Turlockers send message to Iraq

2831a1.jpgLocal Assyrians gather at City Hall to protest change in Iraqi law

Staff reporter

Turlock is about 7,500 miles from Baghdad, Iraq, as the crow flies. On a plane, that trip might take 15 hours-or more, depending on how fortunate you are with connections-but on the Internet that journey can be made almost instantaneously.

It’s that nonstop stream of ones and zeroes flashing across undersea fiber optic cables which makes a rally held in front of Turlock City Hall yesterday have potentially worldwide implications in a battle for recognition and religious equality.

Assyrian Chaldean Syriac community message boards and forums have been abuzz in recent weeks, perhaps more so than at any time since the fall of Saddam Hussein. According to the protesters in front of City Hall, that’s because there has never been another time when the future of Iraq’s Christian population was so in question.

The turmoil started Sept. 24 when, seemingly out of nowhere, a portion of the Iraqi Provincial Law, Article 50, was voted down.

International organizations such as the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization have seen Article 50 as an absolutely essential piece of legislation in protecting the rights of minority groups in Iraq. The law reserved 15 seats in provincial councils for certain at-risk ethnic and religious groups such as Assyrians, Mandaeans, Chabaks, Turkmen, and Yezidis.

When Article 50 was stricken from the law, Turlock’s sizable Assyrian population sat up and took notice. Yesterday, more than 50 people gathered in front of City Hall to denounce the elimination of Article 50 with a peaceful demonstration that lasted from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Assyrian television stations were recording the demonstration for broadcast via satellite in the Assyrian homeland, while cameras were flashing incessantly to document the speeches, signs, and flags for the blogs and forums that will be read by Iraqis.

“This will get back to Iraq,” said Charles Givargis, Executive Director of the Assyrian Democratic Movement of Stanislaus County. “Our people are protesting all over the world.”

In the past weeks, demonstrations have occurred wherever a large Assyrian Chaldean Syriac community is gathered, ranging from Los Angeles to Canada. Each rally has played heavily in the online world, providing major talking points in Iraq-and Washington.

Givargis hopes that this worldwide display of opposition will put pressure on the Iraqi Government. As the Iraqi Parliament could review Article 50 again as soon as next week, time is short to convince legislators to endorse what they just voted down.

The reinstatement of Article 50 is absolutely essential to ensure that Iraq remains a democratic nation, in the view of the Turlock protesters. After all, if you take away that most basic of human rights in a democratic community-the right to representation for the more than 800,000 Christians in Iraq-“then you just basically don’t exist,” Givargis said.

“We denounce the Kurdo-Islamic Republic of Iraq,” said Ann-Margret Yonan, an independent Assyrian who was present for the demonstration.

According to Yonan, Article 50 was pulled because there hadn’t been a census done in recent years to verify that minorities lived in certain areas. Rather than execute what Yonan saw as the obvious solution-conducting a census to verify the presence of minority groups-the parliament instead moved to pull the issue completely.

“Our people have been living there for 7,000 years now, of course we’re going to be (living in those regions,) we’ve never left,” Yonan said.

Reports have recently come in that some Assyrian Chaldean Syriac people are leaving their homelands, though generally not of their own volition.

The Iraqi city of Mosul has been the site of what some are referring to as an ethnic cleansing executed against Iraqi Christians in recent weeks. According to Givargis, more than 1,200 Assyrian households have been abandoned, 14 Assyrians have been killed, and three houses have been blown up.

In the Kurdish region, the Assyrian Democratic Movement, the only Assyrian political party represented in the Iraqi Parliament, was denied a license to hold a demonstration to discuss the problems facing Assyrians at present. However, according to Givargis, demonstration permits were issued to other Christians who were working for the Kurds to offer the opposite perspective.

Givargis referred to these events transpiring in Iraq as a “systematic holocaust.” He said that statements had been made in Iraqi Parliament attributing the attacks to the Kurdish Government and Police Force, causing Assyrians to flee en masse to the undeveloped plains of Ninevah.

Many of the Assyrians who now live in the Turlock area, were once fleeing from an oppressive regime themselves. All those protesting yesterday seemed to feel a strong connection with their countrymen at home.

Full families stood united in front of Turlock City Hall in a show of solidarity. Among them was Shaun Toma, 17, a member of a local Assyrian Chaldean youth group who saw it as his generation’s duty to follow in the footsteps of their fathers.

“Even though we’re not living there, it’s our people,” said Toma. “We have a role to play in keeping it safe.”

To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.