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Iraq's Forgotten Christians Face Exclusion in Greece

Posted: Monday, June 23, 2003 at 01:06 PM CT

They are descendants of the ancient Assyrians - builders of the earliest civilisation - and are determined to keep their culture alive, though thousands are undocumented and marginalised .

A dream lost in limbo: After 14 years, one man - an Assyrian from northern Iraq - has all but given up hope that he and his family will one day call Greece their home.

"It's a shame," says the man, who wants to be called Petros, although that is not his real name. "We've been in Greece for many years. We don't make any trouble, we live a quiet life. Two of my children were born here. My oldest daughter was very young when we came to Greece. This is the only home they know."

Like several thousand other Assyrians (from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey) in Greece, Petros has no papers, no residence permit. And like countless others who fled Iraq seeking shelter in Greece, his application for political asylum was rejected. Twice.

"We are not asking anyone for money," says Petros. "All we want is papers. But the government says there is no way. We are now waiting. Will they pass another law? Will my two children who were born here be eligible for citizenship one day?"

For Petros and thousands of other Assyrians in this country, home is where the end of the line is: Greece. But the vast majority of Iraqi Assyrians in Greece are undocumented. Many of them arrived over a decade ago to escape the Iran-Iraq war. Others fled the difficult conditions under the embargo. An estimated 90 percent are without papers and many of them are trying to reunite with relatives in other European countries or in the United States, Canada and Australia. They lead a shadowy existence.

Like many others, Petros does not have proper identification to open a bank account and he has no health insurance for his family. His children will soon graduate from high school but will have no ID card in order to obtain their certificate of studies.

Modern Assyrians in Greece

An estimated 6,000 Assyrians live in Greece. Only several hundred have applied for asylum. Some have managed to obtain residence and work permits. About 1,000 are naturalised Greek citizens. The rest have no papers.

Greece's Assyrian community can be traced back to the 1920s, when the Assyrian Federation of Greece was formed. This organisation was officially recognised by the Greek state in 1934. Today, the group serves as the community's social support network. In Athens, Assyrian migrants are concentrated mainly in the western Athens suburb of Aegaleo and in the eastern suburb of Kalamaki.

In Aegaleo, Assyrians gather at least twice a month in a small makeshift church for Sunday prayer. Mass is conducted by an Assyrian priest from Sweden. The Assyrians were the first to embrace Christianity in the 1st century AD.

In a bid to keep their culture alive, special lessons in the ancient language were held at a centre run by the Social Work Foundation, a non-governmental organisation assisting asylum-seekers and refugees in Athens. About 100 youngsters attended these classes last year. Today, lessons are offered by the Assyrian Federation of Greece.

Without a homeland

Even though the Assyrian empire fell in 612 BC, there are some 4.5 million people who call themselves Assyrians. The heartland of Assyria is located in present-day northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and northwestern Iran. The remains of the ancient capital of Assyria, Nineveh, are near Mosul in northern Iraq.

Today, millions of Assyrians are spread across Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. There are also hundreds of thousands living outside the Middle East. The diaspora is heavily concentrated in Canada, the US (about 400,000) and across Europe. An estimated 30,000 live in Germany, 15,000 in France, 8,000 in the United Kingdom and some 3,000 in Italy.

"Now that the war in Iraq is over, if the regime changes, if there is polyphony and freedom for Assyrians in Iraq, many will probably return to their homes," notes Mr. Batsaras, president of the Assyrian Federation of Greece.

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