ASSYRIAN REFUGEES IN AUSTRIA DESERVE URGENT CONSIDERATION
Last year I had the privilege of meeting an Assyrian father whose family emigrated from Iran via Austria. He and his family were stranded in Vienna for several months before being allowed to leave for the United States. Several months? Soon I discovered that many many more families who had arrived in Austria a year or two before this Assyrian father's family were still marooned in the land of the Blue Danube.
Soon after, this publication became interested in the plight of the Assyrian refugees in Austria and our search led us to Elsin Issakhani, an Assyrian dedicated to the predicament of the Assyrians in Austria. Elsin is associated with a humanitarian group called the Betnahrin Assyrian Aid Society in Vienna.
Persons like Elsin are working earnestly to improve the conditions of the Assyrian refugees in Austria, yet they face a formidable impediment - too hefty to be handled by individuals and not a more prevailing presence such as that of the Assyrian churches or international organizations.
The issue of the refugee situation in Austria resembles that of the Assyrians stranded in Pakistan, Holland, and even Mexico. The churches do not wish to taint their rosy relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran by certifying the anti-Christian attitudes of the Moslem countries in the Middle East. At the same time, our political parties bearing greater international presence, similar to the Assyrian Universal Alliance, face a different dilemma. Helping to expedite the process of escaping from these Middle Eastern countries contradicts their anti-immigration policies.
Who are these refugees and why is the government of Austria set on deporting them back to Iran?
Until a couple of years ago the Assyrian and even Moslem refugees from Iran could safely assume an escape path through Vienna to the United States. The U.S. and Austrian governments would process hundreds of Iranian refugees each year and resettle them in the U.S.
Suddenly the attitude of the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service changed in 2001 and over 500 Iranian-Assyrian refugees found themselves stranded on the streets of Vienna. Thereafter, the Austrian government initiated an aggressive effort to alienate as many Assyrian-Iranians prior to their final deportation. Assyrians are denied employment, studying in universities, and any type of public benefits. Some have even become homeless.
Currently there are 153 Assyrian refugees living in Austria. They are predominantly from Iran. 48% of these are women and children. A small group among these have been residing in Austria since 1988 and the rest arrived in Vienna a little over 2 years ago. Today, no Assyrian group, church, or organization is actively helping these refugees.
The Assyrian refugees in Vienna were initially aided by the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS). As soon as the U.S. policy toward asylum seekers from Austria altered in 2001, the HIAS informed the Assyrian refugees that they ought to leave Austria immediately, despite the fact that their families were willing to sponsor them in the United States.
Mar Bawai Soro, a bishop of the Church of the East, visited Austria at the end of 2002. According to Zinda contacts in Vienna he succeeded in meeting with the Austrian Cardinal Shönbron, explaining the dire state of his people's affairs. Cardinal Schönbron met with an Austrian Parliamentary Minister in Vienna. As a result of these meetings, the asylum seekers were promised employment, medical benefits, etc. These promises have yet to be realized.
Thanks to the efforts of the Betnahrain Assyrian Aid Society, Shamasha Sargon Kesso and an Austrian nun, Maria Lolay, Assyrian refugees have been receiving some medical attention and a place of gathering for their social events and language classes. This same place is also used for conducting church services and Sunday Masses.
The Assyrian refugees in Austria are in desperate need of our support in the United States, Australia, and elsewhere in Europe. Zinda Magazine urges the readers of this publication to contact their local churches, organizations and government officials to bring recognition to the plight of our loved ones stranded in Vienna. Deportation for many of these men, women, and children may result in imprisonment and possibly death. Our mass media are key to bringing this matter to the attention of other humanitarian groups and governments.
