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In the wake of the American-led intervention in Iraq in 2003, and, later, when the Syrian uprising turned into a civil war in 2011, the issue of Christian minorities in the Middle East has increasingly gained international attention resulting from the targeted violence they have experienced in both countries.
Among these communities are the Assyrians who trace their history back to early Christianity in today’s Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. According to Joseph Yacoub, sociologist and historian specialized in Eastern Christians, human rights and minorities, the denomination of ‘Assyrians’ raises several questions as the word is often used not only to encompass Assyrians but also Chaldeans and Syriacs. “If we include both communities living in the Middle East and the diaspora, we may consider that there are between 2 million and 3 million Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs in the world. Yet there are no official statistics,” he said.
Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs (ACS) claim they descend from Assyria, one of the oldest civilizations in the world dating back to 2,500 BC in ancient Mesopotamia. The majority lives around their historical homeland in the Middle East. They also constitute an important community in the diaspora, in particular in Sweden (100,000), Germany (100,000), the United States (80,000) and Australia (46,000).
Over time, ACS divided into different churches. The five main ones are the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Church of the East, the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Syriac Catholic Church. Syriac, the language spoken by some ACS, is derived from Aramaic, the latter often being described as the language of Jesus. It is also classified by UNESCO as ‘definitely endangered’, with only around 240,000 speakers.
Following the fall of Saddam Hussein, religious and ethnic tensions in Iraq were exacerbated. Between 2003 and 2006, at least 30 terrorist attacks against churches attributed to Sunni insurgents were carried out. Minorities were also directly targeted by several Islamist fundamentalist groups who sought to annihilate non-Muslims and more generally all people who did not follow their precepts and beliefs. In Mosul, some families were coerced into financially supporting Sunni militias or converting to Islam. In the spring of 2003, the Shia leader Muqtada-al Sadr imposed sharia law, including compulsory veiling. In Basra, alcohol sellers and Christian hairdressers were sometimes sentenced to death. The ACS community was therefore forced into exile, fleeing or being expelled from the country.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported in 2007 that one third of the 1.8 million Iraqi refugees were Assyrian.
But discrimination did not stop there. Following the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), ACS minorities were among the terror group’s first targets. In June 2014, a fatwa was issued forcing all non-Muslims in Mosul either to convert to Islam, pay a tax, flee or be killed. Almost all of the city’s 35,000-50,000 Christian inhabitants fled, and members of ISIS marked their houses with the Arabic letter ‘noon’, a reference to the word Nasrani, a negative term for Christian. While many of Mosul’s ACS first sought refuge on the Nineveh Plains, they were forcibly displaced again in August 2014 as ISIS approached and gained new territory.
This brutality was replicated in 2015 in Syria’s Khabur Valley, where ISIS kidnapped hundreds of ACS. Others had to abandon their home, leaving everything behind them to escape persecution by ISIS, which had already invaded around 14 Assyrian villages in Syria’s north-east.
ISIS also targeted culture and heritage, destroying pre-Islamic relics in Mosul’s museum and the remnants of ancient Assyrian cities.
“Destroying the cultural identity of minorities is not something new,” said Yacoub. “Historically, Arab nationalism has always tried to excessively ‘Arabize’ the communities who did not consider themselves as such.”
These human rights violations echo other persecutions in modern history. The 1915 Ottoman genocide of the Armenians has overshadowed the other Christian populations in the Ottoman Empire and neighbouring Persia, at least 275,000 of whom were killed. Prior to World War I, there were approximately 600,000 ACS living under Ottoman rule.
For the first time on 12 April 2015, Pope Francis recognized that “Syriac Catholic and Orthodox Christians, Chaldeans and Assyrians” had also been targeted during the Armenian genocide.
ISIS’ campaign of violence against ACS communities thus revived a painful memory. In 2014, Patriarch Louis Sako, the Iraq-based leader of the Chaldean Catholic church, declared that Iraqi Christians were facing a “human catastrophe”.
Cities in Iraq with Assyrian populations are those in the Nineveh Governorate in the north and the Dohuk Governorate in the Kurdish zone. North-east Syria is also home to an Assyrian community, many of whom descend from refugees who fled Turkey during the 1915 genocide or survived the 1933 Simele massacre in Iraq.
Although many ACS joined the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in north-east Syria to fight IS, a growing number of reports point to the human rights abuses committed by the Kurdish authorities against non-Kurdish minorities, including ACS. The Kurdish authorities are attempting to establish Rojava, an autonomous zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. Their governance includes the forced ‘Kurdification’ of the region through school reforms as well as the forced payment imposed on all communities to rebuild Turkish cities, in particular Nusaybin, a stronghold of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has experienced high levels of destruction since July 2015 in the ongoing conflict with Turkey. These human rights abuses also include ‘expulsions and looting of homes and churches as well as assassination threats against clergy’, according to a 2017 report by the Assyrian Confederation of Europe.
“The problem is that this region is not only Kurdish. It is a mosaic of communities, with both Muslims and Christians, Arabs and non-Arabs. So the forced ‘Kurdification’ of the whole region raises a lot of concerns among non-Kurdish communities,” Yacoub said.
According to him, more than 60 per cent of the ACS have left Iraq and Syria. Prior to 2003, there were around 1 million Christians in Iraq. “Today, there are a mere 400,000, if not less.”
Is there any hope these communities will one day return to what has been their traditional homeland for thousands of years?
“The only way they can return is by ensuring the stability and security of the region,” Yacoub said. “This is not only the case for Christians but for all communities. It is something I hear a lot. Security is a fundamental human right, to which we should add democracy and the recognition of cultural and religious diversity.”