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For Assyrian~Chaldean National Rights In Bet-Nahrain

by Ghassan Hanna

Posted: Friday, June 09, 2000 at 06:34 PM UT


Published in the October 1998 issue of Al-Muntada

Iraq, that compromises most of historical Beth Nahrain, is a country that's made of four major ethnic groups and a lesser number of smaller ones. They are in accordance to their size, Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians/Chaldeans, and Turkmans. There are also Armenians and fewer Persians. The Arabs have been ruling Iraq intermittently since it fell to the Arab invasion and occupation during the rise of Islam at the end of the seventh century. When the modern state of Iraq was formed in 1921, the British who drew the borders (and actually created the state itself) continued the policies of the Ottomans before them. They too, gave the power to rule this new state to the Sunni Muslims Arabs, since the Arabs constituted the majority of the population of the three Ottoman provinces (Mosel, Baghdad, and Basra) that made up the current day state of Iraq. With a country encompassing several ethnic groups and many more religious sects and differing religions, problems were bound to happen. Unfortunately, this Sunni Arab elite neither had the correct vision nor an "all Iraqi" patriotic sense of sharing the land and power with the different ethnic and religious groups that made up the new Iraq. Acts and laws were instituted that gave differential treatment for the Arabs over other ethnic groups. History books were rewritten to teach the new generation of Iraqis that the history of Iraq actually starts with the Arab Muslim invasion and everything else before it is ". . like bringing a Mummy from death. . " as Satea' al-Hussary, the father of Arab nationalism in Iraq stated.

Needless to say, these chauvinistic and racist policies of successive Arab governments resulted in several uprisings by the Kurds who were always aided by a strong participation of the Assyrians/Chaldeans of northern Iraq. With the coming of the Baath government to power, those racist policies did not essentially change. The policy of repressing the Kurdish national aspirations did not change fundamentally, actually it was magnified in scope and more ruthlessly applied, however, their dealings with our Assyrian/Chaldean people took a sharp turn. History books were changed and rewritten. Hammurabi, Assur Banipal, Nubuchadnesser ethnic origins were struck by the censors' pen and magically changed to that of an Arabic blood and ancestry. Iraq's native peoples are suddenly called Arabs. Iraqi census authorities no longer recognize the existence of an Assyrian/Chaldean ethnicity. Actually, they were even forced to register as either Arabs (in the areas with Arab majority) or Kurdish in northern Iraq. Laws that were enacted, mainly for propaganda purposes, like the Decree for Cultural Rights of Syriac Speaking People, quickly saw themselves collecting dust at the shelves of security offices. In addition to that, a major campaign was unleashed to prey on the religious differences between the followers of the Chaldean Church and those of the Assyrian Eastern Church, by which the former was targeted extensively for a thorough and complete Arabisation. Unfortunately, that campaign saw significant success among followers of the Chaldean Church. This Baathist success can not be attributed mainly to its own mechanisms as much as to its ability to take advantage of several factors that existed (and still exist) on the Chaldean front. Some of those factors can be stated as:

A generally weak nationalistic feelings among the followers of the Chaldean Church which can be attributed, among others, to the policies of the church itself. Some of the reasons are:

