Obama, UN, EU, Please, We Need a Safe Haven

We have started a worldwide campaign called A Demand For Action and we will rally and call our politicians until the day our people are safe. This picture is from one of the rallies in Sweden. Below is why.

Crushing text message received today from Nineveh, Iraq:

“Rabi, all crosses are destroyed. All Bibles are burned. It’s Seyfo. Kurds could not hold D’ash* back. We wanted to fight. We wanted to stay and protect Nineveh but they are too many, they have many heavy weapon. We are sorry that we could not protect our beloved homeland but we had to protect our children and sisters and wives. Rabi, where is UN? Where is NATO? Where is EU and US? Where is Putin? Nobody cares about us. We are fleeing from one place to another, we are exhausted. Forgive us for not being able to fight for Nineveh. 7th of August the day of our Martyr’s in Simeli. I am writing probably the same thing your granddad wrote to mine. We are betrayed. We are being massacred and nobody cares. We speak the language of Jesus, we are the first Christians but the Christian world has forgotten us. We are the indigenous people of Nineveh and everybody wants to see us killed. Please, please do what you can to stop this Genocide.”

That message came today. This is my people, my story and my legacy.

He looks straight into the camera: his hands are tied behind his back. He is on his knees. Raymond, a 21 year old Christian Assyrian, has been accused by Al-Qaida of having worked for the Americans in Mosul, Iraq. After his hooded captors read out his apparent crime, they behead him. The knife is slow. It takes Raymond a while to die.

This was 2005, and it was the first video I had seen of a Christian man beheaded in Iraq. Since then, footage of non-Muslims tortured and executed in the Middle East has become increasingly familiar to me, and Middle Eastern refugees fleeing persecution have been arriving weekly to my hometown of Södertälje, Sweden.

It is a small community of only 80,000, but it has become a safe haven for Middle Eastern minorities. When I travel in the Middle East, and during phone conversations with Christians or Mandeans* all over the world, it seems like everybody has heard of Södertälje, or has relatives, friends, or former neighbors who live there now.

With the emergence of the Islamic State, the persecution and expulsion of the most vulnerable communities of the region has entered an even more extreme phase — something I have warned for in report after the other for a decade.

Now the Islamic State (a.k.a ISIS) has boastfully raped, killed, and pillaged its way through all the territory it has seized, destroying everything and everyone in its path that doesn’t conform to its mindless and narrow ideology.

In Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, they tagged the homes of the Christians with ‘N’ for ‘Nasrany’ (‘Christian’ in Arabic), the first gesture to demonstrate its intention to get rid of the last remaining Christians in Iraq and Syria. Most Christians fled leaving everything behind them, and the belongings they took with were taken away from them by IS members at checkpoints.

As we speak, IS is decimating the Yezidis* of northern Iraq: tens of thousands of these proud people await death on the Sinjar mountain, having been expelled from their homes. How many that have been killed nobody knows.

These facts make it likely that the exodus to my little town in Sweden will once again peak. That is, provided those fleeing can even make it to Europe.

I came to Södertälje in 1974 from Germany when I was nine years old. My mom and dad were guest workers in Germany: they had two jobs each and worked all day long. They hadn’t had time off work in years; they probably didn’t even know what a vacation was. After all, they came from Midyat, a small Assyrian/Syriac city, in southeast Turkey.

They fled Turkey so their children could have a better life. They didn’t want to feel like second or third class citizens any longer. As Assyrians, they lacked the right to work as government officials, they were not allowed to learn or teach their mother tongue, the same language Jesus spoke, and they were forced to list their Christian religion on their ID cards.

And they were constantly afraid of being subjected to another genocide. Their parents – my grandparents – were all survivors of the Ottoman genocide of 1915, known in their language as Seyfo (“sword”). Turkish military forces and Kurdish militias tore through my family’s city, expelling all Christians and Yezidis and looting their homes. All Christian books were burned: any evidence suggesting that Assyrians actually existed had to be removed. Knowledge and memory had to be eliminated.

My grandmother Meyyo (Meryem) was found in a well along with other members of her family. Around ten others were crouched there with her – all of them dead. Meyyo miraculously survived: a Muslim family, among the perpetrators of the Seyfo, heard her sobs, lifted her out and took her to their home. They gave her a new name and raised her as their own daughter.

Next year marks the centenary of the genocide of the Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians and Yezidis of the Ottoman Empire. And today, on August 7th, it has been 81 years since the 1933 massacre of Assyrians in Simele, Iraq. These are historical tragedies that we will always have to remember and live with. But we had no idea about my grandfather Denho’s trauma. He had a stroke in 2007 and lost touch with reality: his mind began to wander back to 1944 and he thought that he was still in a Turkish prison. In the Swedish hospital room my grandfather would start shouting things like “watch out, they are coming, hide!”

Denho had been dragged behind a horse for several miles because the Turkish police and courts accused him of being a separatist. His crime was that he wanted to teach his children to read and write in his mother tongue. He was tortured for four years in Turkish prison.

My grandparents felt it was important to conceal their wounds and traumas, so that we, their grandchildren, would be protected from fear and grief.

The day after we arrived in Södertälje on that summer day in August 1974, the turmoil in Midyat had started again. My grandfather and my mother sat by the phone all day and tried to get a hold of relatives. The war between Turkey and Greece for control of Cyprus had broken out. The Christians of Turkey, Assyrians and Armenians, were exposed to immediate danger.

The fact that Greece was a predominantly Christian country rendered them enemies of Turkey even though they had lived there for centuries. In Midyat, Muslims put a cross around the neck of a stray dog that was paraded around the city as an act of symbolic humiliation. Christians were told in no uncertain terms that they had two choices: either flee or be killed. My father’s Kurdish friend and his family managed to prevent any killings in Midyat, but Assyrians across the country were terrified. Many are also the Turks that faced imprisonment for protecting their Christian friends in Turkey during the 70’s.

