Whither the Assyrian Christians of Iraq?

550×1.jpgBy Eden Naby & Jamsheed Choksy
As 2011 came to a close, Iraq’s Christians prayed ‘for peace, goodwill, and that they will make it until next Christmas alive.‘ They know their situation is precarious.

Assyrian, or Chaldean Christians are the last ethno-religious group still using Aramaic – the language spoken by Jesus Christ and the people among whom he preached. Iraq is a country to which those Assyrians, a community that dates from the first century AD, are indigenous. Iran, where they also are experiencing increased restrictions on their religious freedom, is another ancient homeland.

On October 31, 2010, suicide bombers from the Islamic State of Iraq, a pro-al-Qaeda group, massacred 58 parishioners during a bloody siege at a Chaldean church in Baghdad. It was only the most publicized of what, by then, were numerous assaults. Every year since U.S. forces ousted Saddam Hussein’s regime has witnessed attacks on Assyrian and other Christian churches, schools and neighborhoods by religiously-intolerant factions within Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities.

It is ironic that defeat of a brutal dictator, in the cause of liberty and safety for Iraqis and the world, lifted constraints which held sectarian violence at bay. It is equally lamentable that Iraq’s elected government has failed to ensure freedom of belief and security of life and property for those who do not subscribe to the majority faith.

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Eden Naby & Jamsheed Choksy Iraq

So what will 2012 bring for those Assyrians clinging to their ancestral faith in their birthplace of Iraq?

Iraq’s society has been in political, societal and religious transition since the end of Baathist rule. Battles for the religious future of Iraq have not been confined to bloodletting along the longstanding intra-Muslim schism between Shiites and Sunnis. Even as fundamentalists in those two branches of Islam have attacked each other for supremacy, they have also steadily decimated the minority Christian community.

Numbering 1.4 million prior to 2003, there are less than 500,000 of them remaining in Iraq today. So, religious struggles convulsing Iraqi society have seriously escalated the decline of one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East. If the recent past is any warning, 2012 will bring more assaults intended to reduce their numbers even further.

Shiite fundamentalism in Iran, on Iraq’s eastern border, has served as a draconian model of discrimination against Assyrians. In the words of a leading hardline Iranian ayatollah, Ahmad Jannati, Christians, like other religious minorities, are ‘sinful animals who roam the earth and engage in corruption.’ Daily discrimination in economic, educational and social settings combined with assassination of their clergymen have dwindled Iran’s Assyrians from more than 100,000 prior to 1979 to 58,000 in 1987 and less than 15,000 in recent years. Those terrible actions have inappropriately inspired Shiite and Sunni fundamentalists in Iraq.

So, unfortunately, it is in post-liberation Iraq that Assyrian Christians have been subjected to the most indiscriminate religious violence. The present Iraqi administration has exerted little effort to safeguard this community of citizens. They have been threatened, kidnapped, brutalized, raped, even tortured and killed in large numbers. Many Assyrians have no option but to flee to other parts of the Middle East and to the West after abandoning all their possessions. They now make up over 40 percent of all Iraqi refugees despite originally constituting less than 3 percent of Iraq’s population.
Many attacks come from Wahhabi and al-Qaeda affiliates demanding Iraq become a fundamentalist Islamic state. Similarly, Shiite leaders linked to the Iraqi government, such as Muqtada al-Sadr and the remnants of his Mahdi Army, openly threaten and assault Christians who do not follow Muslim practices like wearing the veil. Customary in medieval times, monetary fines levied by Islamists upon churches and practitioners are becoming commonplace once again as a financial mechanism to force conversion to Islam.

Now, as Iraq’s central government wrestles with its own internal political divisions while trying to maintain control of a nation from which American forces who bolstered it have departed, the rights and safety of minorities like Assyrian Christians are receiving even shorter shrift.

Until recently, Iraq’s largely autonomous northern Kurdish region served as a safe haven for Christians fleeing persecution in cities like Basra and Baghdad, but that too is changing. The Kurdish Regional Government’s attempt to annex oil-rich eastern Ninawa province, largely inhabited by Assyrians, is pressuring Christians to relinquish lands their families have lived on for centuries. So, while a contract between ExxonMobil and the Kurdish authorities for petroleum extraction may benefit the region, it could lead to further displacement of Assyrians from their towns like Bashiqa, Tel Kaif (Tel Keppe) and Baghdeda (Bakhdida).

As part of the push to oust Christians, organized gangs of young men targeted Assyrian-owned businesses for destruction in the town of Zakho along Iraq’s north border with Turkey on December 2, while similarly planned attacks took place in at least five other cities at the same time. Kidnapping of Assyrians for ransom has also been on the rise within the Kurdish-held region in recent months – again targeting the community’s socio-economic means of survival.

Over the past few years, Assyrians could seek intervention from U.S. soldiers and officials to ensure safety and obtain redress. Now there are no American troops to protect them from other Iraqis, so Assyrians fear more attacks upon their lives and churches this year. Like their recent Christmas and New Year celebrations, future holy days will be muted and down-played, especially in public, lest further wrath be directed against them as kafirs or ‘infidels.’

Yet, despite their travails, the star of faith continues to inspire and guide them. Many Assyrians see both religion and country as birthrights that should be cherished. They regard modern Iraq, its strife notwithstanding, as but the most recent manifestation of their community’s homeland. Iraqi society, they still hope, will regain its multi-religious framework and ensure fundamental freedoms prevail one day in the future.