  1. The Catholic Chaldean Church in its theological wars for many centuries tried hard to "alienate" or "protect" its followers from the "impure" and even "heretical" religious practices of their ethnic brothers and sisters in the Church of the East had an unintended side effect. That is, the Chaldeans of today look with deep suspicion, religiously and otherwise, towards their brethren in the Church of the East. Coupled with a misnomer of "Chaldeans" given to them by the Catholic Church in 1552 (the Patriarchy of the Chaldean Church was in Baghdad, which was considered as part of historical Babylonia, which later on became known as Chaldea, during the Chaldean dynasty's rule of Babylon). That misnomer was interpreted by its followers as meaning "descendants of the Chaldeans of antiquity" and hence, not Assyrians/Babylonians. While such argument does not stand any logical examination nor has any historical support, it's a reality that concerned parties admit to its strong presence. [The Chaldeans of antiquity lived in southern Iraq and mostly among the marshes bordering Iran, while today's followers of the Chaldean Church are descendants of historical Assyria, in northern Iraq. Actually, mainly from villages surrounding Nineveh, capital of old Assyria. It's ludicrous to claim that the Chaldeans of antiquity left their ancestral homelands in southern Iraq and marched to the Assyrian villages in the north and ethnically cleansed its inhabitants. Why Chaldeans and not Babylonians (who are ethnically the same as Assyrians) and why not Aramaeans? More, how could someone claim "pure blood" relation to the Chaldeans of the south while living in the north around Nineveh? When did this migration happen? Well, those are questions that are left unanswered by those individuals whose argument against an Assyrian ethnic origin has more of a religious tone to it than an ethnic one. Add to it, centuries of emotional animosity towards their brethren, the followers of the Church of the East who go by the name Assyrian and who originally were referred to as "Nestorians".

It's interesting to note that a small minority of the Chaldean priests is nowadays replacing their centuries old theological war against the "heretical" Easterners with a new weapon. Today, they are the strongest proponents of the "Chaldean nationality"!! That is those diehards who for this reason or that are not happy to see the Eastern Church finally coming together, allied with those who still can't comprehend the unity steps, are still fighting their old war under a new flag. Today they fight their old battle under the flag of the Chaldean nationality versus the Assyrian one!!

Chaldean Catholic Church Patriarch, Mar Raphael Bidawid.
Lebanon, 2001.
Chaldean Catholic Church Bishop, Mar Sarhad Jammo
USA, May 24, 1996.
The other reason behind the "Chaldeans" weak nationalistic feelings, is the over zealous Catholic Christian mission of the Chaldean Church which stressed out the "religious" belonging of its followers over their "ethnic" one. Hence, when the Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, Mar Rofael BeDaweed was asked about the ethnic background of his church followers, his answer was "We are neither Chaldeans nor Assyrians. We are Christians!" Saying that Mar BeDaweed still stressed out the fact that ". . we are one people and one blood despite the different names". In a world that's undergoing a storm of national awakenings of oppressed ethnic groups coupled with the needs of celebrating one's ethnic heritage, the Chaldean Church calls to "Christianhood" seems to resonate with that of the Communist's calls to "Internationalism". This, of course, is adding more confusion to the "ethnic" belonging of its followers. But then, hasn't the Church message and agenda always been fighting for Christianity? Unfortunately, while the Church's religious agenda has always been very clear, it's the followers' interpretation that is being considered here.
  1. The second reason behind the Baathist success of its "Arabisation scheme" is the lack of any political movement on the "Chaldean" side. While many followers of the Chaldean Church were (and still are) very active in many Iraqi political parties (Communists, Baathists, and even Kurdish) there's still an astonishing vacuum of a nationalist movement among those followers. There's no political movement that fights for our people's rights in Iraq. Actually, we see "Chaldeans" willing to fight for Kurdish, Arabic, and every other ethnic groups' rights in the world, but shy away from fighting for their own people's rights. Actually, some even fights any nationalist who fights for our own national rights and accuses them of either "selling themselves to the Assyrian side" or calls them simply "a bunch of extremists".

While the reasons behind such absence of "Chaldean" political movements are deep rooted in the "ethnic confusion" of the followers of the Chaldean Church, there are still other factors to consider:

  1. The Chaldean Church in its religious zeal to "limit the exposure" or "contain" its followers from the unaccepted views of "the other side", have (and still do) exercise a strict control over all cultural and civil activities of its followers. This gave the impression that the church will hinder and discourage any activity that does not give it a complete or at least a supervisory control over it. In other words, the followers lacked "independent initiatives", and since politics is not an area that the Church prefers entering into, hence "Chaldean" political activities were generally discouraged. Add to that the possibility of loss of full control over its followers to such movements. The example of the Assyrian Church of the East is an ever reminder to that possibility!!
     