An effective method of protest is a letter-writing campaign to the Austrian embassies and consulates around the world in order to put an immediate end to the planned deportations of the Assyrians in Austria. Another effective way is to enlighten the United Nation's High Commissioner for Refugees offices in the U.S. and Europe. A letter from your local church or organization to these embassies, government representatives and the UNHCR would be even more valuable. In your letters include the following important benefits for the asylum seekers fearing persecution in their native countries:
1. Employment opportunities
After a long time of isolation and neglect, it's time that our fellow Assyrians in Austia join their families in North America. Contact Zinda Magazine for further detail.
To our fellow Assyrians in Austria: we have not forgotten about you and your families. Together we will find a way to bring an end to your despair.
FOUNDING A NEW GENERATION AT THE CONVENTION
As the 70th Annual Assyrian National Convention wrapped up in Chicago, there were mixed feelings on its outcome and its contribution. Throughout the recent years, the Convention has grown into an event of promise, yet also an event of criticism. Many have expressed their opinions on the flaws and shortcomings of the previous conventions while scores of others have also cheered them for their benefits and contributions to the Assyrian community.
As events in our homeland have caused historic
change for the Assyrians, this year’s convention was of
special significance. Several events and seminars were organized
to supplement the current Assyrian situation. Again, there were
dissenting voices on how the Convention was run and what it contributed.
There were complaints on the quality of certain programs, the
registration system, and the format of the parties …but
there was one difference this year. Amidst all this apparent criticism
was born a new generation, a new movement. If one remembers, the
Assyrian American Convention were born about 70 years ago with
the prime focus of socially integrating the Assyrians and preserving
our culture for the future. And this noble cause was expounded
upon by the Assyrian youth at the 2003 Convention.
Several innovative ideas were proposed in these meetings to assimilate
and educate the youth of our people. Such examples were, 1) the
creation of an annual Assyrian Youth/Student Convention in a different
country every year (first year in Europe), where youth from the
various denominations of our people would be able to meet and
discuss topics relevant to the youth and the future of our nation,
2) creating a neutral website where we would be able to create
a common meeting ground to integrate and unite all the divisions
within our nation (Nestorians, Chaldeans, Suryoyos, Orthodox,
Catholic, Jacobite, Protestant, etc.), and 3) create a communication
route and network with our student brethren in the homeland via
the internet or actual travel.
Personally, I never experienced anything close to this year’s convention. There was something special in the air. You sensed it. I am not sure whether it was because of the 70th anniversary (the Assyrian American National Federation was established in reaction to the Semele Massacre in 1933), or the current historic change in our homeland Iraq, or because of the divine inspiration. Whatever it was, all the youth came away with a sense of satisfaction and optimism for the future. I just wish there were even more individuals involved to experience that historic weekend. This should be a vehicle to include more Assyrian youth in the future conventions, to become involved in their community, and to meet all their wonderful Assyrian brothers and sisters from throughout the world.
As the Assyrians in the Diaspora have been slowly melting into their respective societies, the struggle of maintaining the Assyrian identity has been slowly diminishing; study after study by anthropologists and linguists have shown that a culture tends to lose its language and, hence most of its identity, by its third generation in a foreign country. Although these intimidating facts have threatened the very existence of our nation, we have established many organizations, societies, and federations. But unfortunately, many have also forgotten, or not paid close attention to, the future of our people, the youth. Although this is true, the bright young Assyrians of today have reawakened. Through proper education, modern technology, and renewed culturalism, there have been recent movements for Assyrian youth and by Assyrian youth. Numerous young Assyrians in many countries have initiated the need to preserve and educate our community. Whether it is through the internet, through travel, or other form of communication, this indeed has constituted a revolution for our people. The 2003 Convention was an example of this rebirth of our nation…this “Assyrian Renaissance.”
If this convention was a symbol of what is to come in the near future, every Assyrian should hold their head up high and be proud of this new Assyrian generation. A generation that will educate our people, a generation that will bring unity among our people, and a generation that will bring success to our people. There finally is a bright light at the end of the Assyrian tunnel.
