By Ken Joseph Jr.
Special to the ASSIST News Service
LONDON, ENGLAND (ANS) -- With signs of war with Iraq increasing every day, lost amidst the fog of war are a small, once proud and very influential people.
While the Kurds of Northern Iraq are well known, for some reason almost completely ignored in the current discussion are 1.2 million Assyrian Christians living, many in their historic lands in Iraq.
Scattered through Iraq, but primarily near the city of Nineveh, currently known as Mosul, these remnants of the great Assyrian Empire and the only who still speak the language of Jesus - Aramaic - are frozen in time, once again the victims of circumstances beyond their control.
It is their history that is little known. It was to them that Jonah came to bring the message of repentance and they repented. It was to them that the Apostle Thomas came and their King Abgar repented for his people and Assyria in the first century became the first Christian Nation.
The Assyrian Empire ended in BC 612 and the Assyrian Monarchy was abolished in the 4th Century.
It is them that according to the famed historian Kenneth Scott LaTourette in his book “The History of Christianity” became, “The largest Missionary force in history.” They carried Christianity as far as China and Japan with recent discoveries most recently in the Peoples Daily, Chinese Government newspaper dating to AD 86.
According to “Light from the East” by Irwin St. John Tucker, “The center of the Church of the East was first Edessa…throughout the whole of central Asia, Turkestan, Mongolia, China, India and Japan its messengers went checked neither by Siberian Cold nor the head of the Indies. The relics and buildings have been found in all these places.”
But the Assyrians because of their Christian faith have suffered greatly in an area that is almost completely Muslim. Oppressed by the Persians, Mongols, Turks, Kurds and Arabs, in World War I they lost nearly two thirds of their population including their Archbishop and spiritual leader.
Currently the Assyrian Christians in Iraq are centered in three main areas - approximately 200,000 in Northern Iraq, approximately 1,000,000 in Central Iraq, mostly in Baghdad and a third smaller group of a few thousand in Southern Iraq.
Another approximately 4 million Assyrian Christians are outside of Iraq primarily in Iran, Syria, Jordan, Canada, US, Australia and Europe.
According to Wilfred Alkhas, who edits a magazine for the Assyrian Diaspora, “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.”
Now, though particularly under the “No-fly zone” protected by the British and US Military, Churches are being rebuilt and the Assyrians have built 40 schools and nearly 8,000 children are being taught Aramaic for the first time in generations.
Another problem that has plagued the Christians of Iraq is an Iraqi government program to “Arabize” all citizens. Human Rights organizing say that the Assyrian Christians as with other minorities in the region have suffered under the Arabizatoin programs. Although they are not Arabs they have been forced to sign national correction forms that require them to renounce their ethnic ideates, religion and declare themselves to be Arabs.
According to Hania Mufti of Human Rights Watch, it is a form of ethnic cleansing by clearing an area of its ethnic minorities.
Following the radicalization of Islam, though according to sources in the Assyrian Diaspora, perhaps up to 70% of the Christians in the Middle East have left finding it impossible to live under the oppression of radicalized
The reality of the current situation in the Middle East is in many ways more economic than political, as the economic system has basically collapsed giving rise to young men with no hope for a job and a future willing to give their lives for radical ideas that in normal economic times would be unheard of.
One reason for the regions economic depression is that the Christians ran most of the small businesses in the Middle East, which kept the local economies growing. Their departure was in many ways what triggered the present economic collapse.
Muslim law prohibits payment of interest, which is essential to borrow money to create business. Therefore Christian owned small grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants and other small businesses exerting disproportionate leadership. As Christian businessmen fled persecution to Europe and America their businesses in the Middle East closed throwing many Muslims out of work.
Strict interpretation of the Koran, in practice destroys basic business enterprise.
Currently the Assyrian Christians are in an extremely precarious situation. Unlike the Kurds who receive relief through the United Nations and unlike the Turcoman who are supported by Turkey, the Assyrians have had no financial support or relief. They are a minority of Christina in an overwhelmingly Muslim region.
Under the umbrella of the “No Fly Zone” in northern Iraq, an informal Kurdish Parliament has evolved, however the Assyrians have been grudgingly granted only five of its 105 seats. They are extremely fearful of any post-Salaam government and the dramatic changes that may take away even that representation.
