The Persecution of the Copts
and the Plight of Christians in the Middle-East
Joining the list of keynote speakers at an open forum discussing the persecution of the Copts and the plight of Christians in the Middle-East, Rosie Malek-Yonan, author of The Crimson Field, spoke about the Assyrian Genocide and the current treatment of Assyrian Christians in the Middle-East. Other noted speakers included Wafa Sultan on religious minorities in the Middle-East, author Nonie Darwish on terrorism in the Middle-East, writer Ahmed Abaza, and journalist Mohammad Ghazoly. The event was sponsored by The Truth Broadcasting Network and held at the Anaheim Marriott Hotel in Southern California on Saturday 24 February 2007.
Good and Evil lives in everyone. The choice is ours.
Everyday, I pray for my people in Occupied Assyria. You know it as Iraq. I am one of them. I am one of the Christians of Occupied Assyria. Though I’d rather be called an Assyrian, for I was Assyrian long before I became Christian. My nation was the first to accept Christianity in the first century A.D.
Throughout the centuries, my nation has had to endure a lot for its Christian faith. Christianity for the Assyrians in the Middle-East has been a double edge sword. We have been persecuted for it while saving our identity.
I take the Iraq War personally because a war is raging against my nation, the indigenous people of Mesopotamia, the original inhabitants of the land between the two rivers, Tigris and Euphrates. I am from that cradle of civilization, yet today civilization is crumbling in its own cradle.
I’ve never been to Iraq, my ancestral homeland, but my thoughts drift there everyday since America, the country I call home, invaded it in 2003 without the slightest consideration and empathy for what this war would mean to the Christians of the region. Any war in the Middle-East, will inevitably become a religious war.
In June of 2006, I was invited to Washington D.C. to give a testimony on Capitol Hill about the plight of the Assyrians of Iraq. I testified about the results of the U.S. imposed democracy upon Iraq and its direct effect on the Assyrians.
We all witnessed the ongoing civil war in Iraq progressing at a fantastic pace, while Washington’s continual denial, baffled us with catchphrases such as, “We’re winning the war!” What was clear to me was that this great nation of ours had no idea what they were dealing with when it came to the Middle-East.
There are about four million Assyrians worldwide with the largest concentration in Iraq. Before the war, 1.4 million Assyrians lived in Occupied Assyria as one of Iraq’s smallest minorities representing about 3% of the population. Today less than 700,000 Assyrians remain in terrorist-driven democratic Iraq.
I don’t have to be in Iraq to understand the pain my Assyrian nation is enduring. Assyrians are not the only minority under siege in Iraq, but I have a spiritual bond to my own people and naturally feel their pain. It’s personal.
Reciting my habitual Lord’s Prayer one morning I stumbled on the line Deliver us from evil… I chanted it repeatedly, selfishly wanting God to hear my prayer over everyone else’s. I wanted God to deliver the Assyrians from the evil that besieges them because I can’t find noble men with courage to do that.
The Assyrian news is flooded with accounts of lives devastated. The images haunt me. And then I think about what must it be like for those who see with their own eyes.
I prayed for Ayad Tariq, a fourteen-year-old Assyrian from Baqouba who cried, “Yes, I am Christian, but I am not a sinner” while Moslem insurgents chanted, “Allah-u akbar!” and beheaded him.
I prayed for Father Paulos Eskandar, the Metropolitan of Mosul. Kidnapped for ransom, he was beheaded and had his arms and legs hacked off. I don’t have to know him to feel the moments of fear that gripped him before his decapitation.
I prayed for the crucified fourteen-year-old boy from the Assyrian neighborhood of Albasra whose name I don’t even know. He was Assyrian. That makes him my brother.
I prayed for my Assyrian sisters choosing to commit suicide after being abducted for ransom and raped by Islamists. I feel the terror of the hours they were gang-raped. I wrote about this practice of suicide in my novel The Crimson Field when during the 1914-1918 Assyrian Genocide young Assyrian women chose death over submission to Islam. I never imagined I’d write and speak about it again so soon.
I prayed for the courage of 22 year-old Luanna, an Assyrian woman, who came forward with her own story after being raped by an Iraqi soldier following a raid on the house she shared with her brother. When Luanna’s brother, Khalil, discovered she was pregnant, he took her to get an abortion.
I prayed for the 30 bombed Assyrian churches. These were not casualties of war. They resulted from a deliberate and systematic religious war targeting Assyrians who represent the face of Christianity in the age-old war of the sword against the cross.
Yoel and his father Emmanuel worked as interpreters for the Coalition Forces in Habbaniya when they were kidnapped. Yoel’s mother paid the $20,000 ransom with donations from relatives in America and Sweden. It’s been over a year since the release of Yoel, who is still awaiting and holding on to hope that his father, too, may be returned. Clearly, Yoel’s father will not return. But what do you say to a son who wants nothing more than to look into the eyes of his father.