Audisho is the vice president of the Assyrian Student Union and
member of the Assyrian Academic Society. He is a graduate student
of Public Health and a Toxicology Research Assistant at the University
of Illinois at Chicago. He can be reached at Sargon_Audisho@msn.com.
WHAT PLACE FOR THE ASSYRIANS IN TOMORROW'S IRAQ ?
A country is only really democratic if it protects or tries to protect the rights of its minorities. There will not be any democracy or future for Iraq and its citizens if its ethnic and religious minorities do not feel safe and respected. In this regard, Assyrians in Iraq are a significant minority that should not be forgotten in the political reconstruction of the country.
Territorial federalism and community federalism: the Belgian example
Some state structures are more prone than others to safeguard the rights of ethnic, religious or linguistic minority groups. The country I come from, the federal state of Belgium, has had a long experience of peaceful conflict resolution between its specific “human communities”: the Dutch-speaking community, the French-speaking community and the German-speaking community. The institutional engineering Belgium has worked out to settle the problems opposing its linguistic communities can of course not be applied as such to minority problems of a different nature, but it can certainly be a creative source of inspiration for tomorrow’s Iraq.
I will not describe in details the mechanisms of Belgian federalism
because time lacks for that here and now, but I will focus on
its major traits insofar as these can be relevant for the political
reconstruction of Iraq.
Firstly, territorial federalism: one region is Dutch-speaking, the Flemish Region; one is bilingual Dutch-French, the Region of Brussels Capital; and in the last one, the Walloon region, French is the official language, but German is also an official language in a very specific area. Each linguistic group has therefore its own region where it is its own master. Each of the three regions has its own parliament and its own government.
Territorial federalism does not, however, solve all the problems, because some linguistic groups may be in the minority in a region other than theirs. Consequently, a number of political institutions and mechanisms have been put in place to preserve the rights and the identity of those local minorities. The institutional engineering is very complicated, but in a nutshell, each of the three linguistic communities has its own parliament and its own government so that it can have full autonomy in a number of matters, such as school education, culture, agriculture, environment, energy, protection of monuments, etc. This second form of federalism which could be called community federalism, maintains the solidarity and the cohesion between the users of a same language wherever they live in Belgium ; it also protects their rights in areas where they are in the minority. A concrete example of advantages of this second form of federalism is that the German-speaking community runs German-speaking schools in full autonomy in the Walloon region. The Dutch-speaking community runs Dutch-speaking schools not only in the Flemish Region but also in the bilingual Region of Brussels Capital where hardly 20% speak primarily Dutch.
Despite all these regional institutions, the unity of the country and the solidarity between all the citizens, whatever the community they belong to, is guaranteed by a federal parliament based on a two-chamber system.
Any draft law must be approved in both chambers before becoming a law. The House of Representatives numbers 150 members elected directly by the people. The Senate has 71 members: 21 of them are appointed by the three ‘communities’ and 10 are co-opted. This system allows the various linguistic groups to be represented at the federal level and to have their say in laws that concern them directly.
To avoid the dictatorship of a majority group, a system of qualified majority is sometimes required for laws concerning the linguistic rights: for example an overall two-third majority, with sometimes an additional simple majority in each linguistic community.
A number of ministries are exclusively federal: justice, national defense, interior, foreign affairs, finances, social security, and health.
Other ministries exist both at the federal level and at the level of the federated entities, though with different but complementary competences: budget, economy, labor, transport, etc. This mixed system grants a certain degree of real autonomy and self-determination to the regions and communities while keeping a balance between each of them and a link with the federal level. For example, the federal ministry of budget distributes the budgets to each of the federated entities according to criteria which have been decided by law with a qualified majority at the federal level. The demographic and territorial size of the federated entities is one of the major criteria.
The federated entities can issue their own laws inasmuch as they do not conflict with the Constitution and the federal laws. The Court of Arbitration can be used in case the constitutionality of a law is challenged. Use of the Council of State is another mechanism that can also be put into effect when there is some controversy about the implementation of a law. Complaints of individuals or organisations can be addressed to a special permanent committee of vigilance.
