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Assyrians Keeping their Culture Alive

Posted: Tuesday, March 18, 2003 at 11:54 AM CT


Protesters “demonstrate because they have not tasted the brutality of Saddam's dictatorship.”

— Edward Odisho

 

With the unsteady hand of a 6-year-old boy, Sargon Hermez is learning to trace the sharp angled letters of his ancestors' ancient alphabet onto wide-lined paper at a North Side church.

The script is one of the last vestiges of the Assyrian empire, which covered much of the modern Middle East more than two millenniums ago, produced epics and invented one of the world's earliest writing systems.

Like many other Assyrian parents, Sargon's mother wants to make sure her son can read the language, a modern relative of the ancient Aramaic that scholars say Jesus spoke. Fearing that their culture will disappear from Iraq, the seat of ancient Assyrian power, they are determined to preserve their traditions in exile.

Many find hope in the Bush administration's drive to oust Saddam Hussein from power, even if it means going to war, because it offers Assyrians a better chance at survival in their homeland.

A minority in Muslim Iraq, Assyrians are Christian--among the first peoples to accept the faith -- and do not consider themselves Arab. Massacred by Turks and Kurds in the early 20th Century and forbidden from teaching their language by Hussein's regime, about 1.5 million Assyrians live in Iraq today.

On Sunday the Assyrian community -- including an estimated 80,000 in the Chicago area, more than in any other American city -- is planning a worldwide day of prayer to bring attention to their plight.

If war does bring a change of regime, leaders say, the United States must help guarantee that any new government in Baghdad safeguards the region's religious and ethnic minorities. Otherwise, they say, Iraq's Assyrians--the largest concentration in the world--may be in danger of vanishing through forced assimilation.

"We need to make sure that whatever government comes after Saddam is democratic," said Ronald Michael, president of the Assyrian American League in Chicago. "If we don't, we will have no way to protect our rights." History erased from texts Already, Assyrian history and contributions to Iraq have been erased from school textbooks, community leaders say. The Assyrian language is a dying tongue. Iraqi censuses do not count Assyrians as a category, because the government does not consider them a separate ethnicity.

"You do not have the right to call yourself Assyrian in Iraq," said Aprim Rasho, who produces a weekly Assyrian-language television program. Many Assyrians are not granted Iraqi citizenship, particularly if they refuse to join the ruling Baath party, but also for lesser infractions, such as taking a traditional Assyrian name.

"Sometimes, when they wanted to get rid of us, they would put us on the Iranian border and say, `Now you are Iranian,'" said Rasho. "They forced us to move to Baghdad and encouraged Arabs to live in our villages."

While they wait and hope for change in Iraq, Assyrians abroad cling to their culture. In Chicago, Assyrians first began settling north of the Loop in the 1860s, when their homeland was governed by the Ottoman Turks. Later generations moved to the suburbs of Skokie, Niles, Roselle and other areas as they joined the middle class.

Patriarch lives here Over the years Assyrians have kept a strong sense of identity centered on churches, where women wear colorful veils and prepare feasts of stuffed bread and dolma, or stuffed cabbage and grape leaves. Chicago is also home to the patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, Mar Dinkha IV.

Elders teach youngsters how to write the ancient Assyrian language in twice-weekly classes held at four of the five Assyrian churches in the Chicago area. The script looks like a cross between Hebrew and Arabic and probably derived from an ancestor alphabet common to all three languages, according to John Huehnergard, a linguist at Harvard University.

In addition to the classes, Assyrians in Chicago produce two television programs, Rasho's "Ashur TV" and "Assyrians Around the World," which feature Assyrian-language plays and comedies, sports, entertainment and news, from the Middle East and from Assyrian communities in 40 countries.

 Other community members print textbooks in Assyrian, and priests use the language when they recite the liturgy. Most Assyrians speak it at home, so their children grow up bilingual.

"If we don't use it, it's going to vanish," said Christina Yousif, a kindergarten teacher at Boone Elementary School and one of a half-dozen adults who teach Assyrian to children at St. George's Church, 7201 N. Ashland Ave.

Their diminishing numbers in Iraq, and Iraqi government attempts to "Arabize" them, have made Assyrians sensitive to how they are identified by outsiders. Most Assyrians prefer to count among their ranks other Christian groups whose ancestors came from ancient Mesopotamia, including Chaldeans and Syriacs. Some Chaldeans, however, consider themselves a distinct group whose ancestors split from the Assyrian Church of the East in 1552.

Although such divisions have strained relations, the groups have been working to create a united front, hoping their combined strength will allow them a voice in any future Iraqi government. Some talk of joining forces with Yazidis and Turkmens, two other minorities in Iraq, to increase their political power.

"We would like to see both branches of this one nation unite since all their requests are the same," said Glenn Younan, founder of an Assyrian-Chaldean organization called Bet Nahrain in Chicago. "They both want their villages and churches [to remain]. They both want autonomy."

Future of Iraq Project To that end, several Assyrians have been working with the State Department's Future of Iraq Project to create a blueprint for a post-Hussein democracy that they hope will safeguard Christian rights in Iraq.

After years spent feeling invisible, even to other American Christians, and neglected by more powerful Iraqi opposition groups, Assyrians were heartened in October when President Bush mentioned them by name during a speech in Cincinnati.

"We're raising awareness about the plight of Assyrians," said former Illinois state Sen. John Nimrod, secretary general of the Assyrian Universal Alliance.

Assyrians have little patience for anti-war protests, which they find insulting to the Iraqi people.

"Those people demonstrate because they have not tasted the brutality of Saddam's dictatorship," said Edward Odisho, a professor of teacher education at Northeastern Illinois University who sits on the education committee of the Future of Iraq Project. "Believe me, none of those demonstrators are Iraqis."

Rasho agreed. "The Iraqi people are sitting in their windows waiting for the American soldiers to come," he said. Since the U.S. began protecting the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the roughly 50,000 Assyrians in that area have fared relatively well compared with others in Iraq, Assyrians say.

With help from Assyrians in the United States, they have opened 44 schools in the north, some of which teach entirely in their language, Odisho said. Assyrians here hope these freedoms will survive the political upheaval a war may cause. Meanwhile, they will continue to teach the Assyrian language.

At St. George on a recent Sunday, two dozen children listened attentively while Yousif pronounced the sounds of the letters she drew on a chalkboard. Dozens of other children and a few adults sat in different classrooms separated by white partitions in the church basement.

Jackie Coma, 30, attended one of the adult classes "to refresh my memory," she said. Her two children, Maryann, 8, and Peter, 7, practiced writing in a third-year class nearby.

"It's my language. It's my parents' language. It's the language Jesus spoke," Coma said. "I don't want it to die with me. I want it to live on."



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