Archive for May 2007

Emptying Baghdad of Assyrians, One Region at a Time

Not too long ago, it seemed like the serious violence in Baghdad, wasn’t a serious deterrent for Assyrians to leave their homes in the Iraqi capital and depart. In fact, even now, it takes much more than violence and threats of killing and kidnapping to drive the resilient Assyrians from their homes, in mostly Sunni Western Baghdad. With the city of Dora being the epicenter of this new violence against Assyrians and Christians, things have been moving at a very rapid pace in the last few weeks.

Although Sunni insurgents have been the dominant force in this formerly peaceful region of Baghdad, things have changed dramatically. Unless serious action is taken against these insurgents and terrorists groups, Dora and other parts of Baghdad could risk becoming empty of Assyrian inhabitant. This could mean a serious blow to decades, even centuries old of a beautiful mix of different ethnic Iraqi groups living in one city.

It all started about a few weeks ago, when terrorists groups led by Al-Qaeda elements, started giving the Assyrians in the area three choices: to either leave and not collect any of your belonging. Or stay, and pay a monthly Jizya (Islamic protection tax from the times of the Khalifat and Abbaisen rule) Or you can stay, be protected and pay no protection tax, but pay the ultimate price for your soul: convert to Islam from

“If not stopped immediately, this could eat into the very unity and foundation of the Iraqi society”

Christianity. You wonder what would give these groups these extra powers to rise and demand this of the Christians in the region. Last time I checked, Dora is in the city of Baghdad, the same city where there has been a 3-month old security crack-down between US and Iraqi security forces. It is mind-boggling that extremists and Jihadists would be left to roam in the area freely, as it is it an island on its own. Dora is not a small city, relatively speaking. But it deserves every bit of attention from Iraqi and coalition forces, to pacify it and declare it back to its rightful owners and the Iraqi government.

Assyrians may have to leave the city or parts of the city for now. But there will come a time, when these inhabitants who have lived in this city for decades, are returned home and be given all that they owned and had before. Moreover, the same goes for our churches in the area, which have been abandoned, and its crosses and other of its religious symbols removed and ransacked. Again, last time I checked, we are living in the 21st century, and in the city in question is part of Baghdad. So when will the US military turn its attention to this city? A city whose recapture is vital to the victory in Baghdad, and a huge psychological boost.

Things continue to deteriorate. Assyrians and Iraqis alike, living outside of Iraq, feel helpless. But there is a few things we can do. For one, we have to raise the voice of reason, and let the world know about what is happening. People have a general idea about the violence in Iraq and Baghdad, but can’t be bothered by the specifics of it and who the victim of this violence is. Assyrians need to raise hell and pressure the US and Iraqi government to do something. Sooner or later, we will need to build not one, not two but three or more Baghdad Walls, to separate amongst all of its various ethnic and religious communities.

Ironically, this is also a time for our churches to come together and unite, because this hits home and close. More can be done by the Sunni community itself as well. A lot of pressure has to be put on Sunni states neighboring Iraq, especially Saudi Arabia, to denounce such terrorist and racist acts. As well, pressure has to be put on Harish al-Thari, the influential Sunni head of the ‘Association of Muslim Scholars’ who has ties to the insurgency. A simple public denouncement from him against the acts of violence against Assyrians, can go a long way. Al-Thari has been out of Iraq for over a year now, and is wanted by Iraqi authorities on charges of supporting the insurgency.

The threat is real and serious, and some have expressed concern that Christians in Iraq today, could become the Jewish of Iraq from last century: both going extinct. There are many differences between the two, which will not make a total exit of Christians from Iraq, a very likely future scenario. But it is serious enough for the UN, Iraqi government, US government and world governments everywhere to do something. Iraqis have also got to realize that this violence against Christians has already been committed against Shiites and other ethnic groups. Shiites have largely and long abandoned the Dora region. So if anything, this concerns all Iraqis, because their very national unity is at stake. If not stopped immediately, this could eat into the very unity and foundation of the Iraqi society

As I write about the damage being done to Assyrians and their churches in the Dora region, I could feel my father shaking in his grave: he happens to be the Assyrian engineer who built the beautiful St.George church in Dora.

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Forgotten Christians of Mesopotamia; the Assyrians

HTML clipboard By: Alkan Chaglar

Assyrians have lived in South-Eastern Anatolia, Northern Iraq, Eastern Syria and Western Iran since times of antiquity. Living beneath the shadow of poplar and mulberry trees amid crimson poppies swaying in the wind, they number no more than a million in the entire region. Praying as their ancestors had done for over a thousand years in small earth-coloured churches surmounted by a dome and joined by a tower with plangent church bells, the community are descendants of a once great empire. The Assyrian empire once extended from the Zagros Mountains in the East to the coast of Lebanon. The Assyrians who are also known more generally under the umbrella terms for Nestorian Christians are not ‘Christian Arabs’ as some people believe, but speak a Semitic language, called Syriac. Although semblable to both Arabic and Hebrew, the language pre-dates both languages and is one of the oldest languages in the region.

