ZOGBY’S EXAGGERATED PERSUASION
The Assyrian lobbying efforts since September 2001 have been measured, to say the least, but rewarding. Dr. Ronald Michael, president of the Assyrian American League is a vocal advocate of greater Assyrian recognition on the Capital Hill and the White House. Our academicians have also been maintaining an extremely hectic schedule since January. Professor Emanuel Kamber, Dr. Eden Naby, and Dr. Katrin Michael can rightfully call Washington their home away from their classrooms and research facilities. Dr. Naby’s outreach efforts are truly praiseworthy as her presence is also felt at every academic and cultural gathering held by major Assyrian communities.
In the meantime there appear to be indirect anti-Assyrian efforts, nimbly slowing the Assyrian political maneuverings in D.C., emanating from lobby groups associated with Arab and Turkish institutions across the Potomac. We’ll come back to the latter group in a future issue. This week we focus on the group headed by Dr. James Zogby. The Arab American Institute (http://www.aaiusa.org) is a powerful lobbying organization headquartered in Washington D.C. that carries out various lobbying efforts on behalf of the Arab-Americans in the United States. According to AAI, the Chaldeans in the U.S. are among these cosseted “Arab” groups.
The Arab American Institute continues to refer to the Christians of Iraq as Chaldeans, ignoring their Assyrian identity. This abhorrently persistent policy of separating the Chaldeans and Assyrians was protested by the Assyrian groups – to no avail. Some erroneous information was removed from their website to appease the campaigners, only to be replaced with other invalid statements. In a web page titled “Population Estimates of Americans of Iraqi/Chaldean Ancestry”, AAI acknowledges the Chaldean population in the U.S. as the integral part of this country’s Arab population. This stands true also with AAI’s portrayal of the Maronite, Melkite, and Coptic populations.
The most distressingly ignorant comment made by Dr. Zogby this year was indeed his statement regarding the recent visit by President Bush to Michigan. Zogby writes: “When President Bush spoke to what the media described as a supportive Arab American audience in Dearborn Michigan, the media carried the address and portrayed it uncritically. The scenario was carefully crafted for U.S. and Arab world audiences since it was carried live around the world. The President's podium was set before a backdrop with Arabic and English writing. Behind the President were seated a small group of about 40 Iraqi Americans some Shi'ia and some Chaldean. The audience was not seen, but the impression was created that it was an enthusiastic crowd representative of Michigan's 400,000 plus Arab Americans.”
In fact, two prominent representatives at this gathering were none other than Mrs. Janey Golani and Professor Emanuel Kamber of Michigan (see last week’s issue). In their speeches they clearly stated their collective Assyrian and Chaldean identity and yet Dr. Zogby’s ears were once again heavily imposed with the AAI’s overblown statistics.
Dr. Zogby, please note the following statement before your next editorial: “Chaldeans are not Arab. Neither are Maronites, Coptics, or Melkites. The use of the Arabic language does not Arabize a person, neither does his or her association with the Arabic businesses or organizations. The terms ‘Chaldean’, ‘Assyrian’, ‘Syriac’, and ‘Aramean’ refer to the same people – inseparable and completely dissimilar to those with affinity for Arab identity.”
One wonders how would Dr. Zogby’s statistical data on Arab population in the United States seem bereft of any individuals that identify themselves as Assyrian, Syriac, or Chaldean. Don’t hold your breath though… If there is one thing a lobbyist loves to exaggerate, it is the inflated empirical value of votes cast in support of a particular candidate. And Zogby needs all the votes AAI can afford for the 2004 Senate and Presidential elections.
THE ASSYRIAN SOLUTION STARTS FROM A PROVINCE AND ENDS IN AUTONOMY OR SELF-RULE
Every Assyrian wants an autonomous region or even an independent state in American 'liberated' and reshuffled Baghdad and most of us express it openly, but the dithering status of our political movements especially at home make this approach untenable. They talk too much but achieve very little. The flimsy and empty promises of democratic Baghdad and recognition of the Assyrian ethnicity do not suffice the current mentality of grab as you can and impose as you can. The status quo and the status quo ante before it do not serve our ambitions as a distinctive nation.
This sloganeering might have been raiseable in post T E Lawrence's Baghdad and the following misrule of Baghdadi officialdom and up to 1968 prior to the Baathist takeover. The Kurds, Arabs central and Arabs south plot to carve up what the want willy-nilly leaving us the indigenous Assyrians and Yezidis hoisting the banners of democracy and representation, inebriating ourselves with miraculous and heavenly Baghdad contrited from its past iniquities and future sins. The fascist Baath would not go along with these slogans but the successors and the new comers in Baghdad are ready to go along with it knowing in advance that such claim does not perturb the autocratic structure of Arabic Baghdad. They will numb us with a cabinet portfolio like Wazir el Baladiyat (minister of municipalities), something already offered to us in 1966, and just to be annulled later. There is no guarantee of written and unwritten status in Middle East politics and mentality:
1- From Assyrian point of view asking for representation in a united country and in the present situation will not serve us but will cease us. We are Assyrian and Christian and always the odd one is out in term of the dictatorship and abuse of the majority. We will continue to dilute and sacrifice our national and cultural existence.
Add to this we are not populated and will remain so due to low birthrate and emigration and this means that year after year we will sink further in the pool of the majority.
2- The current climate may be democratic while the American soldiers are patrolling the streets of Baghdad, but in the long run the emergence of another clown like Saddam or even another Arius like Tariq Aziz is not a far fetched scenario. In my lifetime I have witnessed five successful military takeovers, with numerous failed attempts.