The structure of vertical redistribution of powers in a federal framework, the interrelations between the centralised and decentralised powers, as well as the corrective mechanisms for any possible deviations are essential to the functioning of a stable political system; this seems and is very complex, but it guarantees in the short and the long run the rights of the existing minorities.
Iraq: a secular federal state
To what extent can the basic components of Belgium’s territorial federalism and community federalism be useful for Iraq?
Iraq has quite a number of ethnic and religious communities. The Shi’ites, Sunnis, Kurds, Assyrians and Turkmen are the most numerous but there are also some religious minorities such as the Yezidis, the Jews, the Sabbeans, the Armenians, the Mandeans, etc.
Federalism: the federal level
The first guarantee for the safety and peaceful co-existence of the various ethnic and religious communities in Iraq is that the state must be secular. The new constitution should mention this basic principle in its first article. It should also provide for a bicameral system and a federal structure comprising:
- a federal level with two chambers and a government
At the federal level, the members of a chamber (called Congress, for example) should be elected directly by the people all over Iraq.
The other chamber (called the Senate, for example) should comprise representatives of a number of ethnic, religious and linguistic communities whose number might be fixed by a federal law according to their demographic importance. Those representatives might not be elected directly but could, for instance, be appointed by the political groups of the parliaments of the regions.
Laws which might infringe upon the rights of linguistic, ethnic and religious minorities should be voted by qualified majorities to be specified in both chambers. In the Senate, a simple majority inside each of the five main communities (Shi’ite, Sunni, Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmen) might be required as a protection veto system when one or several of them are in the minority in a given region.
Some ministries should be exclusively federal. The ministry of Justice should certainly be one of them, because it would be the only bulwark against any attempts to introduce the sharia at the level of federated entities. Additionally, it should also be mentioned in the constitution that no alternative law system might be introduced anywhere in Iraq. Ministries of national defence, interior, foreign affairs, budget and finances, just to name a few, must also be exclusively federal if one wants to avoid any purposeful strategy of dismantling of the state by centrifugal forces. These federal institutions should allow the Assyrians and other minorities to speak their own language, to practice and teach their faith freely, not to fear the introduction of sharia and not to be submitted to the dictatorship of the majority in general.
Federalism: the federated entities or regions
In discussing the territorial federated entities, I will on purpose not use the words ‘state’ or ‘sub-state’ so as to avoid any wrong political interpretation; instead I will opt for the term ‘region’.
Habib Ishow, author of the book Social and Political Structures
of Present-Day Iraq, published in French in Paris this year, recommends
“the creation of a federal system which could comprise five
Member-States: an Arabic-speaking Shi’ite State, an Arabic-speaking
Sunni State, a Kurdish State, a Chaldean State and a Turkmen State.
Baghdad would remain the capital of the federation.”
From a purely geopolitical perspective, I assume that the creation
of a Kurdish federated entity is to be excluded. Turkey would
not tolerate it and might use it as a pretext to invade and settle
in northern Iraq on a long-term basis. Consequently, the creation
of an Assyrian federated entity and a Turkmen federated entity
cannot be envisaged either. This may sound disappointing for some
Assyrians but due to their geographical dispersion in Iraq, another
form of federalism could guarantee their safety and their rights
in a more appropriate way.
- the Region of Southern Iraq, quite homogeneous from an ethnic
and a religious point of view, as it would correspond to the Shi’ite-populated
In the Belgian federal system, no parliament has any precedence whether it is federal or regional.
The four regions would have their own parliament, their own government, and their own budget. They would be able to promulgate regional laws as long as they would not collide with the Constitution and the federal laws. Institutions such as a court of arbitration and a council of state would serve as legal railings against legislative adventures.
In a number of matters, full autonomy would be granted to each of the two regions: use of languages in public institutions, education, culture, agriculture, environment, energy, protection of monuments, etc.