The community has always been entrepreneurial, leading an active economic role in the jewellery trade in Turkey. Their presence is quite strong in the rambunctious Grand Bazaar of Istanbul. Assigned to the role of ‘good jewellers’ the community is often overlooked by both the government and the media, which tend to focus on the situation of the more numerous Kurdish population.
Living in five mostly Muslim states in the Middle-East has often put the Assyrians in the line of fire. Assyrians claim to have been victim to a genocide committed by the Ottoman Turks, indeed, according to historian F.P.Isaac in the early part of the 20th century the Ottomans, faced with the break-up of their empire, expelled thousands of Assyrians. Sadly, matters did not improve much in the secular Republic of Turkey, which followed. From a presence of 130,000 Assyrians in the 1960s the number has dwindled down to 5000 today, of which only 2000 of which reside in South East of Anatolia.

Faced with ‘greater problems’ the Turkish state policy has done little to include the Assyrians in recent years to feel apart of the secular state that Turkey purports to be. This has fuelled the steady immigration of the community abroad.
Life is not much better for the Assyrians in neighbouring countries either. The Iraqi Chaldean-Assyrian minority was one of the prime targets of the Ba’athist party for their role in collaborating with the British during their occupation of Iraq. Today in post-Ba’athist Iraq Assyrians find themselves the target of Islamic fundamentalists and insurgents who hold them to blame for the actions of the ‘Christian occupiers’, the Americans and the British. Faced with growing Arabisation and Kurdification of Northern Iraq, Assyrians have been making a steady exit from Iraq to the West, where they account for most Iraqi immigrants.

In Turkey, Assyrians are recognised as a religious minority and not as an ethnic minority like the Armenians, this might seem as a simple difference in terminology but in fact it is quite a crippling status for the community. Unlike the Armenians, Assyrians still cannot teach in their own language, so this indigenous community is left manacled by the state. Being prevented from teaching one’s ancestral language to future generations of that community has been one of the key factors forcing this community to leave the country in recent decades.
Fortunately, the EU factor in Turkey coupled with the end of the worst fighting between the PKK and Security Forces in he 1990s is beginning to provide short term benefits to small minorities like the Assyrians, as the government in Ankara seeks to harmonise many of her own policies with those of the EU. Conditions are now improving for the community, which was previously on the brink of extinction in the region. An interest in Assyrian culture and its benefits for tourism is currently been explored and even the Turkish governor now visits the community to offer his support. Five years ago during the height of violence between the PKK and the Turkish security forces this would have not been possible.

With funds from the European Union, Istanbul Bilgi University opened an Assyrian cultural centre in the town of Midyat on the 29th of April 2006 for the first time and last year the city of Mardin hosted the first international symposium of Mardin history. Some Assyrians from the diaspora have repatriated to their ancestral region in recent years.
However, many of the children of those returning diaspora can only speak Syriac and have little knowledge of Turkish, faced with an absence of classes in Syriac, they are being prevented from a proper education. The absence of schools that teach Syriac is the result of an unofficial monoculturalist state policy aimed at Turkicisation preventing communities like the Assyrians from learning their language, while on the other hand encouraging the new arrivals to forget theirs.

Without downplaying the positive reforms in Turkey, the state, which strives to be secular and a “garden of different flowers” needs not only to be cognizant of the diversity of their country but needs to put this into educational policy. Policy makers that are negotiating Turkey’s EU accession can encourage the teaching and use of minority or regional languages without being detrimental to the use of official languages. It should be government policy to promote, protect, and preserve the Indigenous languages of the Republic; this would be mutually beneficial to both the ethnic group and the state in whose confines they reside.

While Assyrians are faced with uncertainty in Iraq and Iran, where insurgents are keen to destroy multiculturalism, Turkey should set a precedent by not just promoting multi-faith communities but multi-lingualism as well. Language like religion is a fundamental part of a community’s identity; it is used to transmit a community’s history, poetry, music and literature that will be forever lost without it. Like other minorities elsewhere without schooling in their own language, the future generations of Assyrians will be bereft of a future and unequal in their rights as Turkish citizens. The Turkish state needs to break away from post-independence policies of Turkicisation and extend full citizenship to all her citizens.

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