Our political movements have to enter the corridors of power in new Baghdad with enthusiasm, energy and strength and force their way and impose by the scruff of the neck and stop begging. We have to erase and forever the catchphrase that dubbed us for so long as 'a tiny Christian community'. Our indentity is written on our foreheads as the indigenous and aborigine people and we belong to this land. Until the advent of the fascist Baath to power in 1968, the country was divided into 14 provinces (14 muhafathat), 2 Kurdish, 3 Arab central, 7 Arab south and 2 mixed or neutral.
With the Baath in power and to appease the Kurds and to promote their
tribal influence the country was redivided into 18 provinces (18 Muhafathat),
3 Kurdish, 4 Arab central, 9 Arab south and 2 mixed or neutral. Here
part of Mosul was given to the Kurds as the province of Dohuk. Currently
the Kurds have three provinces Dohuk, Arbil and Sulaymaniya but we
have nothing because our lands are under the Kurds and the Arabs in
the mixed or neutral province. The Kurds can blackmail the new comers
in Baghdad for a federation and they have the means to do it. We can
With the Assyrian province in our bag then we force our way in a way that if the country remains based on provinces we will have our own, but should the country be federated we must stand head and shoulder with the other groups demanding equal destiny.
This must be implemented and with defiance because others are jockeying for power and all is not sympathetic to us. Here we use the current circumstances to further our cause and our national aspiration before the departure of the American troops. Anyone who is able to go to Baghdad in the current circumstances should do so and take the example of Rev Ken Joseph and impose the Assyrian stand as Zinda Magazine explored it in the last issue. Circumstances are not the same for every Assyrian to go now but once the country is secure, law enforced, transport is easier and living becomes normal then an Assyrian delegation from abroad should be arranged preferably by Zinda Magazine to officially meet the new government and those at the very top and present our Assyrian position-Assyrian province first and then if the country is federated we will be part in that federation.
Dr George Habash
FUTURE IRAQI INTERIM GOVERNMENT TO INCLUDE AN ASSYRIAN
(ZNDA: Washington) A group nine Iraqis is expected to head Iraq's interim government in the coming months, according to retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the U.S. civil administrator for Iraq. Reliable sources to Zinda Magazine report that the group will include an Assyrian representing the Christian groups in Iraq.
Garner said on Monday that the group includes Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party; Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress; Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan; Iyad Allawi of the Iraqi National Accord; and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, whose elder brother heads the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
The 9-member group will be chosen by Iraqis and will include
locals in addition to returned exiles. Many Iraqis are concerned
that certain exiles might act as puppet leaders for the United
States or would misunderstand the needs of the country.
ASSYRIAN VOTED ASSISTANT GOVERNOR OF NINEVEH PROVINCE
(ZNDA: Mosul) In Mosul on Monday, about 230 representatives from the city's main families and ethnic groups voted in the provincial elections. In addition to a governor for the Province of Nineveh, a 24-member council was also elected of whose members three are Assyrian. Confirmed reports to Zinda Magazine indicate the elected Assyrian officials are Dr. Yousif Hanna Lallu as Deputy Governor, Rev. Lewis Sako and Mr. Ghani Salim Sofiya. Dr. Lallu, from Bartilla, holds a Ph.D. in psychology and is a professor at Mosul University.
The governor position was won by Ghanim al-Basso, a Major-General in the Iraqi Army, an independent and from a well-known Mosuli family. In addition to the Assyrian deputy, two additional deputies for the governor well elected, one Kurdish and another Turkomen.
Retired army Gen. Ghanim al-Boso, an Arab, was selected as mayor; a Kurd, Khosrow Goran, was chosen as deputy mayor; and an Assyrian and a Turk were selected as the mayor's assistants.
Lt. Col. Ryan Gonsalves, a U.S. military commander in Tikrit, said the council would be a "representation from the entire city of Mosul."
The 24-member council consists of seven Arabs, three Kurds, two Assyrians, one Turkmen and one Shebak inside the city of Mosul and six Arabs, one Yezidi and one Assyrian from outside the city, along with two former generals.
[Z-info: On 30 April,
SF1 - the largest Swiss television station - ran a special report
on the Assyrian GHB Freedom Fighters in the city of Kirkuk.
To view this special segment click here.
To download a free copy of RealPlayer to view this file click
IRAQ’S PATRIARCHS & BISHOPS DEMAND EQUAL RIGHTS
(ZNDA: Baghdad) The following is a statement of the Iraqi patriarchs and bishops released last week in Baghdad. Published and published through the Vatican press office:
At this moment, when Iraq is turning a page and is beginning a new chapter in her millenary life, we, the Patriarchs and Bishops of the Christian Churches in Iraq, driven also by pressure from our faithful, wish to express our aspirations relative to the future of this country, in the hope that the Iraqi people, which has had a long history marked by defeats and successes, will be able, without religious or ethnic distinction, to live in freedom, justice and respect for interreligious and multiethnic coexistence.
When Hammurabi sculpted his Code on the stone of this land, law became the basis of the development of civilization.
When Abraham looked at the heavens above Ur, they opened up to him and, by this revelation, Abraham became the Father of a multitude of peoples.
When Christianity and Islam met, their respective "holy ones" began the two religions in respectful and reciprocal coexistence.
