To paraphrase William Shakespeare, “Something is rotten in the state of Iraq.” Something is definitely rotten when the second-largest minority, the third-largest ethnicity and the only indigenous group in Iraq is nearly shut out of the political process and is the target of violence by Arabs, Kurds, Muslims and terrorists. On August 1, six of their churches were bombed, five more were attacked on October 16, and there is a long list of violence against them.
I am referring to the Assyrians, also known as Chaldeans and Syriacs. They are the only people native to Iraq, and they are Christian. We all know the Assyrians from our ancient history classes, or from the Bible; they are the builders of the great Mesopotamian civilizations when that area, now Iraq, was the center of the civilized world.
“What?” you may ask. “Are they still around? I thought they went the way of the dodo.” Well, not quite.
The Assyrian Empire was overthrown in 612 B.C. by the ancestors of today’s Kurds, the Medes (with the help of others). The Assyrians survived as a people. They converted to Christianity in 33 A.D., accepting the Gospel from St. Thomas, St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew, and thereafter embarked on establishing their second empire, the Church of the East, which reached to Mongolia, Korea, China, Japan and the Philippines. The influence of the Church of the East is seen to this day across the Asian continent. The Mongolian alphabet, which was first set down by Assyrian monks, uses Aramaic letters (because Assyrians speak Aramaic), and the hierarchical structure of Buddhism is modeled after the Church of the East. In fact, “Tora Bora” is an Assyrian phrase meaning “arid mountain."
Assyrians have lived in northern Iraq since 5000 B.C. The Arabs entered Iraq in 630 A.D. from Saudi Arabia and the Kurds came in 1050 A.D. from southwest Iran. The Turks are from Anatolia. Yet, despite their long history in the region, there is systematic discrimination against and disenfranchisement of Assyrians. They suffer deep-seated racial and religious bigotry because Assyrians 1) are Assyrians, 2) are Christians and 3) have their own language (modern Aramaic).
This is not a new problem. Assyrians have been the object of hate and discrimination since the coming of Islam, which treated them as Dhimmis, “people of the book,” recognized by the Koran yet treated as second-class citizens. What is new is the political context they find themselves in today. The sweeping changes brought about by the liberation of Iraq certainly have offered opportunities for the Assyrians, and they have managed to take advantage of them. However, the battle has been bitterly fought, even for the few and modest gains the Assyrians have made.
Though the Assyrians number an estimated 1.5 to 2 million (not 800,000, as is widely parroted in the media) people, or about 8 percent of the Iraqi population, they were allotted only 1 of 25 ministerial positions (Immigration and Refugees, the symbolism of which is not lost on the Assyrians). Percentages dictated that two positions should have gone to them. In contrast, the Kurds, numbering 3 million (12 percent), gained five positions, and the Turks, who number only 250,000 (1 percent), gained 1 position. Of the 100 seats in the Iraqi National Assembly, Assyrians gained four, while Kurds gained 25 and Turks gained eight.
Add to this political marginalization the violence targeted at the Assyrians—violence that has no direct military, economic or political effect other than the intended creation of a general sense of mass panic—and it is no wonder that some Assyrians feel there is no future for them in Iraq. It is reported that 40,000 have left Iraq since the August 1 church bombings.
It is this religious, bigoted violence that has concerned the Assyrian community the most. Political maneuvering and machinations are understandable, and are expected in any electoral process, but the specter of massacre, pogrom and genocide strikes a resounding chord in the Assyrian psyche. Assyrians have so frequently suffered both small- and large-scale genocides, the fear is deeply rooted in their subconscious. Since 630 A.D., the coming of Islam, Assyrians have suffered 33 genocides at the hands of Muslims—an average of one every 40 years. The worst one occurred in World War I, between 1915 and 1918, when 75 percent of Assyrians (750,000) were killed by Kurds and Turks. One of the first official acts of the newly formed Iraqi state, having just gained its independence from a British mandate in 1932, was to massacre 3,000 Assyrians in the village of Simmele and its surroundings on August 7-11, 1933.
The similarity between 2003 and 1933 has not escaped the Assyrians. The political disenfranchisement and religious violence have prompted Assyrians, particularly those in the Diaspora, who have more freedom to speak, to call for the establishment of an Assyrian Administrative Area—a safe haven—lest history repeat itself and they again suffer large-scale massacres. There is legal justification for such an administrative area in article 53D of the Transitional Administrative Law of Iraq, which states, “This Law shall guarantee the administrative, cultural, and political rights of the Turcomans, ChaldoAssyrians, and all other citizens.” To date, Assyrians have not fully enjoyed these privileges, even in the Kurdish areas, where the Kurds have applied to the Assyrians the same intimidation, terror, marginalization and violent tactics that Saddam applied to them.
The case of the Assyrians in Iraq is being closely observed by other Middle Eastern Christian and non-Muslim communities, such as the non-Muslim Yezidis and Mandeans of Iraq, the Christian Copts of Egypt and Maronites of Lebanon. As the Director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House, Nina Shea recently called Assyrians “canaries in a coal mine." What happens to them will have effect far beyond Iraq’s borders, for they are the litmus test of the establishment of democracy in the Middle East. True democracies protect their minorities. Failure to protect the Assyrians of Iraq will embolden other Middle Eastern regimes to persecute their Christian minorities. On the other hand, protection of the Assyrians will be seen as a true paradigm shift in the way Middle Eastern regimes treat their Christian minorities.
Why is the Assyrian case important to America? It is a matter of moderating Islam, the source of the terrorist threat against America and the rest of the non-Muslim world. If Middle Eastern Muslims can learn to be tolerant, to accept and even protect their Christian minorities, they will set the example for the world’s mainstream Muslims and provide an alternative to the message of Osama bin Laden and the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia. The Assyrians are a moderating presence in Iraq. They are a highly educated group and their departure from Iraq would, in the words of Nina Shea, “substantially reduce Iraq's prospects of developing as a pluralistic and democratic society. Their leaving would be not only a ‘brain drain’ but a ‘sane drain’ as well.”
Failure to establish a new and democratic Iraq will be seen as a defeat of America and as a victory for the terrorists, and in such a case none of us would be safe. America simply cannot afford to fail in Iraq. In addition, the United States must insure that the Assyrians remain in Iraq and have full political, economic and social participation. Lastly, Americans must not refrain from standing up for Assyrians for fear of being perceived as “pro-Christian.” It is vital that America remain true to the principles of democracy and support all minorities in Iraq, even if they are Christian.