Local Assyrians rally for support of Iraqi Christians

 By Sabra Stafford Crime Desk sstafford@turlockjournal.com
The gathering outside Turlock’s City Hall on Friday was one of many demonstrations held across the country as part of an ongoing campaign by the Assyrian America National Federation.
A group of Turlock residents demonstrated in front of City Hall Friday to bring attention to the unrest that is currently sweeping through Iraq.

Organized in part by the Assyrian-American Civic Club, the peaceful demonstration sought to raise awareness for the numerous Christians being terrorized by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The extremist group is a break-away sect from Al Qaeda that has claimed to have slaughtered hundreds of captured Iraqi soldiers over the past week or so during which it seized a large hunk of northern and western Iraq. Across the border in Syria, the insurgents have reportedly killed people execution-style in the main square, banned music and imposed an Islamic tax on Christians for protection, according to activists and residents of the city of Raqqa.

“For Assyrians, the main religion is Christianity and those over there have become a target for this group,” said Bianca Davoodian, a board member of the Assyrian-American Civic Club who participated in the demonstration. “The group is so extreme there is nothing the Christians can do.”

The Associated Press reported that the Christians living in Iraq have increasingly become targets for the extremists and many have been forced to flee their homes.

In leaving, the Christians are emptying out communities that date back to the first centuries of the religion, including Chaldean, Assyrian and Armenian churches. The past week, some 160 Christian families — mostly from Mosul — have fled to Alqosh, Mayor Sabri Boutani told The Associated Press.

Iraq was estimated to have more than 1 million Christians before the 2003 invasion and topping of Saddam Hussein. Now church officials estimate only 450,000 remain within Iraq borders. Militants have targeted Christians in repeated waves in Baghdad and the north. The Chaldean Catholic cardinal was kidnapped in 2008 by extremists and killed. Churches around the country have been bombed repeatedly.

The exodus from Mosul — a Sunni-majority city that during the American presence in Iraq was an al-Qaida stronghold — has been even more dramatic. From a pre-2003 population of around 130,000 Christians, there were only about 10,000 left before the Islamic State fighters overran the city a week ago. It’s now estimated only 2,000 Christians remain in the city, according to the Associated Press.

“We want to show support for the people there and raise awareness as to what is happening to them,” Davoodian said. “Something must be done to help them.”

The gathering Friday afternoon outside Turlock’s City Hall drew a crowd of about 100 people. Additional demonstrations were held in San Jose, Phoenix, and Chicago, as part of an ongoing campaign by the Assyrian America National Federation. The federation has sent about $15,000 to Iraq to help some of the displaced families and will continue to send support.

On Thursday, 55 members of Congress called on the Obama Administration to do more to help protect religious minorities in Iraq.

In a letter to the president spearheaded by Reps. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA), co-chairs of the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus, the bipartisan group of House Members urged the Obama Administration to actively engage with the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government to prioritize additional security support for especially vulnerable populations, notably Iraq’s ancient Christian community and provide emergency humanitarian assistance to those affected communities.

“Absent immediate action, we will most certainly witness the annihilation of an ancient faith community from the lands they’ve inhabited for centuries,” the group wrote.

Davoodian said the local group is hoping to gain the attention of Rep. Jeff Denham and garner his support. They also plan to schedule more awareness events in the coming weeks and months as needed.

The Associated Press contributed to this story