We never went back to Germany. My grandfather decided to gather his family in Sweden in order to save money to send back to Turkey and help our relatives flee. We managed to do that. My sister and I were 7 and 9 years old respectively and we held two jobs. We helped mom and one of my uncles clean a large nightclub and we handed out newspapers. And more Assyrians/Syriacs/Chaldeans from Turkey began to arrive in Södertälje.

Forty years later, Assyrian refugees still come to Södertälje: at least 20 every week, now predominantly from Syria and Iraq. Often, academics and professionals in their own countries – engineers, for example, figure highly in the refugee population – are now forced to work as taxi drivers to make ends meet. Every other inhabitant of Södertälje is said to be a Christian or Mandaean from the Middle East.

Turkey has been nearly emptied of its non-Muslim population. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, over half of the country’s non-Muslims – Christians, Mandaeans and Yezidis – have fled the country. Now it is Syria’s turn to undergo its non-Muslim exodus.

For 12 years, I have reported on the persecution of non-Muslims in this region of the world dominated by Islam. I have interviewed thousands of people, collecting facts and documentation that should spur the world to act. The experiences of my parents and grandparents are being repeated daily in Iraq and Syria.

40,000 Assyrians were forced to flee the city Qarakosh in northern Iraq when the news spread that IS were approaching. The pictures that were sent to me by my friends in the area were illustrations of what my grandfather and others have told me about their experiences in Turkey. The residents of Qaraqosh fled in sheer panic. Traffic was chaotic: thousands of packed cars, at least seven people in each vehicle. Those who could not be accommodated were running between cars, some carrying their children in their arms and some on their backs. Old people were exhausted and stood shaking.

They fled to Dohuk and Erbil in Kurdistan. But they did not feel secure there either, for they knew of the terrible persecution which had visited those cities too. In late 2011, an Islamist mob attacked a range of businesses in Zakho, Dohuk, and surrounding villages owned by Christians and Yezidis – liquor stores, restaurants, beauty parlours – labeling them infidel pigs who must be punished for not following the Quran.

In November of last year I was in constant contact with a friend in the town of Sadad in Syria who told me of the horrors facing Christians there. 45 Assyrians of the Syriac Orthodox Church, mostly women and children, were found in two mass graves. A week later, a stench began to emerge from a well. When it was opened, a family was discovered. They were believed to have fled the invasion of Islamists along with many others. Six people aged between 16 and 90 had started to rot. And just like in the early 1900s in Turkey, churches in the town were destroyed. Last year all the Armenian inhabitants of the Syrian town of Kassab were forced to flee with nothing but the clothes on their body. Their churches were looted. This time the perpetrators are named the Islamic State.

Dora, a neighborhood in Baghdad whose population was almost entirely Christian before the war in 2003, is today a shadow of its former self. Cinemas, theaters, restaurants and cafes have been closed or destroyed. Assyrians and others have been victims of persecution and violence perpetrated by both Shia and Sunni militias. Over 70 churches across Iraq have been bombed or attacked by jihadists.

On September 11th 2007, then Senator Barack Obama wrote a letter to the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in which he asked her what the US government intended to do about the persecution of minorities in Iraq. His letter presented an account of abuse and violence tantamount to genocide. Almost seven years have passed since that letter was written. On 19th June this year, 55 congressmen wrote to the President asking him to immediately take action: to work with the Iraqi government and the KRG to protect Christians and other minorities in Iraq.

On the 16th of July, I spoke to one of the priests in Mosul, Iraq’s second city, which was invaded by IS in June this year. For the first time in over 1600 years, the church bells of Mosul were silent: for six Sundays in a row no church service has been held. Instead, so great has the rush been to cover female bodies following the newly introduced laws of Shari’a requiring that all women wear niqab that Mosul has run out of black cloth.

On the 19 of July ISIS distributed flyers with a message for the Christians of Mosul: “Convert, Die, or Leave.” All the Christians left; their houses were given to Jihadists, members of IS from all over the world. All of their belongings, down to their watches, necklaces and cell phones, were taken from them before they departed.

This week, nine years after Raymond’s murder, I received another video, this time showing the Islamic State beheading an Assyrian. My question to President Obama and the United Nations is this: how many more recorded executions must take place before non-Muslims in the Middle East are granted a safe haven?

Södertãlje is too small to house all those who are fleeing. Even Sweden, previously renowned as the European nation most receptive to Middle Eastern refugees, has reversed its policy towards granting asylum for Christian Iraqis in recent years.

And the destruction of the irreplaceable and priceless Assyrian heritage is devastating. Museums have had their archaeological artefacts stolen; most notably, the Baghdad museum after the invasion in 2003. In Syria, IS are destroying churches and other historic buildings, and according to UNESCO the same destruction of cultural heritage is going on in Iraq.

Assyrians and other minorities in the Middle East must be granted a safe haven in the places where they still constitute a demographic majority, such as Nineveh in Iraq and the city of Qamishly and its environs in northern Syria. If the members of the Security Council of UN do not address the crisis facing non-Muslims in Iraq and Syria and put a stop to ethno-religious cleansing and the destruction of the invaluable cultural heritage of its victims, the organization will have lost its credibility and had its authority undermined once and for all.

*Mandeans are a small reclusive, religious community concentrated in southern Iraq and Iran whose origins predate Christianity.

*Yezidis are an ancient religious minority whose roots are in pre-Islamic Zoroastrianism but also combine certain elements of Christianity and Islam. Denigrated as “devil worshippers” by their persecutors throughout history, they are concentrated primarily in northern Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Armenia.

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