Assyrian Christian leaders in Iraq say the future existence of the country’s dwindling Christian population hangs in the balance as violence continues unabated. According to a report by the Assyrian International News Agency, direct blame has been leveled at Iraqi government and Coalition forces’ inaction in the face of mounting attacks against Christian populations.
The primary focus of the community’s concerns now centers on the deteriorating security situation of the Assyrian Christians in the Dora neighborhood of southwest Baghdad. Prior to the war, the predominantly Christian neighborhood was home to over 5,000 Assyrian households. Now, the overwhelming majority have fled the area.
Threats and attacks have escalated as the “surge” has increased pressure on insurgents. On May 18, St. George Church was burned down by Islamist arsonists. The same church had survived an earlier bombing along with five other churches on October 16, 2004. On May 20, an Assyrian priest, Fr. Hanna, was kidnapped. In April, Christian residents of Dora were given an ultimatum to either pay the jizya, a “protection” tax demanded by the Islamist insurgents, convert to Islam, or leave. Those choosing to leave were reportedly not allowed to take their possessions with them, as these were said to “now belong to the mosque.” At least 21 families took refuge in nearby churches. The May 20 church burning has heightened fears that even churches are no longer safe for Assyrians.
On May 18, the Patriarch of the Ancient Church of the East, Mar Addai II, stated that “only the families that agree to give a daughter or sister in marriage to a Muslim can remain.” Homes not yet expropriated by force are increasingly being legally signed over by family members of hostages in exchange for captive relatives’ release.
Despite numerous appeals to US and Iraqi government forces, Christian community leaders say repeated assurances of assistance have failed to materialize. Viewed with suspicion by the Islamist insurgents as co-religionists and collaborators with US occupation forces, Assyrian Christians have often borne the brunt of reprisals by Islamists. In a rare condemnation, the Assyrian Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, Mar Emmanuel Delly, lashed out against US forces who occupied Babel College, the former theological center of the Chaldean Church, without the Church’s consent. Mar Delly chastised the Iraqi government as well as “all those in power who did nothing and are doing nothing to stop this tragedy.” One observer added, “not only aren’t the Americans helping us, but they are fueling the reprisals against us by operating out of Babel College.”
Although some concentrations of Assyrians remain in the Baghdad area—including Hai Al-Athuriyeen (Assyrian quarter), Al-jam’iya, and Al-sihha—the vast majority of the population in the country have been forced to flee. According to the UN, more than half have left Iraq entirely, with still more joining the ranks of the internally displaced. In Basra, the Christian community has almost entirely vanished. Small pockets still hang on in Kirkuk and Mosul.
Many Assyrians are settling in the ancient historic heartland of Assyria, in the Nineveh Plain, which lies within the relatively secure Kurdish autonomous zone. But here as well, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) paramilitary forces harass, intimidate, and sometimes assassinate Assyrian leaders. Assyrians are referred to as “Christian Kurds” and security is contingent on accepting a Kurdish identity.
According to Jackie Bejan, a prominent Assyrian American activist, “There are many who think that we are now witnessing another cycle of genocide, very similar to the one inflicted upon our people in 1915 by the Ottoman Turks… What is happening now to the Iraqi Christians and other minorities is certainly and rapidly approaching all requirements and measurements of the most horrific crime against humanity, genocide.”
Assyrian leaders are demanding immediate assistance to the besieged residents of Dora. They are demanding that if US and Iraqi forces are unable to secure the Dora neighborhood, then Assyrian residents should be assisted with evacuation for resettlement in the Nineveh Plain in an Assyrian Safe Haven or Administrative Area free of KDP control, with adequate resources to allow them to remain and survive within the country. (AINA, May 31)