LONDON, England (UPI) -- Iraq's ancient Christian minority is being made the whipping boy for the war in Afghanistan, one of their leadings spokesmen in the West told United Press International Monday.
"They no longer dare to wear their traditional crosses. They are being called crusaders. They do not receive food rations," said Albert Yelda, a leader of the Iraqi National Congress, which seeks to topple Saddam Hussein.
According to Yelda, pro-Saddam Iraqis keep telling the Christians, "Ask the Americans to feed you. You have no business being here."
Yelda, a lawyer, represents the Assyrian Christians within the INC, a coalition of mainly Kurdish political groups trying to persuade the U.S. to fight Saddam inside Iraq.
The 1.5 million Assyrians speak a dailect of the Aramaic spoken by Jesus. They are the descendants of one of the oldest known civilizations -- Mesopotamia.
Almost three millennia ago, it excelled in astronomy, jurisprudence, literature, the arts, architecture, medicine and the natural sciences.
The Assyrians say they were the first nation to adopt Christianity as their state religion in 179 A.D. They claim to have built the first Christian churches and to have been the first to translate the New Testament from Greek into their vernacular -- ironically, the language of Christ.
It was also the language of the first Christian missionaries to reach China, Mongolia and even Japan in the 8th century.
They were Nestorians, heretics in the eyes of the rest of the church because they followed the teachings of Nestorius, the 5th-century bishop of Constantinople who taught that the Virgin Mary was not the "theodokos," the mother of God, but simply the mother of Jesus Christ.
But this fine point of theology has long ceased to stand in the way of Christian unity. In the 16th century, a major segment of the Nestorian church recognized the Pope and thus united with Rome, while maintaining its liturgy.
They are now called the Chaldean Church to which most Assyrian Christians adhere. "The Chaldeans are on the best of terms with the remaining Nestorians," according to Yelda.
That latter denomination appears to the outsider like a curious mix between Eastern Orthodoxy, the starkest forms of Protestantism, and Judaism. "Our services are 99 percent liturgy with plenty of incense," Yelda said.
Yet there is no iconostasis. There are no graven images. There is not even a crucifix in Nestorian churches. But for a simple cross above the altar, nothing adorns these sanctuaries.
They look like synagogues, and this is not the only parallel between Nestorians and Jews. Nestorians call their priests "rabi" (teacher), and like orthodox Jews they eschew mixed marriages. "We want to preserve a Christian people in our country," Yelda explained.
But that's precisely the problem in Saddam's Iraq. "It is not out of any Muslim convictions that he persecutes us," Yelda told this correspondent in another interview five years ago. "He is godless. But every tyrant, like Hitler and Stalin, Saddam Hussein hates minorities."
Saddam has set out to destroy this venerable culture, according to Yelda. He banned the Assyrians' cultural clubs where their literary language was kept alive.
He ordered hundreds of Assyrian villages and sanctuaries razed, including recently a 2nd-century church, Yelda said.
"It was sheer power politics that prompted Saddam's son Uday to rape and kill an Assyrian woman and then make this act public knowledge," he continued.
In a powerful book titled, "Cruelty and Silence," the Iraqi author Kenan Makiya revealed that Saddam's regime employed professional rapists with the status of civil servants. According to Makiya, their government passes blatantly their assignment: "violators of women's honor."
Explained Makiya: "In the cultured of the Near East -- be they Christian or Islamic -- the entire family becomes dishonored and therefore neutralized if one of its female members is sexually abused."
For the Assyrians, a long history of martyrdom is thus continuing, a martyrdom contrary to the stated wish of the Prophet Mohammed who was so impressed by the Assyrians' knowledge of medicine and the sciences that he issued a Firman, a letter of protection for them.
This Firman disappeared without trace in 1847. Assyrians believe that the then-Turkish rulers destroyed it before setting out to kill 30,000 Christians.
They repeated this massacre in 1896 and then again in 1915 when they killed not only over one million Armenians but also 250,000 Assyrians, a fact usually not mentioned when this first holocaust of the 20th century is being discussed.
"There are still some old men in Iraq who as children were forcibly converted to Islam after this bloodbath," Yelda said. "Outwardly, they live as Muslims, but in their hearts they have remained Christians, fasting during Lent and making merry at Christmas, Easter and Pentecost."
What past cruelties have not accomplished, Saddam Hussein now manages to do: Faster and faster this land between the Euphrates and the Tigris is losing the descendants of the people who had turned it into a marvel almost 3,000 years ago.
Said Yelda, "Only half of the world's 1.5 million Assyrians live still in their ancient land, and their number is dwindling. Almost 300,000 have moved to America, chiefly the Chicago area. Others are dispersed in a diaspora ranging from Jordan to Germany, France, and Australia -- like the Jews, their Semitic cousins."
According to the Bible, they were antagonists in Old Testament days. That role has long changed.
According to a World War II adage told by veteran Zionists, a dark-haired and sharp-featured man knocked at the door of one of their leaders in the 1940s.
Evidently he was an Assyrian. He said, "It appears you Jews are about to get yourselves a state. Can you spare a corner for an old neighbor?"