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Assyrian suffering overlooked in Iraq

Charles Rice | Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Assyrians have lived in Iraq since 5,000 B.C. Ethnically distinct from Arabs and Kurds, they are Christians and speak neo-Aramaic, similar to the language of Christ. They include Chaldean Catholic, Apostolic Catholic and Syriac Orthodox churches.

“In Iraq,” Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako, of Kirkuk, said last April, “Christians are dying, the Church is disappearing under … persecution, threats and violence … by extremists who are leaving us no choice: conversion or exile.”

Last June, the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) issued a report, “Incipient Genocide: The Ethnic Cleansing of Assyrians in Iraq.” In 2003, Christians and smaller non-Muslim groups were about one million of Iraq’s 26 million people. Probably 50 percent have now fled the country. Persecution began after the Gulf War and escalated after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. AINA reported that from 1995 to 2002 there were 19 murders of Assyrians in Iraq, with none in 1996, 2000 and 2001. From 2003 to June 2007 there were 370. Assyrians and other Christians have been attacked by Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and al-Qaeda in every part of Iraq. The Assyrians, with no tribal structure, military or militia, are defenseless. Since the coming of Islam in 630 A.D., noted AINA, Assyrians have suffered thirty “genocides at the hands of Muslims,” several in the 20th century. They experienced comparative safety and tolerance under the oppressive but secular regime of Saddam Hussein.

Since the fall of Saddam, the persecution has intensified, with the added motive that many Iraqi Christians who speak English have worked for Americans. The AINA study, however, confirms that the persecution is primarily religious. Last October, for instance, Ayad Tariq, a 14-year-old Assyrian in Baquba, was accosted at his place of employment by insurgents who asked if he was a “Christian sinner.” “Yes,” he replied, “I am a Christian, but I am not a sinner.” The insurgents quickly pronounced him a “dirty Christian sinner” and, shouting “Allahu akbar!,” beheaded him. Also last October, Father Paulos Iskander was kidnapped in Mosul. His head, arms and legs were severed from his body.

AINA graphically described many attacks since 2003, which we can only summarize here. Five priests have been kidnapped and released after ransom was paid. 33 churches have been attacked or bombed since June 2004. At least 13 young women have been abducted and raped, causing some of them to commit suicide. Female students have been targeted in Basra and Mosul for not wearing veils; some had nitric acid squirted on their faces. Elders of a village in Mosul were warned not to send females to universities. The Madhi Army circulated a letter warning all Christian women to veil themselves. Al-Qaeda moved into an Assyrian neighborhood and began collecting the jizya tax and demanding that females be sent to the mosque to be married off to Muslims. Assyrian businesses have been targeted, especially stores selling alcohol, radios, TVs and music. On the night of Sept. 7, 2005, a fire, with arson suspected, destroyed or damaged more than 500 Assyrian shops in Dora. The fire trucks did not arrive for hours. The owners had to watch from their homes. If they violated curfew, they would be shot. Property of Christians has been confiscated by Kurds and Shiites. The Kurds blocked foreign aid for Assyrian communities and diverted water and other resources from Assyrians to Kurds. Kurdish forces blockaded Assyrian villages. Children have been kidnapped and transferred to Kurdish families.

The Assyrians and their supporters urge, in the words of Doctor Nina Shea of the Center for Religious Freedom, the “establishment of a new autonomous district,” in the Nineveh Plains “that would be jointly governed” by Assyrians and smaller religious groups. Unfortunately, as Shea stated on Aug. 27, 2007, “there has been no progress” on creating “a Nineveh province” and “U.S. policy … runs counter to the initiative. When asked about such a haven, the State Department’s Iraq policy coordinator, David Satterfield, told me that it is ‘against U.S. policy to further sectarianism.’ The administration has not even brought together … leaders of Iraq’s non-Muslim minorities to discuss solutions.”

Meanwhile, the mayhem continues. Father Ragheed Ganni and three deacons were assassinated by gunmen as they drove from a church in Mosul after Mass on June 3, 2007. Their car was bobby-trapped by the gunmen to prevent retrieval of the bodies. On June 19, at a Mass for Father Ganni and the deacons in Southfield, Michigan, Chaldean Catholic Bishop Ibrahim N. Ibrahim called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Bishop Ibrahim has a point. One result of the Iraq War has been to expose the Assyrians and other Christians to genocidal repression by all the major Muslim groups who appear to be of one mind on this. But the U.S. should not leave Iraq without ensuring the safety of those minorities in their homeland.

Bishop Ibrahim is entitled to make his point, because in December, 2002, he warned the United States against “going to war, which will be a disaster for the whole region, not only for the Iraqi people.” Nor was he the only Chaldean prelate to do so. On Jan. 9, 2003, Chaldean Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad warned that “the war threatens our children, our elderly, our sick and our young.” We can now add to that list the Christians who are about to disappear from Iraq. As Shea put it, “The very existence of these non-Muslims within Iraq may soon be extinguished under pervasive persecution that the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees says is targeted against them due to religion.” President Bush should have listened to the Chaldeans.

Professor emeritus Charles Rice is on the faculty of the Law School. He can be reached at rice.1@nd.edu or (574) 633-4415.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.