In a recent interview on the Fox Television Network, a representative of the Iraqi opposition said, “Our goal is to restore a free Iraq on all Arab territory.” This comment, which specifically leaves out the Kurdish Territory, puts the Assyrian Christians once again in jeopardy as without specific international assurances of their independence they would once again be at the mercy of the Muslim Kurds who have slaughtered them in the past.
Currently the US State Department is attempting to put together a coalition of Iraqi Nationalist Groups to decide on a future Government but the Assyrian Christians as the only non-Islamic group in the mix is at a decided disadvantage.
Iraq for all its faults is a secular nation government by a secular Baath Party. The Vice President, Mr. Tariq Aziz is a Christian and the Church of the East is allowed more freedom than in many other Middle Eastern nation.
Senator John Nimrod, Director of the one of the most influential Assyrian organizations the Assyrian Universal Alliance says, “We understand the concern and support of Christians in the West for Israel but find it hard to understand why the Church does not have the same concern and support for the Christians in the Middle East.”
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 have an autonomous zone in the area of their homeland in Northern Iraq centered around the city of Nineveh, present day Mosul then become an independent nation. `
The Assyrians are calling for the Church at large to support their status in the land that is historically theirs as the first Christian nation. The Assyrians were twice promised a nation in their historic lands under separate agreements with the predecessor of The United Nations, which to this day have not been honored!
A recent meeting in London brought together Assyrians from Europe, the US, Asia and the Middle East for the first time to put together a plan for a post-Saddam Iraq.
Items discussed included putting together political parties, a map of the land that would constitute an independent Assyria, a possible constitution and other plans for the future of a post-Saddam Iraq.
Attendees at the conference called the “Assyrian Representation Meeting” included representatives of most political parties and organizations. Views ranged from those hoping for more representation in parliament to those actively working for an independent Assyrian State in the historic Assyrian homeland between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
One of the fears of the attendees is summarized by the words of another Assyrian, who said, “Our greatest fear if there is a regime change in Iraw is if there will be a substitution of Saddam’s tyranny for an new tyranny.”
For a people that have suffered merciless persecution continually throughout history at the hands of those amongst whom they live today it is a real and concrete fear.
`We are in a critical state today` says another Assyrian leaders. `We have the Arabs on one side and the Kurds on the other, and although we have good relations with our Kurdish brothers in northern Iraq unfortunately now the Kurds are behaving in the rod of a big bother.”
EXPERTS FEAR A BLOODBATH
Experts fear that in the event of a collapse of the current government there could be a bloodbath.
Recently, with the change in the Turkish leadership to a much more Islamic oriented government a threat was made to take part of Northern Iraq in the event of a fall of the central government - the historic land of the Assyrian Christians.
The leaders of the KDP Kurdish Democratic Party and the PUK Patriotic Union of Kurdistan the leading Kurd parties publicly say they have no plans for an independent Kurdistan but in recent weeks have put together a constriction, convened their parliament and are making all the moves towards an independent Kurdistan encompassing the Assyrian, Christian areas.
In response to the current situation the Keikyo Institute an organization assisting Assyrians particularly in Asia is asking Christians throughout the world to first pray for the Christians in Iraq then to contact their legislators to request that the Christians be represented in a post-Saddam Iraq government.
If there is a Jewish State, Muslim states there should be a Christian state to protect the rights of the 1.2 million Christians and the 4 millions currently living overseas most of whom would return if such a state was formed.
Information on praying for the Christians in Iraq and ways to become involved in providing direct assistance to the Christians in Iraq can be obtained at www.thechurchoftheeast.com
The next few months are extremely critical as the plans for a post-Saddam Iraq are put together and the Government and divisions of authority are being decided. Anything less than an independent state for the Assyrian Christians could very well result in another blood bath that could see the last of the only major Christian Communities in the Middle East gone forever.
Note: The Assyrian grandparents of Ken Joseph Jr. escaped from Iraq in 1919 as a result of massacres at the hands of the Kurds. He was a delegate from Asia at the recent Assyrian Representation Meeting in London and has filed this report from the conference.