In addition, by virtue of our original right of belonging to the most ancient peoples of this land, we claim for ourselves and for all those who live in it today, whether a majority or minority, united by a long history of coexistence, the full right to live in a state of law, in peace, freedom, justice and equality, according to the Human Rights Charter. Consequently, we -- Chaldeans, Assyrians, Syrians, Armenians, Greeks and Latins -- forming together one Christian community, ask that the new Iraqi Constitution:
-- Recognize our religious, cultural, social and political rights;
And, lastly, we make this appeal before everyone, the Iraqi people, rich in ethnicities and religions, the political and religious authorities, as well as to everyone who has the good of the country at heart, and to the leaders of the international community.
FINAL DECLARATION OF THE AMSTERDAM CONFERENCE
This declaration by delegates working for national unity in regard to our people in Iraq was adopted unanimously at a conference held in Driebergen, The Netherlands on April 2003. In attendance at the conference called and hosted by the Assyrian Universal Alliance (AUA), were observer activists, government dignitaries involved in the Assyrian Question, and the undersigned political parties, organizations, and federations.
The Assyrian Nation includes Chaldean and Syriac … and are the indigenous people of Iraq and the remnants of the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrian numbers over four (4) million scattered throughout the world with two (2) million still in the homeland of Iraq. They are the second largest minority and as Christians the second largest religion of Iraq. The declaration points adopted are:
1. That we support the integrity of an undivided Iraq.
Adopted unanimously on April 27, 2003
1. To achieve the goal of unity to connect the divisions affecting
our people, the Assyrian, Chaldean, Malachite, Syriac, and Maronite
… church denominations through centuries. We call for an official
invitation from this conference to be issued to all Church Leaders
to begin a dialogue of understanding and unity to heal the wounds
of all sects of our nation.
Adopted unanimously on April 27, 2003
Assyrian Universal Alliance
IN WASHINGTON ASSYRIANS DEMAND BETTER REPRESENTATION
Courtesy of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (2 May); report by Sterling Wright
(ZNDA: Washington) A group of Iraqi activists met in Washington last week to discuss the makeup of a future government in Baghdad. The participants say a viable Iraqi government must allow the participation of all segments of society.
Participating in a panel discussion at RFE/RL's Washington offices this week, activists for Kurdish, Christian, and Turkoman interests shared their respective goals and visions for a pluralistic Iraqi society.
Dr. Katrin Michael, a Chaldean, works with the Iraq Foundation in Washington. Michael Flannigan is a Washington lobbyist representing Iraqi Chaldean and Assyrian Christians. Both insisted that the territorial integrity of Iraq be maintained and that the country's resources be fairly distributed to all citizens. But like the Kurds, they also wanted Christian communities granted localized self-rule.
Lacking representation under Saddam Hussein, Chaldean and Assyrian Christians have now adopted a unified political front -- the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM) -- to lobby for representation within the new government. Michaels says a primary goal of the ADM is to establish secular democracy in Iraq: "We should insist that democracy not be made into the means of the majority to rule over the minorities. It means that all ethnicities [ethnic groups] have equal status."
Within a federal system, the Assyrians want decentralized political and administrative control over their community and the freedom to run churches, schools, and media outlets.
Additionally, they want to assure the preservation of their cultural heritage by protecting the archaeological sites of Nineveh and Ur.
Flannigan says people will need to be firm but also will need to allow for compromise in the debate over who owns and controls what land:
The policy of Arabization did not count Chaldeans and Assyrians as separate cultural and ethnic groups. Therefore, Flannigan and Michaels say a census is needed to accurately determine Iraq's Christian population.
Flannigan says, "We want the ability to live as ourselves --
to be Assyrians within a pluralistic Iraq."
ASSYRIAN MENTAL PATIENT REMAINS IN AUSTRALIAN DETENTION CENTER AFTER 11 YEARS
Courtesy of the Courier Mail (3 May); by Mark Phillips
(ZNDA: Melbourne's) Almost 11 years after arriving in Australia as an asylum seeker, Vilperit Betkhoshabeh is still in Melbourne's Maribyrnong detention centre knowing he could one day be deported back to the country he fled.
He has spent just 18 months of those 11 years as a free man.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee recommended in October that Mr Betkhoshabeh, 42, an accountant who suffers a mental illness, should be released and compensated for what was called "cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment".
Although the Federal Government was asked to respond within 90 days, it has failed to do so.
A spokesman for Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said the Government was still finalising its response.
Mr Betkhoshabeh's family in Australia continue to maintain hope he will one day be released but fear if he is deported to Iran he will face persecution because of his Assyrian Christian religion.
His only taste of freedom is being allowed an accompanied visit for Sunday lunch once a month to the Tullamarine house of his brother Victor and mother Youlieh.
His sister-in-law, Violet Betkhoshabeh, said the family encouraged him to remain positive.
"We're just trying to give him courage," she said.
Mr Betkhoshabeh spent his first two years in Australia in the Maribyrnong detention centre after arriving on a one-way ticket in July 1992. In August 1994, he was released into the care of his family with paranoid schizophrenia.
His psychiatrist, Professor Patrick McGorry, claims the illness was triggered by the detention centre environment.
Mr Betkhoshabeh was granted a protection visa as a refugee on March 16, 1995. But the Government has wanted to deport him since 1997 because of an offence he committed after his protection visa was granted.
Mr Betkhoshabeh served an 18-month sentence for aggravated burglary and making threats to kill after breaking into the home of an immigration official who was also a family friend.
Under the Immigration Act, any jail term of more than 12 months results in a visa cancellation and deportation.
However, the Immigration Minister has the discretion to stop the deportation.
Mr Betkhoshabeh has remained under detention, initially at Port Phillip Prison and now at Maribyrnong, since the jail sentence finished in December 1998.
Professor McGorry said as long as Mr Betkhoshabeh continued taking the drug Clorazil he posed no threat to the community.