A number of competences would be shared between the federal level and each of the regions, through ministries which would have complementary mandates: economy, labor, transport, etc. This mixed management of some state duties would guarantee at the same time the cohesion of the country and a real autonomy of both regions.
The Assyrians in a federal Iraq
About two-thirds of the Assyrian community live in the north of the country, and a third live in Baghdad. The community is made up of mainly Nestorians and Chaldeans.
What advantages would the Assyrians enjoy in such a form of federalism in Iraq as described above?
They would live in a secular state, the best guarantee against Muslim theocracy.
They would never be exposed to the application of the sharia wherever they live in Iraq.
They would be represented in the Congress and have a veto right in the Senate against any federal law which might jeopardize their community or their compatriots anywhere in Iraq.
They would not live under the rule or dictatorship of a regional majority group; in other words, the Kurds in the Region of Northern Iraq.
They would live in an heterogeneous region of North Iraq, and they would be ruled by an heterogeneous parliament which would have to learn the art of negotiation, respect for diversity and tolerance.
Through the regional parliament of North Iraq, they would be closer to the centres of decision.
They would have their say through the regional parliament more than they have ever had through past national parliaments, where they had very few seats.
The practical and visible consequences in their daily lives would be:
-the freedom to protect, use and promote their respective languages
Federalism based on four regions, each with their own parliament and their own government; federalism with a veto right for the main minorities at the federal level to avoid the dictatorship of a majority group; separation of state and religion: these are the best ingredients for a federal recipe that will be savoury for all minorities in Iraq.
[Z-info: This paper was presented at the 70th Convention of the American Assyrian National Federation which took place in Chicago from 28 August to 1 September 2003.]
KARL SULEMAN TO STAND TRIAL
Courtesy of News.Com.Au (6 Sepember); by Ian Gerard
(ZNDA: Syndey) Froggy founder Karl Suleman's appetite for fast cars and luxury yachts has come back to haunt him.
The former entrepreneur has been committed to stand trial on four counts of fraud, each carrying 10-year prison sentences.
The New South Wales Downing Centre Local Court ordered Mr Suleman to stand trial after a recent Australian Securities and Investments Commission investigation into Karl Suleman Enterprises Pty Ltd (KSE) and the Froggy Group of companies.
Mr Suleman is accused of giving a bogus bank statement to a finance broker to buy a Ferrari F355 Spider Convertible in late 2000.
He also allegedly gave bogus statements to finance brokers between
March and October 2001 so he could buy a Ferrari Medina Coupe and
a $3.3 million yacht.
FIGHTING ENDS FATHERS' DAY PICNIC
Courtesy of the Australian (8 September)
(ZNDA: Sydney) A Father’s Day picnic degenerated into a wild brawl when up to 50 people became involved in a fight at a park in Sydney's west on Sunday.
About 5000 people were picnicking at Blaxland Crossing Reserve, Wallacia, Australia when the brawl began about 3.45 pm.
Dozens of police vehicles were called to the park to break up the fight, which witnesses described as a riot.
Police immediately closed down the reserve and ordered all members of the public to leave as quickly as possible.
Inspector Steve Martin from St Marys police said they had received reports of outbreaks of violence between a number of small groups.
However, when police arrived those involved in the fight quickly dispersed back into the large crowd.
"We couldn't identify any of the warring parties so we made the decision to close the park," Insp Martin said. "A couple of people suffered minor injuries and one woman was hit with a bottle, but there were no serious injuries."
Insp Martin said one of the largest groups in the park was from the Assyrian Church, which was holding a special Father's Day lunch.
"We've spoken to the organisers and they have been helping us sort everything out," he said.
A MEETING WITH PROFESSOR JOSEPH YACOUB
Professor Joseph Yacoub, a Political Scientist from the Catholic University of Lyon, France will be a guest speaker at the St. Paul Bookstore in Marseille, France.
Topic of Discussion: What is the future for the Christians of Iraq: the ethnic and religious conflicts today.
