(Los Angeles) – In the aftermath of the October 31, 2010 Massacre at the Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, California, hosted a Press Conference at the Museum of Tolerance on Monday December 20, 2010, to expose the crisis that the Assyrian nation has been facing in Iraq.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center is one of the largest international Jewish human rights organizations with over 400,000 member families in the United States.
Assyrian activist, Ms. Rosie Malek-Yonan, and religious leaders of various faiths were invited to attend the conference to call attention to the extermination of Assyrian Christians in Iraq.
Conference speakers included Ms. Rosie Malek-Yonan, author of The Crimson Field, Dr. Carl Moeller, CEO of Open Doors, Fr. Alexei Smith, Director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, Imam Jihad Turk, Director of Religious Affairs of the Islamic Center of Southern California and Swami Sarvadevananda, Assistant Minister of the Vedanta Society of Southern California.
Also in attendance were Randolph Dobbs, Secretary of the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of Los Angeles, Nirinjan Singh Khalsa, Executive Director of the California Sikh Council and Joel Pilcher, V.P. of Communications for Open Door.
In his introduction, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of Interfaith Affairs at The Simon Wiesenthal Center noted that the systematic campaign of persecution of Christians in Iraq, namely the Assyrians, was a repeat of what happened to the Jews in the1940’s. He thanked Ms. Malek-Yonan for bringing the plight of the Assyrians in Iraq to the attention of the Wiesenthal Center and said, “We call on all people of faith, and all Americans, to speak up for the embattled Christians of Iraq and against the disturbing pattern of violence against other faiths and places of worship.”
In her media address, Ms. Malek-Yonan thanked the Wiesenthal Center and Rabbi Adlerstein for hosting the press conference but stressed the importance of not reducing the Assyrian Nation to a mere religious designation as it only served to further eradicate the Assyrians from their crumbling ancestral homeland.
An outspoken advocate of the Assyrian identity, Ms. Malek-Yonan said, “Assyrians were in the region long before Iraq was a country and long before the advent of Christianity.” She spoke of the personal nature of the Iraq War against her nation. “This war is personal. It is my nation…my blood.” Her heartfelt comments struck a chord with the attendees as I glanced around the room and witnessed the quiet nods in solidarity. “The Assyrians in Iraq will be playing a game of Russian roulette this Christmas. They never know when they leave home to attend church, if that is going to be their last mass.”
Ms. Malek-Yonan spoke of the crimes committed against the Assyrian nation in Iraq since the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. She criticized the silence of the western media in the face of the ongoing atrocities committed against her vulnerable nation including sixty-six bombed churches, massacre, kidnappings for ransom, murder and the total devastation of lives.
Ms. Malek-Yonan also touched upon the Assyrian Genocide of 1914-1918 and the Semele Massacre of Assyrians in Iraq and explained that the term genocide was coined as a result of the Semele Massacre.
The conference attendees called on the U.S. House of Representatives to pass HR 1725, a resolution “condemning and deploring the murderous attacks, bombings, kidnappings, and threats against vulnerable religious communities in Iraq.”
Perhaps the most poignant moment of the day came at the conclusion of the Conference, when Imam Jihad Turk, Director of Religious Affairs of the Islamic Center, expressed to Ms. Malek-Yonan his disdain for the maltreatment of the Christians in Iraq.
Ms. Malek-Yonan asked, “Why then do you not stand with us and make public statements condemning the acts of violence and aggression against Christian Assyrians? Why have the peace loving Moslems not attended any of the Black Marches around the globe in opposition to the Baghdad Church Massacre?
“We didn’t know what was going on in Iraq. No one informed us,” Mr. Turk replied.
“So now you know, Mr. Turk. Now you are informed,” replied Ms. Malek-Yonan.
In a follow-up to the Press Conference, Ms. Malek-Yonan, was interviewed by Fox News that aired the same evening in a live broadcast.
The YouTube link to the Fox News interview can be found here.
After leaving the Museum of Tolerance, I sat down with Ms. Malek-Yonan to ask her a few questions. She graciously obliged.
Miller: I noticed when you got up to speak today, you had a prepared statement but then you folded it and spoke from your heart. Can you elaborate on that?
Ms. Malek-Yonan: I was very honored and appreciative to be given the opportunity to speak at the Conference, but I was also getting annoyed that the Assyrian identity was kept out of the equation by all the westerners. Yes we are a majority Christian nation, but that is separate and apart from our national identity. I had to address that fact and it became necessary to dispense with my prepared statement and speak from my heart. I am very much involved in the Assyrian fight for recognition. I’m part of the movement. I live it and deal with it daily.
Miller: If you can describe Assyrians in one word what would that be?
Ms. Malek-Yonan: Tolerant. And how befitting that the Press Conference was held at the Museum of Tolerance.
Miller: Why do you say tolerant?
Ms. Malek-Yonan: Just look at what Assyrians are enduring and yet they don’t retaliate against their oppressors. When they bomb our churches, we don’t go bombing their mosques. We remain tolerant. Perhaps one day our oppressors will learn to be tolerant as well. They will have to in order to become a democratic society.
Miller: What is your view on the Iraq War?
Ms. Malek-Yonan: You haven’t done your homework if you have to ask me this question.
Miller: I think I know your view. I want others to know it as well.
Ms. Malek-Yonan: I am absolutely anti war! I was against the Iraq War from the onset. War was not the answer because there was no pending question that warranted the attack or invasion of Iraq. Weapons of Mass Destruction was just a cover story. Unfortunately the Assyrians and other minorities in Iraq became casualties of a senseless war that has caused devastation and loss of precious life on all sides.
Miller: What about the non-Assyrian or non-Christian Iraqi casualties of war? Do you ever speak for them?
Ms. Malek-Yonan: They have louder voices and resources than the Assyrians. There are enough activists and politicians fighting their cause. But Assyrians have no voice. As I said before, war devastates all sides. It’s only natural that I speak for Assyrians.
Miller: What will you do next?
Ms. Malek-Yonan: Continue to write, speak and educate. Continue to call upon Congress and the European Union to address the crises Assyrians are facing. Though I know those calls will fall on deaf ears as they have in the past years. But for the sake of the Assyrians in the homeland and the multitude of refugees still struggling in Iraq’s neighboring countries, we must speak out at every opportunity.
Miller: What keeps you going day after day?
Ms. Malek-Yonan: The belief in the basic goodness of humankind. I hope that one day we will in fact witness democracy, equality and tolerance not just in Iraq but also throughout the world. It many not happen in my lifetime, but one has to hold on to hope and work towards bringing that dream, that idea to fruition. Assyria will never be abandoned because I am not alone in the peaceful battle for her.
Miller: Thank you for your candor and Godspeed.
Ms. Malek-Yonan: My pleasure.
by T. Miller
20 December 2010
Photo of Rosie Malek-Yonan Courtesy of John Chimon