"The worst you can say at the moment is he appears quite depressed," Professor McGorry said.
"The continuing uncertainty about the situation is most damaging but, also, institutionalisation means he must have lost all of his survival skills.
"On a human rights basis, he's been incarcerated for 10 years which is the best years of his life."
The UN Human Rights Committee became involved in November 1999 and found Australia had breached its obligations under the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights by detaining Mr Betkhoshabeh when he was suffering a mental illness.
It said he should be compensated and should not be deported.
However, the Government is under no obligation to accept the committee's recommendations.
Human rights barrister Nicholas Poynder, who represented Mr Betkhoshabeh before the UN committee, said its decision was an indictment on the system of mandatory detention.
"What sort of country are we to lock up a person who was found to be a genuine refugee until he goes crazy and then when he goes crazy and commits a crime because of us locking him up, we will deport him to a country where he will be persecuted?" he said.
Courtesy of the Associated Press (5 May)
(ZNDA: Detroit) Chaldeans living in Michigan want to preserve their culture. So, they're planning a $5 million Chaldean Community Cultural Center in the city of West Bloomfield.
Adhid Miri, the president of the Chaldean Iraqi American Association, says the community center will be a base for the community's values and history. The center is being touted as the first of its kind in the world and is scheduled to open in the summer 2004.
It will feature a library, an historic time-line exhibit and a gallery
with replicas of murals and ornate relics from ancient Chaldean society.
THE ASSYRIAN MONESTARY SADDAM ADMIRED SO MUCH
Courtesy of the Cox News Service (4 May); by Mike Williams
(ZNDA: Baghdad) It's hard to imagine a bloody dictator like Saddam Hussein visiting this stunning Christian monastery perched high on a craggy mountain, where monks have prayed in rooms carved from rock for more than 1,700 years.
But Saddam did once visit, according to Father Paulus, a blind Assyrian Christian monk who has lived here in isolation for more than 40 years.
The dictator was apparently so moved by the breath-taking view that he ordered a government-funded renovation of the monastery and the construction of his own private retreat.
"We welcome all here, and we spoke about our history," said Father Paulus, recalling Saddam's 1980 visit. "He didn't stay long, and never returned."
The anecdote is one more odd tidbit in the legacy of a dictator who terrorized his people for decades. A Sunni Muslim, Saddam was tolerant of the estimated 1.5 million Christians who live in Iraq, but also violently repressed the majority Shiite Muslims whom he apparently saw as rivals of his own Sunni tribe.
While scholars have decried the terrible looting of Iraq's museums in the war's chaotic aftermath, the St. Matthew Monastery escaped untouched, both by Saddam's brutal regime and the war.
The retreat is a window into Iraq's fascinating past, as well as an indication that modern-day Iraq is a place of surprising religious diversity.
In northern Iraq, there are dozens of Christian villages dotting the rolling fields and steep mountain slopes. It isn't uncommon to see a domed church topped by a cross only a few blocks from a mosque marked by minarets and the crescent moon symbol of Islam.
In the mountain village of Shaqlawah in the Kurdish region, Roman Catholic priest Zaya Shaba prepares his Sunday homily beneath a picture of the pope, even as the 4 p.m. call to prayers from a nearby mosque echoes down the valley.
"Our history here goes back to the time of Christ," he said. "Our first church here was built in 200 A.D. We have been here longer than the Muslims, and we have never had problems. Our families live mixed together with one another."
Shaba often takes tea with Mullah Ottoman Abdullah Ismail, who runs the nearby mosque.
"We have the same problems of clergymen everywhere," said Ismail. "We must tend our flocks."
The ministers sometimes visit each other's services for important ceremonies, and have grown accustomed to presiding over marriages and funerals attended by people from the other faith.
"We love and respect each other," said Ismail, a notion that may bring comfort to Americans accustomed to hearing mostly of the anger of Islamic extremists who believe western culture is decadent and should be destroyed.
But there are other faiths in northern Iraq that, while obscure to many, trace their roots back to ancient times. One of the most interesting is the Yezidi sect, a group that worships Lucifer, the fallen Angel that in Judeo-Christian lore became Satan.
The group's members pray at sunrise and sunset. They won't eat lettuce and never wear blue, for reasons long forgotten. They believe that Lucifer did not become Satan, but instead was restored to his position as God's chief angel, and they credit him with creating the material world.
The sect has a shrine high in a mountain valley north of Mosul, and claims a following spread through dozens of villages north of Mosul.
With Saddam now gone, some from the minority sects wonder if the tolerance the dictator showed toward groups other than the Shiites will hold. There are worries that long-simmering tensions between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims will break into new conflict and that Iraq might fall under the sway of religious extremism and intolerance, as has happened in other parts of the Muslim world in recent years.
But blind Father Paulus, secure in his mountain retreat where Christian monks have prayed undisturbed since the 3rd Century seemed unmoved by the tumultuous events that have shaken his country in the past few weeks.
"All are welcome here," he said, repeating the words he once spoke to Saddam. "We want nothing but peace for the world."
CHRISTIANS FOR SADDAM?
Reprinted from OrthodoxyToday.com
After the Divine Liturgy a few Sundays ago, I joined several other men from my parish for brunch. The topic of Iraq came up, and one of the men remarked that he had heard that there was a substantial Christian population in Iraq, and that Tariq Assiz, the Iraqi foreign minister, was a Roman Catholic. He was shocked that a Christian could be associated with such a man as Saddam Hussein.
“What can that mean for his witness as a Christian to serve such a leader?” my friend asked in bewilderment.