Prof. Yacoub is te author of the recently published “Threats on the Christians of Iraq” from CLD-Témoignage Chrétien, 200 pages, 20 euros.
Tuesday, 30 September 2003
Take the Subway: Estrangin Préfecture
For more information call 04 91 15 77 77
The Assyrian community through the Assyrian National Council of Stanislaus (ANCS) will be observing the memory of the horrific terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, that claimed the lives of 3000 of our fellow countrymen in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania. To celebrate our heroes, the ANCS will be holding a remembrance event on Thursday, September 11, starting at 6:30 pm, at the Assyrian American Civic Club of Turlock. The guest speaker for this year’s event is Dr. Curt Andre, Mayor of the City of Turlock.
Two years have passed since the cowardly attacks on our country. The horrific images of these sad events are burnt onto our minds and souls. It is for the cause of freedom and justice that we have taken on the task of dismantling a worldwide network of terrorists, so that neither we nor any other country shall suffer in this manner. Everyday our freedom-loving troops put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf in foreign lands. Every day that we hear of passing away of a soldier or interpreter, we are reminded of the real threat to our nation’s security and way of life. This observance is not only for those who perished on that dark September 11, but also for those who have given their lives in the aftermath.
The council, understanding the importance of the services of our law and public safety institutions, will be recognizing two local members of these institutions through recognition awards. This year’s recipients of these recognition and awards are Les Weidman, Stanislaus County Sheriff, and Mark Langley, Turlock Fire Department Chief. The ANCS recognizes these two individuals and their departments for their continuous support of the community, specially the Assyrian residents of the Central Valley, and congratulates them on their well-deserved awards.
Sheriff Weidman will be receiving the Excellence in Law Enforcement award. He has taken a lead in fighting terrorism and supporting and protecting the Assyrian people in the Valley. Sheriff Weidman met with all top leaders within the Assyrian community to let them know that he and his department are working hard to fight crime. He appeared on local TV networks and reiterated his support. We thank Sheriff Weidman and his department for their efforts and congratulate him on his Top Officer of the year award.
Chief Langley will be receiving the Excellence in Community Service award. He and his hard-working staff are being recognized for their hard work and putting their lives on the line each and every day. We thank Chief Langley and his staff for their dedication and gallant support of our community and congratulate him on his Top Officer of the year award.
This event is open to public.
IN A LAND OF DIVISIONS, ST. MATTHEW'S MONASTERY TRIES TO SEAL THE CRACKS
Courtesy of Iraq Today (9 September); by Maher Al Mashhadani
(ZNDA: Mosul) About 35 Km Northeast of Mosul, in a wooded hill high up in the Maqloub mountains, the Saint Matthew's Monastery has been working to sow the seeds of unity in a land long divided along ethnic and religious lines.
The dialogue among religions occupies an important space at this time, when struggle amongst doctrines and religions has produced terrible conflict. In the recent past we have seen differences between Muslims and Sheikhs resulting in bloody wars in India, and conflict between Catholic and Protestant in places around the world.
According to a priest from Saint Mathew Monastery "The relationships between Muslims and Christians especially in this country are wonderful and we haven't found maltreatment from the Muslims in our life. Although there is some misunderstanding, it doesn't create bad effects in many cases. One of the specialists of the Islamic law college visited us before, and we benefited from the conversation with him.
These things rarely happen in other places. This relates to the consciousness of the Iraqi people and the depth of their civilization."
Saint Matthew Monastery is an Assyrian Monastery belonging to the Orthodox Church. Saint Matthew was born in a village called Abjer Shat in the north of Amad city in Diyar Baker in Turkey.
He became a monk at the time of the persecution. St Matthew emigrated to Iraq and lived in Caves in Al Maqluub mountain about 35 Km to the northeast of Mosul city which was named St. Mathew mountain.
The Monastery was built in the fourth century by the help of St. Matthew who did a miracle and healed the king Sanhareeb's daughter (Sarah) who was suffering from leprosy.
