of ISIS today are the children and grandchildren of those who were hunted in 1915. They too suffer from hereditary martyrdom.

It would be too easy to despair. To write off that whole region of the world as possessed by a kind of madness, doomed to destroy itself in a cataclysm of religious and ethnic violence.

But Americans are better than that. We care, as a people, about religious freedom — our nation was founded to ensure it.

We care about fair treatment for vulnerable minorities. And many of us have family members whose fate depends on peace and freedom: There are millions of Middle Eastern Christians in the United States whose cousins are in danger.

American Jews, whose families have suffered history’s most appalling persecution, worry for the safety of Jews living in Israel.

We cannot surrender this vital part of the world to the butchers and the fanatics, to the men in black uniforms who terrorize women like Nana and murder their husbands and children.

While we fight the persecutors, we must aid the persecuted. Christian refugees in Iraq, and all the victims of ISIS, need your support — your prayers, your actions, your gifts.

Juliana Taimoorazy is Founder of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council and a Philos Project Fellow.