While I cannot know what is in Mr. Assiz’s heart, only God can know that, I can certainly understand, on a basic level, his service to Saddam Hussein. Before we, in the West, become too judgmental of our co-religionists living under Muslim rule, I believe we need to understand the world Iraqi Christians inhabit. It is a brutal world of few good choices, and many potential dangers. Theirs is a truly desperate plight, and it is one that our forthcoming invasion of Iraq is quite likely to make much, much worse.
Background – Iraqi Christians
In Iraq, live an estimated 1 million Christians who are ethnically Assyrian. This community descends from the various Mesopotamian kingdoms that once ruled the area and formed powerful empires in the Fertile Crescent. Their Christian heritage is ancient, as many Assyrians converted to Christianity as early as the second century A.D. Assyrians define themselves as a broad category of Christian groups speaking Aramaic (the language of Jesus) that includes followers of the Chaldean Catholic Church (in communion with Rome), the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Church of the East, among others.
The Assyrians have lived under foreign domination since the fall of the Assyrian kingdom to Persian power in the seventh century B.C. Since then, the Assyrians have been subjected to Persian, Arab, and Ottoman domination. Between 1919 and early 1920, Assyrian nationalists under the leadership of their Patriarch Sham'un fought fiercely to defend their ethnic areas in what later became modern Turkey, shah-ruled Iran, and British-ruled Iraq. As a result of ethnic cleansing by Iranian, Turkish, and Arab-Iraqi forces in the 1920s and 1930s, the Assyrians lost thousands of people and regrouped in the mountainous regions north of Baghdad.
Under various Iraqi governments, particularly those following the British withdrawal in 1945, Christians in Iraq have been politically suppressed. Although substantial numbers of their intellectuals chose to join the Ba‘th regime and identify themselves as Arab Christians, the Assyrians have been subjected to systematic attempts by Saddam’s regime to "Arabize" them, 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. This has been done partly out of Saddam’s fear of disloyalty on the part of non-Arabs, and partly out of a desire to reward Saddam’s political supporters with their land.
"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."
Today, in the Middle East, Assyrians are spread across Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, where rights groups say they live as small, often discriminated-against minorities under governments largely unsympathetic to their religious and cultural aspirations. In Iraq, most Assyrians live in the North, under Kurdish control in an enclave that was established after the 1991 Gulf War. There, they have achieved a modicum of independence, and are allowed five seats in the Kurdish Parliament.
In fact, this is perhaps the best situation in which Assyrians have found themselves in some time. Given their history with Saddam, and the relative freedom they are experiencing in Northern Iraq, you would probably assume that the Assyrians would like nothing better than to see Saddam’s murderous regime consigned to the dustbin of history.
Unfortunately, you would be wrong.
Saddam Hussein – That Bad in Context?
This may come as a shock to many Americans, whose image of Saddam has been framed by comparisons to Adolf Hitler, but the prevalent fear among Assyrians, both in Iraq and abroad, is that what comes next after an American invasion will be worse.
"Our greatest fear if there is a regime change in Iraq is if there will be a substitution of Saddam Hussein's tyranny for a new tyranny," says Ronald Michael, president of the Assyrian American League, an Illinois-based organization representing the estimated four-million-strong Assyrian community in the United States.
Saddam Hussein and the Ba’th Regime have been, and still are, nasty and oppressive to all Iraqis. However, Saddam has not been particularly oppressive to the Assyrians, at least compared to what has been the norm elsewhere in the region. One must always keep in mind that the oldest members of Middle Eastern Christian communities remember outright slaughters of Christians by the millions. By the yardstick of his neighbors and Middle Eastern history, Saddam just doesn’t look that bad.
The secular Saddam has neither encouraged nor permitted the type of anti-Christian riots seen in Egypt and Iran. Further, Saddam has never engaged in actual anti-Christian genocide of the type seen in Sudan, where 2 million Christian have lost their lives in the past decade. Unlike any other regime in the Middle East, Saddam has permitted Christians to occupy high public office. This includes the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Tariq Assiz, who is a Roman Catholic. In addition, Saddam’s regime has permitted a degree of free practice for Christians that is positively enviable compared to the situations experienced in such U.S. ‘allies’ as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Christmas and Easter decorations always abound, even in Baghdad, and attending church does not require an act of courage.
Today, the Christians of Iraq seem to be split between those who support the status quo – de facto autonomy of a type in the North – and those who support Saddam Hussein’s continuation in power. Broad support, enthusiastic or otherwise, for the ouster of Saddam Hussein by the U.S. Army seems to be noticeably absent from the political landscape.
Is this anxiety warranted? Should the Assyrians be so concerned about being liberated by U.S. military power? If history is our guide, they shouldn’t be afraid.
They should be terrified.
Our Friends the Kurds
As noted earlier, the majority of Assyrians live in northern Iraq in the Kurdish enclave. So far, this situation has been reasonably tolerable for the Assyrians, as the Kurds have been conducting a fairly successful democratic experiment under the cover of U.S. and British combat patrols. Given the historical tendency of the Kurds to victimize and slaughter the Assyrians, the current situation seems quite impressive.
However, Assyrians are quick to ask, have the Kurds really moderated their traditional attitudes and embraced Western notions of civil rights? Or, are they only moderating their tone in order to build a unified front against Saddam Hussein? This leads to a great fear among Assyrians in the north that when the unifying factor of a common enemy is removed, the traditional problems between the Kurds and the Assyrians will resurface with a vengeance.
Among the future problems between the two groups are disputes over land, that for now have been put on hold.
