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War in Iraq – Justice Or More Suffering for the Assyrians?
I speak the language of Jesus each time I fill my car with petrol.
That’s because the friendly young couple who run my local petrol station are from Assyria, and their language – modern Aramaic – is apparently derived from the language that Jesus spoke. They have been teaching me a few words.
Actually, I don’t know if Jesus really did say shlama ‘lokhun (hello) or baseema (thank you). There seem to be many variants of the language, and of course modern dialects presumably differ from the classical language, just as do modern and classical Greek, and modern Italian and Latin.
But I do know that Jesus said Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? (Matthew 27:46), and my friends at the petrol station say that’s pretty close to how they would say it.
The Assyrians – living in northern Iraq for 5,000 years – are among the world’s persecuted Christians. A lengthy ABC News report described their plight.
Human rights groups say the Assyrians — like the Kurds — have suffered under Saddam's systematic attempts to "Arabize" the north, a process that includes driving ethnic minorities from their lands and seizing some of their properties, especially in the strategic, oil-rich northern region bordering the Kurdish enclave.
"The Iraqi government has also forced ethnic minorities such as the Assyrians, the Kurds and the Turkomen to sign 'national correction forms' that require them to renounce their ethnic identities and declare themselves to be Arabs," says Hania Mufti of Human Rights Watch. "In a way, it is a form of ethnic cleansing by clearing an area of its ethnic minorities."
The article also noted that such has been the scale of persecution over many years that some four million Assyrians now live in the West. As with Palestinian Christians, they seem to find America, Australia, Canada and other parts of the West far more amenable than their homelands. Some experts believe their language will die.
It would be wonderful to think that any war to liberate Iraq will bring justice at last to the Assyrians. But this is far from certain. For the Assyrians in northern Iraq are under threat from another quarter – their neighbours the Kurds.
[Assyrian groups are trying to counter] Kurdish attempts to declare much of the northern region their own, including the oil-rich towns of Kirkuk and Mosul, a land-grab they have tried to sweeten by offering the Assyrians and Turkomans representation at a Kurdish parliament-to-be. Understandably, the Assyrians have rejected the offer….Indeed, the potential for massive ethnic violence in northern Iraq between Arabs, Assyrians, Kurds, and Turkomans remains high, particularly if the Baath regime were to fall quickly.…Given that Assyrians in northern Iraq have been constant victims of ethnic cleansing, the international community should take their legal claims for land rights and due compensation as seriously as the competing Kurdish and Turkoman claims on Kirkuk, another oil-rich city whose dominion is hotly contested, and which could be witness to ethnic strife in the months and years ahead.
My Assyrian friends at the petrol station could be pumping cheap Iraqi petrol soon, as the people of Iraq celebrate their freedom. But pray that the liberation of Iraq also includes justice for the Assyrians.
January 10th, 2003
I cited a report that some four million Assyrians now live in the West, and received the following email:
"This is a modern-day canard that seemingly won't be put to rest. I am confident that it would indeed be quite a different story for the Assyrian diaspora if that statement were anywhere near the truth. The figures of "3 million" and even "4 million" seem to be blithely tossed into these presentations without any care or regard for reality. Sadly, this projects an exaggerated view of the numerical importance of the Assyrians, and this in turn leads to a skewing of the public policy issues. Whether Assyrians claim a small diaspora or a large one, the important facts are the truthful ones. I am confident that a 4 million strong diaspora would be able to accomplish things that the current diaspora is generally powerless to do.
"The greatest concentration of Assyrians in the diaspora IN THE WORLD is located in the United States, and the most optimistic estimates still place it at under 200,000. The largest concentration of these American Assyrians is located in the Chicago metropolitan area, said to be the home of 50,000 or 60,000 of them. A distant second is the enclave of Turlock-Modesto (California), home to 15,000 as an optimistic estimate. This being the fact, I'd sure like to know where the other 3,800,000 members of our diaspora are located. I have traveled the world extensively over the years, and have never been able to locate but a very few elsewhere."
January 25th, 2003