  2. The massacre of Semel in 1933 seems to have an advert impact on the followers of the Chaldean Church. Fear of similar consequences befell the "Chaldeans" who tried to further distance themselves from the victims of those massacres, the Assyrian followers of the Church of the East. However, their sense of need for political action to improve the lot of their people did not prevent them from joining Iraq's political movement. They reckoned that fighting under "an all Iraqi" political movement will not expose their people to massacres of the scale of Semel with the perpetrators hailed as "national heroes" by the government and its media. The above main reasons resulted in having the largest group of our Assyrian nation practically locked out of political decision making, especially with other Iraqi political groups. Its lack of contribution to the rest of the Assyrian political movement weakened and stiffened its resources to fight for our people's national rights. The lack of any "Chaldean" political movement is significantly felt on the Assyrian Street. The result is our people are still divided among different religious denominations; we still lack a united leadership. Add to that the lack of a clearly defined goal and a united commitment to fight for our God given rights in our ancestors' land in Beth Nahrain. All this resulted in having our people's cause either ignored or lightly considered not only by the Iraqi government but as well as some of its own opponents. The third largest ethnic group in Iraq, the Assyrian/Chaldeans, is not even recognized as an ethnic group by the Baathist government of Iraq nor by several "opposition" groups. We are either called "Christian minority", "Syriac speaking people" or at best "Taifa" (a Sect in English)!!

Its high time that our Assyrian/Chaldean organizations meet and agree on a clearly defined united position that secure our national rights in our ancestors land Beth Nahrain. Only in a united and a realistic agenda can we rally our people to fight for their rights. As we well know, if we don't fight for our rights, no one will give them to us on a golden plate, especially when many politically hostile groups surround us. Some of those demands should include:

  1. Creating a "Self-rule area" in northern Iraq for our Assyrian/Chaldean people that include the areas inhabited mostly by our people in Nineveh (Mosel), Arbel, and Nohadra (Dahouk).
  2. The declaration by the Iraqi government through a change in the constitution that recognizes our Assyrian nation as one that has an equal footing with its other neighbors, the Arabic, Kurdish, and Turkman nations i. e. Assyrians are a national minority and not a "religious" one.
  3. The abolishment by the Iraqi government of all laws and decrees that discriminate against our Assyrian/Chaldean people due to ethnic or religious background.
  4. Our people should have the right to learn and teach our Aramaic language in schools where the majority of the students are Assyrians. We should also be allowed to publish newspapers, print books, broadcast through radio and TV our own Aramaic-based entertainment and educational programs.

The above are some of our rights that we should be able to rally our Assyrian/Chaldean people around and fight for. Unfortunately, one of the most troubling problems that stand against uniting our people, is the confusion of the dual usage of religious names as national ones as well. In other words, what name should we call ourselves: Assyrians, Chaldeans, or Syriacs? While I believe strongly that the last two names are religiously based (and proven as such) and only that of Assyrian bares a correct national name, however, fighting over that should be the last thing we do. Saying that we all agree that we are one people racially, linguistically, culturally, historically, and religiously Christian, but with different denominations (the main reason behind the division of our nation). We should also bear in mind, that our division and inter fights are what's helping the racist elements among the Kurds and Arabs marginalize our existence and rights in our ancestors' lands.

Let us build our true Assyrian Higher National Council that encompass members of all our people (Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Church of the East) and let us empower it to fight for our rights. Without such united agenda and an empowered group, we will not be able to influence those whom we're asking for our rights from. Racist and repressive groups do not change their attitudes solely because the oppressed pray hard to God. God, on the other hand, will not help those who do not want to help themselves. Freedom was never given but always taken through the sacrifices of those who seek it. Let us work hard to bring our Chaldean people into the nationalist political movement. Let us all work together for our Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac people. Our cause is just. Our agenda is realistic. I am sure we have the will to fight for it.

The Assyrian~Chaldean Dilemma - One Nation, Two Names, Part I
http://www.atour.com/government/docs/20000609h.html

The Assyrian~Chaldean Dilemma - One Nation, Two Names, Part II
http://www.atour.com/government/docs/20000609g.html



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