The Assyrian nation that has remained an enigma since the fall of the Assyrian Empire, still faces what I call a continual slow genocide that began long before the Iraq War.
In 1895 in Diyarbekir, an estimated 55 thousand Assyrians were killed and another 100 thousand were forcibly Islamasized.
This event paved the way for the Assyrian Genocide in the shadows of WWI where two-thirds of the Assyrian population totaling 750,000, were annihilated by the Ottoman Turks, Kurds and Persians.
In 1933 the Assyrian Genocide’s resurrection was in the form of Iraq’s Semele Massacre of 3,000 unarmed Assyrian men, women and children by the Iraqi army and Kurdish warlords. This would be the first of many attacks on Assyrians in Iraq.
The 1979 the Iran Revolution saw a huge migration of the Christian population from Iran. It also witnessed the persecution of countless Assyrians and the destructions of lives of young and old for no other reason but their faith.
The 1991 gulf war and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq brought back the attacks on the Assyrians once more because they are symbolic of Christianity in insurgent dominated Iraq.
This violence against Assyrians that has now escalated with the liberation of Iraq, shows no visible signs that the crimes against the Christians in Iraq will let up any time soon.
Today, a systematic ethnic cleansing of the Assyrian Christians has once again picked up momentum in Iraq.
Washington’s decision to rid the world of evil thrust America into the battlefields of Baghdad. In the process Assyrians were delivered into the clutches of a greater evil than they had ever been subjected to during Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror.
But the protection of the Assyrian Christians never entered into this equation before the invasion of Iraq. The Assyrians were of no importance. They were a 3% minority whose voices could be ignored.
But the Assyrians in Iraq are not exactly invisible. They may not be large in numbers, but the Assyrian handprint dominates Mesopotamia and they are the image of Christianity in that region.
In 1921 the British and the French molded Iraq out of the vestiges of the Ottoman Empire in a region rich in ancient Assyrian history, artifacts, and culture. The original inhabitants of that land, the region’s 1.4 million Christian population, which has today been reduced to about 700,000, are not just antiquated remnants of the past. They are living breathing legitimate heirs to the land between the Tigris and Euphrates.
The highly anticipated Baker-Hamilton Commission Report earlier this year, disregarded the Assyrian ethnic cleansing in Iraq by referring to one of the world’s oldest nations as nothing but a mere footnote, contributing to the continual negation of the human rights of this most vulnerable nation. The denial of the Assyrian massacres in Iraq mirrors the denial of the Assyrian Genocide of World War One.
Regardless of the ongoing conflict between the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds, the attacks on Assyrians are not isolated incidents, but systematic patterns of aggression targeting that nation.
It doesn’t take much to provoke Islamic violence. Any excuse will do. From caricatures of Prophet Muhammad to Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address in Germany last year in which the Pontiff coupled Islam with violence, led to the immediate rise of attacks on Assyrian Christians in Iraq. Attacks on university students. Priests carted off for ransom and beheaded. Young Assyrian women harassed and assaulted. Infants snatched from their mothers and burned.
As a portrait of a new and improved but chaotic democratic Iraq emerges, it witnesses the thousands of Assyrian families fleeing their homeland in the largest mass exodus this century has witnessed while the ongoing campaign of terror against Christians in Iraq silently takes its toll.
Since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the unremitting attacks on the indigenous Christians of the region, it is amazing that the Assyrians have not replied violence with violence. Had they done so, Assyrians would certainly have made all the headline news.
When our churches are bombed, we don’t attack mosques. When our youth are bludgeoned to death, we don’t practice an eye for an eye. When our priests are beheaded, we pray for their souls and know they are entering the Kingdom of God. We don’t have the blood of vengeance on our hands.
We may be a nation without a country, with no political standing, no oil fields to use as bargaining chips, our human rights ignored, endlessly marginalized, terrorized and brutalized and yet we do not seek reprisal. That has never been our way. We are not stained with the blood of retribution.
In the shadows of WWI, the Ottoman Turks, Kurds and Persians carried out a systematic ethnic cleansing and genocide against the three Christian nations of Assyrians, Armenians and Hellenic Greeks, between the years 1914 and 1918 in the Ottoman Empire and Northwestern Persia.
Two-thirds of the Assyrian nation totaling 750,000 souls perished in the Ottoman Empire and Persia as a result of the genocides, starvation, dehydration, disease and exposure to elements while thousands fell victim to kidnappings, forced assimilation and forced migration.
Ironically, by the conclusion of the Great War, the Ottoman Empire’s desire to become homogenous by way of the genocides it committed against its Christian subjects resulted in the collapse of the Ottomans and the end of the Young Turks’ movement including the reduction of its territorial stretch.
The Assyrian Genocide did not end with the conclusion of the Great War. It was followed by the Death Marches of 1924 when Assyrians marched from Turkey to Aleppo, Syria.
