LONDON — Iraq’s 1.2 million Assyrian Christians — remnants of the Assyrian empire and the only people who still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ — are once again the victims of circumstances beyond their control. Unlike the Kurds, the Assyrians are all but ignored in discussions over Iraq’s future.
Over the centuries the Assyrians have been oppressed by the Persians, Mongols, Turks, Kurds and Arabs. In World War I, they lost nearly two-thirds of their population, including their archbishop.
Iraq’s Assyrian Christians are centered in three main areas — approximately 200,000 in their traditional homeland in northern Iraq, 1 million in central Iraq — mostly in Baghdad — and a few thousand more in southern Iraq.
Approximately 4 million Assyrian Christians live outside Iraq, primarily in Iran, Syria, Jordan, Canada, the United States, Australia and Europe.
Wilfred Alkhas, editor of an Assyrian Diaspora magazine, notes that “one of the little known facts concerning the Middle East is the role of the Christians. Before the rise of Khomeini in Iran, Islam was generally a tolerant religion. Large groups of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and others lived peacefully in majority Muslim populations for generations throughout the Middle East.”
Following the radicalization of Islam, however, up to 70 percent of the Christians in the Middle East left, having found it impossible to live under such oppressive conditions.
Now, particularly in the “no-fly zone” protected by the British and U.S. militaries, Iraqi Assyrian Christians are rebuilding their churches. They have built 40 schools, and nearly 8,000 children are being taught Aramaic for the first time in generations.
Assyrians have had a difficult life under the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Although they are not Arabs, they have been forced by the government to sign forms that require them to renounce their ethnic identity, religion and to declare themselves to be Arabs under a program aimed at “Arabizing” all citizens. Hania Mufti of Human Rights Watch has called this “a form of ethnic cleansing.”
Currently Iraq’s Assyrian Christians are in an extremely precarious situation. Unlike the Kurds of northern Iraq, who receive U.N. aid, and unlike the Turkoman minority, who are supported by Turkey, the Assyrians have received no outside support.
An informal Kurdish Parliament has evolved under the umbrella of the no-fly zone. However the Assyrians living in this area have been granted only five of its 105 seats. They are extremely apprehensive of any post-Hussein government, fearing that even that small representation may be taken away.
In a recent interview on Fox TV network, a representative of the Iraqi opposition said, “Our goal is to restore a free Iraq on all Arab territory.”
This comment, which specifically omits mention of the Kurdish territory, hints that the welfare of Iraq’s Assyrian Christians will once again be placed in jeopardy. In the absence of international assurances of independence, they could once again be at the mercy of Muslim Kurds, who have slaughtered them in the past.
The U.S. State Department is now trying to assemble a coalition of Iraqi nationalist groups to establish a future government. As the only non-Islamic group participating in this process, the Assyrian Christians are at a considerable disadvantage.
According to Assyrian Carlo Ganteh, “It has been our prayer for generations that we will be able to regain our country. Assyria was promised a nation under the League of Nations Treaty of Serves in 1928. Assyrians should first have an autonomous zone in northern Iraq centered around the city of Nineveh, present-day Mosul, and then form an independent nation.”
Assyrians from Europe, the U.S., Asia and the Middle East met in London recently for the first time to draw up plans for a post-Hussein Iraq. Discussions covered the establishment of political parties, what land would constitute an independent Assyria and a constitution.
One of the participants summed up the feelings of most Assyrians when he said, “Our greatest fear if there is a regime change in Iraq is that there may be a substitution of Saddam’s tyranny for a new tyranny.”
Experts fear that in the event of a collapse of the current government, the Assyrians, sandwiched between the Kurds and the Arabs, could face a blood bath.
The Assyrians face external dangers as well. Following the election of an Islamic-oriented government in Turkey, threats have been made in Ankara to seize territory in northern Iraq in the event Baghdad is defeated.
The leaders of the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan publicly say they have no plans to establish an independent Kurdistan, but in recent weeks they have drawn up a constitution, convened their Parliament and taken other steps to establish an independent Kurdistan encompassing the Assyrian Christian areas.
The next few months will be extremely crucial as plans for a post-Hussein Iraq are finalized.
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