Iraqi Christians

Iraqi Assyrians and Other Christians in Syria

As Assyrian Christians have been forced out of their homes, they have had to seek sanctuary elsewhere. Many have migrated overseas, primarily to the United States, Germany, Australia, and Sweden, but visas are difficult to obtain, costs are formidable, and subsequent expulsions are not uncommon; even asylum-friendly Sweden has been vigorously deporting Assyrians after somehow determining that there is no longer any “inner armed conflict” in Iraq. For most displaced Assyrians, the only obtainable havens are local. Syria has played a particularly important role.

Of the roughly 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, up to 550,000 are estimated to be Assyrians by Iraqi Christian organizations; other groups put the number at around 350,000. The conditions faced by these displaced persons are debated. Evangelical organizations in the United States often voice concern; according to Christian Solidarity International, the very existence of Syria’s Christian community is now “under threat” as violence against its members “goes unpunished.” Assyrian organizations themselves tend to view the situation much more positively. In 2009, the Assyrian Universal Alliance 26th World Congress voted to commend the government of Syria, as well as those of Jordan and Lebanon, for their “treatment of Assyrian refugees of Iraq.”

Syria is generally portrayed in the American press as an authoritarian regime, harshly antagonistic to Israel, that sponsors Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shiite organization. Less commonly noted is the secular nature of its ruling Baath Party, founded on an Arab nationalism that cuts across religious lines. The founding figure of Baath ideology, Michel Aflaq, was a Syrian Christian. Syria may support Islamist militants as proxy forces in its struggle against Israel, but it does not tolerate them at home; when the Muslim Brotherhood initiated an uprising in the city of Hama in 1982, the Syrian military responded with a devastating assault that killed an estimated 17,000 to 40,000 people. The Syrian government has a strong incentive to oppose Islamism, as its upper echelons are dominated by Alawites, members of an extremely heterodox sect of Shiite Islam noted for their belief in the transmigration of souls, their Christian-influenced religious practices, and the fact that they have no problems with wine. Most Sunni Muslims do not view Alawites as members of the Islamic community, and extremists among them would target them for physical attack.

Iraqi Christians relocating in Syria join an Assyrian population, several hundred thousand strong, that was established by refugees fleeing massacres in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq in the early twentieth century. This previously established group of Assyrians is concentrated in the northeast; recent arrivals tend to live in low-income urban areas further to the west. All told, Christians account for about ten percent of Syria’s population. The largest denomination is the Orthodox Church of Antioch, which claims descent from the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch. As can been seen on the section of Mehrdad Izady’s map posted above, Syria’s main Christian belt partially separates its Alawite-dominated coastal mountain strip from its Sunni Muslim heartland.

Christians in Syria may have broad religious liberties and safety from physical attack, but they hardly enjoy freedom of expression; Syria ranks 178th out of 196 countries in freedom of the press, comparable to Saudi Arabia and China. Syrian Christians, moreover, have agreed never to proselytize to Muslims, nor to accept Muslim converts. But despite such restrictions, their lot remains enviable in many ways. The government subsidizes churches and allows Christians to organize their own civil courts. On Easter, tens of thousands of Syrian Christians take to the streets of Damascus to publically demonstrate their faith. According to a recent GlobalPost story, many Syrian Muslims are keen to witness such celebrations:

On Thursday night, the courtyard of the Greek Catholic cathedral resembled a rock concert. At least 2,000 people gathered to watch a Passion play, in which Jesus’ crucifixion is re-enacted. Vendors sold cotton candy and popcorn outside the gates. Attendees included many Muslims, said Ghissa, the church’s choir director. “They’re curious to see how we celebrate,” he explained. “And why not? We all get along well in Syria.”

Curiosity may not be the only driving force behind such behavior. As the author of the GlobalPost story goes on the relate:

Inside a pub in the Christian Quarter recently, two friends, one Muslim and one Christian, joked about using each other’s faiths to double their number of holiday celebrations.

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Anna Eshoo and the Ignored Plight of the Assyrians


In looking over the sample ballot for the 2010 November election, my mind turned to the Assyrians as I came to the name of Anna Eshoo, their champion in the U.S. Congress. By “Assyrians” I mean not the ancient empire-builders, but rather the modern community, several million strong globally, that claims to be their descendents. The main Christian group of Iraq and neighboring countries, the Assyrians have suffered grievously of late. In 2005, Eshoo authored an amendment to the Foreign Relations Authorization Act requesting that, “special attention should be paid to the welfare of Chaldo-Assyrians and other indigenous Christians in Iraq.” Of Assyrian (and Armenian) background herself, Eshoo is better known in Congress for advocating Silicon Valley interests, as befits the representative of California’s 14th district, home to such firms as Google, Hewlett Packard, and Facebook.