"There are outstanding issues of Assyrian villages and lands, which were vacated under Baghdad's forced repatriations during the 1970s and '80s," says Hania Mufti of Human Rights Watch. "Those issues have not been resolved when the Kurdish authorities took over and they are a bone of contention between the two groups."
Two main Kurdish parties, KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) and the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), uneasily share power in northern Iraq. The leaders of these parties have maintained that their aim is not to set up an independent government or entity, but an Iraqi federation made up of an Arab region and a Kurdish region.
However, whether or not that is merely a cover story, is, for the moment, anyone’s guess. Should the Kurds seek an independent nation, Assyrians fear that the democratic façade that has been erected in the North will crumble. There is widespread concern that ‘Kurdistan’ may be a much less hospitable place for Christians than Saddam’s Iraq, as the Assyrians would be the ‘outsiders’ in the new state.
Recent events in the north fuel these fears. The Kurdish authorities have begun attempts to classify Iraq's Christians as "Kurdish Christians." This appellation is an outright fabrication, but it points to a future in which the Assyrians, who survived ‘Arabization’ in Saddam’s Iraq, may find themselves subjected to a harsh ‘Kurdization’ at the hands of an independent Kurdistan.
Also, there has been a resurgence of traditional Kurdish attacks on Christians. The Kurdish authorities of both parties have resolutely ignored these attacks. As Ronald Michael explains, it is in the best interests of Kurdish politicians to not antagonize their Muslim constituents by being zealous in the defense of Christians.
"The nationalist parties don't want to lose the support of the Kurdish people," says Michael. "If the KDP is in power, we expect justice to be served. But the KDP turns a blind eye to these attacks out of fear of an Islamic backlash."
These fears have caused the Assyrians to actually contemplate a state of their own in the future. Ronald Michael sums up this mindset by saying, “If the Kurds use the chaos of the war to try to grab land and if they are given a federal state, then we want our own state, because they [the Kurdish parties] have not proven themselves to be democratic." Of course, the only power in the region that could or would create an Assyrian political entity is the United States, and that does not seem to be a high priority for the Bush administration at this time.
The Kurds have an estimated 70,000 soldiers in the North that are reportedly ready to fight on the U.S. side against Saddam. How extensively the U.S. plans to make use of them in its war effort remains to be seen. However, one thing is clear – these men aren’t going away after the fighting stops. They will still be there. Will they turn on the Assyrians as part of a drive to an independent Kurdistan? Or, will they agree to stay in a federal Iraq, but decide to settle old scores with the local Christians in any event?
If the blind eye turned by Kurdish authorities to violence against Christians becomes outright genocide, will our U.S. military forces intervene against our Kurdish ‘allies’ to protect defenseless Christians?
If you and I don’t know the answer to that troubling question, how do you think the Assyrians feel?
Our Friends the Turks
Turkey has repeatedly warned against any attempt to establish an independent Kurdish political entity. The Ankara government is fearful that independent Kurds will be an example for the millions of Kurds under Turkish domination. Should the Kurds attempt to achieve independence, there is a real threat that Turkey will enter the war in order to stop a Kurdish state from forming.
In fact, there is a chance that Turkey may intervene aggressively in any event. Leading up to the latest Turkish election, which brought to power a party with Islamic roots, nationalist Turkish politicians and senior generals threatened to seize Kirkuk and Mosul in the event of war, citing Ottoman-era claims to the two oil-rich northern Iraqi cities.
In September 2002, Ozdem Sanberk, the former Turkish ambassador to Britain, told a reporter, "If the U.S. intervenes, and in the first days the Kurds enter Kirkuk and Mosul, the Turkish army will move in."
It has been reported that the Turkish army already has troops inside the Iraqi Kurdish zone, and to stop any flow of Kurdish refugees into Turkey when full-scale war breaks out.
Currently, Turkey is driving a hard bargain in exchange for backing the U.S. The details are not all public, but it appears that Turkey is demanding at least 10% of the oil revenues from the area around Kirkuk and Mosul. Even if it receives its wish, there is no guarantee that it will abide by any agreement it makes with Washington.
Should the Turks end up in control of northern Iraq, the outcome for the Assyrian Christians in the area is likely to be catastrophic.
No nation in the region has as much Christian blood on its hands as Turkey. At the turn of this century, at least 1.5 million Armenians lived in eastern Turkey, where they had built some 2,200 churches and 166 monasteries. At the same time, there were over two hundred thousand Assyrians scattered throughout Turkey. In 1922, the Greek population of Istanbul alone was 270,000.
Turkey carried out major slaughters of Christians in 1915 (close to two million Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks), the early 1920’s, and again in 1955. To this day, it is the official position of the Turkish government that these genocides did not happen. Further, Turkey has waged a non-stop war of attrition on its native Assyrian, Greek, and Armenian minorities over the last century. Through discrimination, expulsion, race riots, and immigration, these communities have been practically obliterated.
Today, Turkey is almost a Christian-free zone, despite Istanbul serving as the residence of the Patriarch of Constantinople – one of the most important Sees of the Orthodox Church. It is estimated that only 60,000 Armenians, 15,000 Assyrians, and 3,500 Greeks remain in Turkey at the dawn of the 21st Century.
With its unparalleled and continuing history of anti-Christian persecution, Turkey must be considered one of the greatest threats facing the Assyrian community in Iraq. Turkish rule would likely be far worse than continuing to live under Saddam Hussein, and could very well spell the end of the Assyrian communities.