This Monastery has passed through various periods, from the foundation at the time of Persians, the Islamic Message period, the Tatars time, and the Ottomans period.
"The Monastery has a big holiday on 14th September. Christians come to this place to commemorate the day of Marmattees death - the founder of the Monastery. Though its faraway, thousands of people come here yearly" said the priest, Bahnam.
The priest went on to say that "We are the Surianics in Iraq and have rights in Slaughterhouse in Jerusalem, as we have also in the Virgin Mary Church in Al Zaiton mountain, the Resurrection Church, and Al Sso'od Church in Jordan.
If we want the Slaughterhouse to stay for us and will never present it to another doctrine, we must present our duty for it in the holydays.
" So I went with the friar father to Jerusalem to present the ceremonies in order to keep our rights and through these ceremonies the priest came and gave us the bread of pleasing which is distributed usually in Mass. But it was said that you mustn't give them this bread, they are not Catholic. "Although we are Christian, we trust in that statement which says "that religion is for God and the Homeland for all" said priest Samaqchi.
Yes that was the statement of Salah Aldine in his conquest of Jerusalem centuries before, although he was the conqueror and the victorious.
And we must know that Mosul consists of Muslims, Christians, Armans and Yazeediah religions.
So although these are unnatural circumstances and there is a bad security situation in this country, still the relationship between the different religions seems to have hope.
SARGON DONABED EXAMINES WAR IN IRAQ AS THE LATEST THREAT TO ASSYRIAN CULTURE
While images of air strikes in Baghdad and reports of impending
humanitarian crises fill our newspapers and TV screens, for some
people, the news is more personal.
But the war has also thrown his research into the spotlight. Donabed studies the culture of the Assyrians — a group, he says, whose language, customs and architecture are in danger of extinction.
There are about four million Assyrians in the world, descendents of the ancient Assyrians who built up an empire from about 2500 BC until its fall in the seventh century BC. In the first century AD, Assyrians were among the first converts to Christianity; their modern descendents are a religious minority in the Middle East. Today, two million Assyrians live in Iraq, southeastern Turkey and in parts of Iran and Syria. Donabed estimates there are 600,000 Assyrians in Baghdad alone.
Ethnically and linguistically distinct from other groups, they have been forced from villages and towns in the north to major cities, fleeing persecution and genocide. “You’ve heard of the Armenian genocide in 1915?” asks Donabed. “Well, two-thirds of the Assyrian population was wiped out during that genocide.
“The Assyrian villages in southeast Turkey, which were numerous and are uncountable to an extent — they have become more Kurdish. The language has been snuffed out.” Assyrians speak Syriac, a modern dialect of Aramaic, which is outlawed in Saddam-controlled Iraq, Donabed reports. “You can’t have your own schools. You can’t speak your language. You can’t listen to your music.
“The Assyrian situation in the Mideast is little known. When you hear anything about modern Iraq, about what’s going on now, you hear about the Kurds in the north,” Donabed says of the prospect of regime change in Iraq. “There is a fear that the Assyrians will be left out of the new Iraq regime.”
Lack of representation isn’t Donabed’s only worry. He fears civil conflict between Turkey and the Kurds: “Assyrians will be stuck in the middle of the Kurds and the Turks fighting if the Turks attempt to move into northern Iraq.”
It isn’t just the linguistic heritage of the Assyrians that is threatened. Donabed also worries about culture in the form of architecture and artifacts. “You have churches turned into stables or turned into mosques; you have monasteries that are demolished or destroyed.” The war has intensified the threat to the archeological and architectural heritage of many groups in the Middle East.
Donabed believes that cities like Ashur, the 5000-year-old religious capital of the ancient Assyrians, should be designated world heritage sites. “To be adopted as a world heritage site, it has to be applied for through the UN by the actual country itself,” he says. “And I don’t think Saddam Hussein right now is too worried about making it a world heritage site.”
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