We must not let this ancient Church slide into oblivion
Iraq’s Assyrian Christians face extinction four years after the toppling of Saddam, says Ed West
“When they cook a dish in the Middle East, it is traditional to put the meat on top of the rice when they serve it. They kidnapped a woman’s baby in Baghdad, a toddler, and because the mother was unable to pay the ransom, they returned her child – beheaded, roasted and served on a mound of rice.”
The infant’s crime was to be an Assyrian, but this story, reported by the Barnabus Fund, went unnoticed in the West, like so many other horrific accounts of Christian persecution in Iraq.
Since the invasion of Iraq, Muslim militants have bombed 28 churches and murdered hundreds of Christians. Last October, Islamists beheaded a priest in Mosul in revenge for the Pope’s remarks about Islam at Regensburg. But never let it be said that jihadis do not have a sense of ironic humour: that same month they crucified a 14-year-old Christian boy in Basra.
The latest report by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that two million Iraqis have fled since the invasion, and almost a third of these are Assyrian – who are down from 1.4 million in Saddam’s Iraq to fewer than 500,000 today. The Assyrians are one of the world’s oldest civilisations.
Their empire collapsed in 612 BC after four and a half millennia of civilisation; Rome was still a village and the Angles and Saxons were a thousand years away from forming a partnership. Now, while one of the world’s oldest Christian nations faces extinction at the hands of Islamic extremists, the West does nothing.
Albert Michael and Eva Shamouel are the British representatives of the Assyrian Aid Society (AAS). Both fled Baathist Iraq as children, joining Britain’s 8,000 strong Assyrian community based in west London. “I was brought up in an area of Baghdad called Dora before coming here when I was six,” says Albert. “Dora was entirely made up of Assyrian Christians, but then the Baath party came along, and Saddam moved Arabs in to break up the concentration.” Now the whole city, particularly Dora, is a no-go area.
The AAS was founded in 1991 after Saddam moved his troops into the region commonly known as Kurdistan, although it is also the historical homeland of the Assyrians.
A few members of the Assyrian Democratic Movement formed an emergency relief group to help those most in need of food, water, medicine and blankets, the first humanitarian charity to reach those refugees. “Since then we have raised $4.2m [£2.1m] from our own efforts,” says Albert. Most comes from America, but the British branch has recently become more organised, receiving official charitable status last summer.
So far they have received little help from outside their own people: “There were a few donations; the French embassy, one or two churches in Germany.” This is not down to an absence of Christian charity, they point out, but ignorance. “I still remember this image of a woman holding a child fleeing for her life in 1991,” says Albert.
“The BBC interviewed her, and she was referred to as a Kurd, even though she was speaking Aramaic. Everyone was labelled a Kurd.”Aramaic is the language of the Assyrians, who are also referred to as Syriacs, Chaldeans or ChaldoAssyrians.
“We have five different churches, several dialects, and three different names, but we are one people,” Albert stresses. Aramaic is also, of course, the language of Jesus and was spoken (with an American accent) in Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ. Albert and Eva’s forefathers have been Christian since at least the second century, and helped to spread the Word as far as China.
Their history has been one of struggle. They survived the Muslim Arab invasion of the seventh century, and centuries of Turkish rule, a period that culminated in the genocide of 1914-1918, known as the Sefyo (“sword”).
While Turkey remains in a state of denial about the murder of one million Armenians, the rest of the world is largely unaware that as many as 750,000 Assyrians and 200,000 Greeks were also butchered on the orders of the Turks, largely aided by the Kurds. Assyrian groups around the world recently wrote to Sylvester Stallone after it was announced that he is making a film about the Armenian Genocide.
“We hope Sly doesn’t forget us,” Albert says. After Iraq was created with the help of the Assyrians – nicknamed “Britain’s smallest ally” in the First World War – they suffered persecution at the hands of the Arabs, who accused them of being conspirators with their imperialist fellow Christians.
The1933 massacre of 3,000 civilians in Dohuk, northern Iraq, inspired the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to coin the word “genocide”.Now, Arab militants have almost cleansed southern Iraq of Assyrians, and in the north, Kurdish extremists are behind numerous unpublicised murders.
“The Kurdish authorities don’t even want to recognise us – they call us ‘Christian Kurds’ ” – an irony that would not be lost on their compatriots over the border, officially labelled “Mountain Turks.”The plight of Christian women is especially grim.
Eva points out: “A lot of women, both Christian and Muslim, are forced to cover their heads, whereas before you could go out without being intimidated, or having acid thrown on your face.”
Albert explains that it was unheard of for Christian women to turn to prostitution before. “But now there are numerous accounts in Jordan and Syria, and all out of desperation to feed their children.
Some are selling their body parts, kidneys, but the worst case I heard was a woman with two children who had given up hope of feeding them. She ended up selling her children to Muslims.” The women – often widows – are not allowed to work, while the West refuses to shelter them, finding their existence an embarrassment to Britain and America.
The AAS raises the money in the West and hands it straight to compatriots in the Middle East, with minimal administration costs (readers will also be pleased to know they cannot afford “charity muggers”). The funds pay for schools, housing, medical clinics, farming machinery, irrigation projects and other vital basics.
“Saddam destroyed over 200 of our towns and villages, but with our very limited resources, we have rebuilt hundreds of homes.” But their main hope is for a Christian administrative area in the Nineveh Plains, once their ancient capital. Without this protection, their numbers will shrink until they will reach a tipping point.
Soon, Assyrian civilisation may only exist in the British Museum, where their monuments still draw tourists from around the world. In the year that Britain agonises over its past role in the slave trade, it is inaction – on the part of a nation that both created and destroyed Iraq – that now threatens to blacken our country’s name.