If Turkey invades, will the United States stand against its ‘ally’ in order to defend Assyrian Christians and Muslim Kurds? If Turkey turns to genocide against the Assyrian Christians as part of a campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing,’ will the United States defend the Christians?
History would lead one to conclude that the answer is an unqualified ‘no.
There may be some doubt as to how the U.S. would react to Kurdish atrocities, but there is almost none when it comes to Turkish ones. The United States sat idly by and allowed the Turks to massacre Christians in 1923 and 1955. (In fact, U.S. ships in the area even refused to take aboard survivors who were fleeing for their lives. The U.S. was afraid of ‘offending’ the Turks by helping any of their victims.) The U.S. did not assist the Greek island nation of Cyprus when Turkey attacked it in 1974, and occupied over 1/3 of Cypriot territory. The U.S. has failed to vigorously protest ongoing Turkish abuse of Turkey’s few remaining Christians.
Over and over again, the U.S. has proven that it will sacrifice an unlimited number of Christian lives in order to maintain its alliance with Turkey. The Assyrians are well aware of this history, and are terrified that they will be the next sacrifice offered up on the altar of U.S.-Turkish friendship.
Our Friends the Iraqi National Congress
The Iraqi National Congress is an umbrella organization bringing together various anti-Saddam groups. Based in London, it is heavily financed by the United States, and may be expected to play a role in the post-invasion reorganization of Iraq. The groups represented in the INC range from constitutional monarchists to Islamic radicals. Their diversity is representative of Iraq itself, which has a Kurdish north, a Sunni Arab center, and Shiite south. Despite this diversity, however, there may be one thing that all of these various groups could agree on – they are all Muslims.
And this is another fear that grips the Assyrians. In a post-Saddam world, there must be some unifying force to hold the disparate pieces of Iraq together. What that force will be is still to be determined. Will it be an occupation by the U.S. Army? Will it be a new monarchy, loosely based on Islamic principals? Will it be fundamentalist Islam, as in the ethnically diverse nation of Pakistan?
If Iraq turns more fundamentalist after Saddam is removed from the picture, as some future dictatorship seeks to use Islam as a unifying force, the Assyrians could find themselves becoming the sacrificial lambs on the altar of Iraqi unity. It has happened elsewhere in the Middle East – nothing unifies a population like a common enemy to slaughter.
If a new Iraqi government, in control of the whole country, turns on the Assyrians with a genocidal fury, will the U.S. military protect the Christians? Even if the ‘official’ policy of the new Iraqi government is not anti-Christian, but fanatics seize the opportunity to start killing Christians – will U.S. troops act to protect them?
If history is our guide, the answer is an unqualified ‘no.’
In Kosovo, we have an example of NATO forces, led by U.S. ground troops, occupying a majority Muslim state. The Muslims have a well-armed military force to protect their interests. While ostensibly neutral between the two sides at the time of deployment, it became quickly apparent to the Serbs in Kosovo that the NATO forces had little stomach for keeping the Muslims in line. The ‘peacekeepers’ were only there to keep Serbian forces out of Kosovo, not to protect the Serbs in Kosovo. If they had tried to do so, then it would have invited casualties from Muslim reprisals. That was the last thing any NATO governments wanted. So 50,000 NATO troops stood by while 100,000 Serbs were ethnically cleansed and 112 churches and monasteries were destroyed.
NATO and the United States were, and are, unwilling to make waves in Kosovo in order to save Christian lives and churches – why would post-invasion Iraq be any different?
There is probably no avoiding war with Iraq at this time. Too much has happened for us to turn aside now, even if that might be the best thing for all concerned. Despite some of our wishes to the contrary, the war is probably going to come, and its coming is fraught with danger for many innocent people in the Middle East. But if war must come, then as citizens of the United States, we have an obligation to remind our leaders that the lives of Christians are just as important as the lives of Muslims. A victory in Iraq that destroys the Assyrian community in its wake is no victory. If our President and his staff are not considering the fates of these brave Christians, then it is time for us, as Americans, to remind them of their obligations to our co-religionists in a war that we brought to them.
The Assyrians still speak the language of Jesus, and follow the way of the cross, despite centuries of persecution. The strength of their faith should be a humbling example to us all in the West. The Assyrians have survived the coming of the Persians, the Arabs, and the Turks. It remains to be seen if they will survive the coming of the Americans.
[Z-info: Glen Chancy graduated from University of Florida in 1992 with a degree in Political Science, and a certificate in Eastern European Studies. He completed extensive course work on Russia and the Balkan States and received his certificate for his project on Russian Pan-Slavism and its relationship to Balkan nationalism. He completed post-graduate studies at the University of Adam Mieckiewicz in Poznan, Poland, where Mr. Chancy also lectured in the Information Technology Department. After three years of study, Mr. Chancy returned to America with his Polish wife. He currently holds an MBA in Finance, and works as a business analyst for a major U.S. software developer. He lives in Orlando, Florida.]
ASSYRIAN COMPOSER OF 370 MUSICAL PIECES IN EXILE FROM TURKEY
Courtesy of the KurdishMedia.com (23 April); by M. Zahit Ekinci
Simon Aram Abgar was born in Urfa in 1965. In his own expression, he was a manual worker in the music field for 25 years. Abgar, who has composed 370 musical pieces to date, plays the mandolin, the guitar, the baghlama, the oud, the piano, and various other musical insruments. He describes the world of such instruments as spellbinding, and far from every sort of evil. He has been a refugee in Europe for approximately a year now, as his life was in danger. I spoke with Assyrian artist Simon Aram Abgar, who says that every sentence in nature, even the blowing of the wind, takes place with musical notes, and who compares his life with a tragic film scenario, regarding his life and his work.