Eshoo has had scant company in upholding Assyrian rights. The community is almost unknown in the United States; out of a class of 181 Stanford University students polled this morning, no one could identify the group. The general plight of the Christian population of Iraq may be more widely recognized, but hardly any of my students were aware of the issue, one that is considered pressing by few pundits or politicians. Yet the magnitude of anti-Christian violence and ethnic cleansing in Iraq is considerable. Since 2003, more than forty-six Assyrian churches and monasteries have been bombed, several priests have been beheaded, and entire communities have been displaced. In January 2010 alone, 12,000 Christians in the northern city of Mosul were forced out of their homes. As reported recently in Deutsche Welle:

The Christian minority in Iraq has been reduced to a shadow of its former self …. Up to two-thirds of the pre-war community has been displaced or forced to flee the country… There’s a real possibility that 2,000 years of settlement by Christian communities in Iraq is in danger of near-total extinction.

The Assyrians once received global attention. Their cause was fairly well known in the early 20th century, when an estimated 500,000 to 750,000 members of their community were slaughtered by Ottoman and Ottoman-allied forces during World War I, in a series of events known as the Sayfo, or Assyrian Genocide.* Renewed massacres of Assyrians in the early 1930s led Raphael Lemkin to begin thinking about the mass extermination of entire peoples; he later coined the term “genocide” to describe such processes. But over time the memory of the assaults receded from view, and the more extensive massacres of Armenians during the same period came to overshadow those of the Assyrians. But the repeated attacks devastated the community, as large numbers of people had to seek refuge in other lands. Deprived of their homeland, the Assyrians, unlike the Armenians, lost their place on the map. Even in their core territory, the so-called Assyrian Triangle in what is now northern Iraq, Christians were reduced to a clearly minority status. Before long they were largely forgotten by the outside world.

The Assyrians are a distinctive people not just in the religious sense. In their scattered communities in Iraq, Iran, and Syria, many if not most continue to speak Aramaic dialects – Aramaic having been a lingua franca of the ancient Near East, perhaps best known as the mother-tongue of Jesus. The modern Neo-Aramaic of the Assyrians has evolved far from the old language, but the relationship remains obvious. Both language and religion, however, divide as well as unite the indigenous Christians of the region. Neo-Aramaic itself is split into three dialects that some linguists classify as separate languages. Five separate Christian sects, moreover, are found within the larger community, two of which fall under the umbrella of Roman Catholicism (the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Syriac Catholic Church), and three of which are independent (the Assyrian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East, and the Syriac Orthodox Church). Not all of these groups are always classified as Assyrian, hence the use of such terms as “Chaldo-Assyrian.” But under intense persecution, Christians in northern Iraq today tend to stress their commonalities, not their differences.

Considering the magnitude of the Assyrian crisis, its escape from general notice is remarkable. One reason is probably that of limited public attention. The media, it often seems, regard the three-fold division of Iraq among the Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, and Sunni Kurds as complex enough, as if extended discussion of smaller groups would generate information overload. A weariness of world horrors – “humanitarian disaster fatigue ” – might also play a role. Short-lived natural disasters, even if inconsequential, garner mass attention, but more slowly unfolding and more intractable human-caused calamities seem too depressing and lack dramatic appeal. As a result, horrific campaigns of ethnic cleansing, such as those faced by the Rohingyas, a Muslim people of western Burma, proceed with little outside notice (discussed in Geocurrents on January 2, 2010).

I suspect, however, that another dynamic applies in the case of the Assyrians, a group too large and historically significant to be so easily relegated into obscurity. It would also seem that the United States and its allies have a special responsibility both to acknowledge and to address the issue, as the current assaults on the Assyrians are an indirect result of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But therein, I think, lies the rub. In the United States, conservatives may be reluctant to pay much attention to the issue because doing so highlights the unsuccessful nature of the Iraqi regime-change gambit, putting blame for a humanitarian disaster in part on their own shoulders. Liberals, I suspect, turn a blind eye to the Assyrian predicament because they do not want to draw additional attention to the actions of Muslim extremists, fearing that doing so would intensify an anti-Islamic backlash in the West, and thus enhance the power of the right-wing. Meanwhile, the carnage continues. On October 31, 2010, fifty-two people were killed after militants with suspected ties to Al Qaeda attacked a Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad.

Geocurrents will continue examining the Assyrian community and its plight through this week, with the next post focusing on the complex relations among the Assyrians, the Syrians, and the Kurds.

*Controversy persists as to whether the early 20th century attacks on the Assyrians constituted an episode of genocide; I follow the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS), which in 2007 passed a resolution declaring that the term is indeed appropriate.

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