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Iraq's Forgotten Christians: Over Centuries of Persecution, Assyrians Have Kept the Faith

Posted: Friday, April 04, 2003 at 11:37 AM CT

Nearly forgotten by the world, 1.2 million Assyrian Christians live a precarious existence in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. They are the remnants of the great Assyrian Empire, which ruled Mesopotamia or present-day Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey thousands of years before Christ.

Assyria has played a central role in world and Christian history. Its capital, Ninevah, repented to Jonah. Ninevah later believed the gospel preached by the Apostle Thomas, becoming one of the first Christian nations. In the first century, newly converted Assyria launched a missionary force that carried Christianity as far as China and Japan.

Over the years since the Assyrian monarchy was abolished in the 4th century, Assyrians have lived with a minority status in the lands they once ruled, oppressed by the Persians, Mongols, Turks, Kurds and Arabs.

Then in the 20th century, mass dispersion occurred. Four million Assyrians left the Middle East for 40 nations after the Ottomans massacred hundreds of thousands of Armenians and Assyrians in 1915. Assyrians believe that after World War I they were betrayed by the League of Nations, which had promised them a homeland.

Throughout the centuries of persecution, Assyrians kept the faith. Today, the indigenous Christians of ancient Mesopotamia belong to several sects and denominations including the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Church of the East, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syriac Catholic Church, and some Protestant denominations.

Assyrian Christians also have preserved a dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. Assyrians have "a special passion" about using and preserving Aramaic, Ronald Michael, president of the Assyrian American League, told Aramaic is passed down from generation to generation, said Michael, who speaks the language fluently. He was born in Beirut, moved to Iraq, grew up in the United States, and now lives in Illinois, where he is a member of the Church of the East.

The times are again perilous for Assyrian Christians, Michael said. Iraq, a secular nation, formerly allowed Christians more freedom than many other Middle Eastern nations. Yet anti-Christian sentiment has risen as Saddam Hussein portrays himself as a defender of Islam against the imperialist West, according to political analyst Jonathan Eric Lewis.

Saddam's Baath Party has implemented policies aimed at erasing the identity of Assyrian Christians as a distinct people. According to Lewis, this ethnic cleansing has included denying the ethnic identity of Assyrians in government records, removing textbooks about Assyrian history and accomplishments, looting ancient artifacts, and killing clerics. Saddam might incite a bloodbath against the Assyrians now that Iraq has been invaded, Lewis said.

Still another threat to Assyrians comes from ethnic Kurds in northern Iraq. The area has been protected as a British and American no-fly zone since the 1991 Gulf War. Free from Saddam's control, the Kurds have lived at relative peace with Assyrian Christians, who have built Christian schools and churches.

Yet those 200,000 Assyrians are "very much under pressure to toe the Kurdish line," Michael said. An additional half million Assyrian Christians live just outside the no-fly zone, and 750,000 to 1 million live in Baghdad. With the collapse of Saddam's regime a common enemy for the Kurds and Assyrians historic differences between the groups could resurface. Some Assyrians fear that, in the chaos of war, the Kurds might seek an independent state, grabbing oil-rich land and inciting violence and tyranny, according to ABC News.

What many Assyrians really want is a homeland of their own, according to Ken Joseph, whose Assyrian grandparents escaped from massacres at the hands of the Kurds occurring in Iraq in 1919. "If there is a Jewish state and Muslim states, there should also be a Christian state." He said he believes that most Assyrians living overseas would return if a state homeland was established.

For his part, Michael said he hopes for a democratic Iraq "where all citizens enjoy freedom of religion." After the war, Americans must stay engaged long enough to make sure the post-Saddam regime protects all of Iraq's minorities.

Unlike other Iraqi opposition groups, Assyrians are not trying to grab land or oil, Michael said. "We wish to survive, to build our churches and schools, to preserve our language, and to live as any human being should be able to live. Our challenge to Arab governments and the broader Arab world is to push as vigorously for Assyrian rights as they do for Palestinian rights. Otherwise, they risk losing credibility and appearing to be hypocrites."

American Christians know little about Assyrian Christians, yet "there is a natural kinship," Michael said. And when American Christians realize that a portion of the body of Christ is struggling to survive, Michael's hope is that they will "commit themselves and reach out to them."

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