- Can you briefly tell us the story of the area where you were born?
Urfa, the city where I was born, was the site of 16 different
civilizations, and well as the worlds first university, and was
the midwife to the first cries of a great many thinkers, politicians,
and musicians. My childhood took place in a garden of different
peoples. It was a virtual mosaic of peoples, with Kurds, Armenians,
and Assyrians. We had brotherly ties with all of them. No one
was treated differently. And that's the atmosphere in
- Well, then, how big a role do the Assyrians play in the cultural and artistic life of Urfa?
No doubt the Assyrians contributed just as much as any of the other nations. As is known, the Assyrians have an honorable history that goes back a very long way. Many Assyrian men of religion, such as Mar Yakup from Urfa and Mar Yakup from Suruch, put their stamp on Urfas cultural life. Either three or four of the eight maqams of the Assyrian (Orthodox) Church were written by Assyrian men of religion from Urfa.
- As we know, you have been a musical worker for the past 25 years. How did this passion of music come about?
Passion is impossibility. What gave me these feelings were the dreams and longings that I could never reach So I decided that I could best express these feelings through music. The first instrument that I ever had in my hands was a mandolin. I began with a broken mandolin, then I passed onto the guitar, and finally I began to write lyrics to songs, and to compose the music for them. With time, I began to play the baghlama, the oud, the piano, and other instruments.
Naturally, there is an educational dimension to this as well that's true, this doesn't happen without training. I studied at Antep University between the years 1986 and 1989, and for a year in the conservatory of Istanbul Technical University as well. There, a problem arose because of my Assyrian name how strange was the widespread intolerance for names in ones mother tongue but I was able to get my diploma with the name on my official identity card, Selami Akaltun.
- It is said that you had a music school of your own.
In 1995, I had a project to take music to all the various levels of society, so that it wouldnt be restricted just to certain individuals. But the school that I wanted to open for this purpose under my own name, Simon Aram Abgar, ran up against an invisible wall, again because of my name. I was only able to open a school under the name of Selami Akaltun, which was on my identity card, but which was never my real name. After this music school had been in business for about a year, it was forced to close due to negative propaganda that was being made about it.
- You have a number of compositions of your own?
I have 370 compositions of my own, as registered by MESAM [Turkish Professional Association of Owners of Musical Works]. In addition, a cassette that I was working on was seized by the Ministry of Culture, without any justification, just as it was coming onto the market.
- Is it just the fact that you are an Assyrian that underlies all of these prohibitions and the repressive mentality you have faced?
Turkey is a strange country. It is hostile to all the different values that grow out of its own soil. While on the one hand prohibiting these things, it says that all the minorities are free to speak their own languages and to live their own cultures. The mentality that says the Kurdish language is free today implements the most repressive measures possible against those who listen to cassettes by Xelil Xemgin [Kurdish musician]. It is only natural that the mentality that shows such a disrespectful approach to the art and the culture of millions of Kurds will not tolerate a weed like myself, who is both an Assyrian and a leftist. I dont even consider this to be unusual any more.
- Your music school closed down, and your cassette activity was thwarted. How did this affect you? Are you angry?
Naturally, one suffers great disappointment. An artistic person has to be able to express himself with the values that he finds important to life. When in other countries of the world even the trees that artists lean against are preserved, in Turkey, even forgetting about such treatment, artists are totally abandoned, or left to starve. People like Nazim Hikmet [poet], Yilmaz Guney [film-maker], and Ahmet Kaya [singer] are not born every day. But what has Turkey gained by the fact that each and every one of them was obliged to live and die in exile, far from their home? What flowers bloomed on the mountains because these people died in exile? Most of the dedicated artists who worked for years at Yesilcam [the Turkish Hollywood] died in misery. Naturally, I am angry. My anger is directed at the uncultured leaders of the state, who think that culture consists solely of prohibiting things.
- Well, apart from music, have you engaged in any other artistic
I played the chief role in a film, along with Meltem Cumbul, entitled Twisted Roots, which portrayed the life of an Assyrian. A portion of the filming took place in Urfa. But unfortunately, the film was thwarted by the Review Board of the Ministry of Culture on trumped up charges that it contained separatist propaganda and religious discrimination. As a result, all our effort, as well as the investment of resources, went to naught.
At that time, in order to make a film in Turkey, you either had to portray Malkocoglu, the fighter of Mehmet the Conqueror, or Kara Murat [references to Turkish nationalist figures from comic books and films]. So having had such a great disappointment in my first film, I had to turn down all the film offers that came afterwards.
- Your life resembles the plot of a tragic film. You came to Europe after all these obstacles were put in your way. How did this adventure begin?
Ever since the beginning, the rights granted to minorities have been merely on paper. We were never able to express ourselves in a free atmosphere.
In the southeast of the country, hundreds of Assyrian churches have been turned into stables. And the state is well aware of this. During the filming of the film in Urfa, Meltem Cumbul got death threats on many occasions just because the life of an Assyrian was being portrayed. Fearing these threats, she was obliged to leave the film unfinished. I received similar threats on many occasions. I was taken into police custody. During interrogation, they tried to find out why the film was being made in Urfa, and were trying to find some ulterior motive in this. Last year, in September, someone banged on my door late at night. When I opened the door, bullets were fired. This attack wasn't intended to kill me, but just to drive me away. And since I was unable to face all of these threats and blackmail, I came to Germany, where I believe I will be able to follow my artistic career more freely.
from Turkish by KurdishMedia.com; published in Ozgur Politika
newspaper, 22 April ]
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