Reeling back from this darkest period in Assyrian history, the cycle of brutality against these Christians would return time after time.
I learned of the Assyrian Genocide from early childhood. Not because someone actually sat me down and explained it to me. I, like most Assyrian children, grew up learning about it by hearing adult conversations. It was part of the daily dialogue in every Assyrian home.
More than remembering my grandmother’s words, I recall her profound grief and sadness. I remember the loud periods of silence. As a child, I didn’t know how I could comfort my grandmother. By the time she died, my grandmother had already passed her pain onto me.
The Assyrian Genocide is a chapter in history that has long been neglected by the world. As an Assyrian, it is very difficult to fathom how the Genocide of a people, can so easily be dismissed and intentionally ignored by the international community.
In 1915 the Assyrian Patriarch, Mar Benyamin Shimon saw no choice but to declare Assyrians, a nation without a country, to be the Smallest Ally of the Allies.
In exchange for this allegiance, the Assyrians were promised an autonomous region in Mesopotamia by the conclusion of the war. But this British promise to liberate them never came to pass. By March of 1918, the Assyrian Patriarch was assassinated along with 150 of his men and a nation was left to mourn its losses in silent anguish.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of the crime of Genocide against the Assyrian nation and the Armenians and Hellenic Greeks, the Turkish government’s vehement denial is a sobering reminder that history can and will repeat itself unless confronted and finally laid to rest.
Archives are overflowing with proof corroborating these crimes against Christians. Eyewitness accounts and testimonials. Newspaper articles, war correspondences, family documents, photos and even film footage.
But the greatest evidence of all is the absence of lives that once were. The hauntingly silent voices. Denial will never erase the memories of the devastation of the Assyrian nation. These events never leave us. The Assyrian Genocide has affected every Assyrian family. How could it not when two out of every Assyrian was killed?
For the past several months I have been interviewing elderly Assyrians who are in their late 90s and some over 100 years of age. I wanted to record their stories and their recollections.
Most can’t remember what they had for breakfast or how many grand children they have. But the events of the Genocide and the Exodus are embedded in their minds as clear as if they were occurring that very moment. The grief is so immeasurable that when these eyewitnesses begin to recount the sights and sounds of the Death Marches, they are transported to a place that no human should have to revisit. But it is these memories that keep history honest and in check.
“I saw a woman half naked on the roadside. She had been dead some hours before, for her body was quite cold. A child crept around her moaning for food and a baby on her breast fast asleep. A most nerve wrecking sight…”
An entry from the 1918 Diary of Rev. Isaac Malek-Yonan written during the Great Exodus from Urmi, Iran to Baquba in Mesopotamia (now Iraq).
The effects of the post-traumatic stress syndrome are irrefutable. This condition affects not only those who saw, but an entire nation that cannot sever ties with its painful past. Our past has made us who we are today. Our past haunts us and the voices from the past beg to never be forgotten. And now voices from the present ask the same.
So we build monuments in their memory. We write books, give lectures and attend conferences. We hold vigils and teach our youth never to forget. All the while we know that the violence will not cease.
While governments including the Turkish government, continue their denial of the Assyrian Genocide both past and present then perhaps they can tell us where the Assyrians disappeared?
If there was no genocide, then what happened to members of my nation? What happened to members of my family? Was it mass insanity that made Assyrians run into the wilderness and the open fields to be attacked and killed?
What made them run in the middle of the night leaving behind their homes, lands, businesses, farms, orchards, churches, communities, villages, cities and possessions?
What made them leave behind their loved ones, the elderly, the sick, the cripple, the blind and the orphans, all those who couldn’t flee?
These same questions apply to the Assyrians of Iraq in present day. Why are there more than 300,000 Assyrian refugees stranded in Syria, Jordan and Turkey since the liberation of Iraq?
The answer is that the liberation of Iraq became the oppression of Assyrians by no fault of their own.
I am certain that there will be future attacks on the Christians of the Middle-East as I know with certainty that there will be more attacks on the West. It would be naive to believe otherwise. It would be equally naive not to recognize that these attacks began with the first declaration of jihad against Christians in the Middle-East in the form of the Christian Genocides which then set a precedent for the Jewish Holocaust.
Wasn’t it Hitler who ask, “Who remembers the Armenians?” By then Assyrians had ceased to be even a faint memory in the collective consciousness of the world.
Assyrians today living in the Middle-East don’t choose war. War chooses them because they represent Christianity and by proximity, they are the closest targets of aggression against the people of the cross.
Though Assyrians still make Middle-East their home, the exodus and forced migration of Assyrians from their homeland has dispersed the four million population to live in diaspora in their adopted countries across the globe.
So, tonight, as always, I will light a candle and when I close my eyes, I will whisper in quiet prayer that my nation be delivered from evil…
©2007 Rosie Malek-Yonan. All Rights Reserved.
Published 2007 Zinda Magazine (Washington, D.C.)