Time is running out for Iraqi Christians
The situation is "beyond urgent" for Assyrians in Iraq, under attack by ISIS and neglected by the Iraqi central government and Kurdish authorities.
With only 400,000 Iraqi Assyrians left in Iraq, the situation for this religiously Christian indigenous group is “beyond urgent,” according to Mona Malik, the Vice President of the Assyrian Aid Society of America (AAS-A), with whom I spoke yesterday about conditions for Assyrians in Iraq. During my nearly two years in country from 2003-2005, I often connected with members of this community, and have had many friends who have had to flee the country due to persecution and violence, only the latest of which are the vicious attacks by the so-called Islamic State or ISIS.
Mona Malik will attend the 14th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues on April 27th as the latest of many attempts to gain greater international awareness for the Assyrian community and the overwhelming pressures it is facing in the Middle East. Her organization is seeking UN’s recognition of cultural “genocide” with the destruction of ancient Assyrian heritage, and to address the aim of preserving Assyrians in their lands. Ultimately, the Security Council needs to give substance to the Assyrians’ right of return. To that end, AAS-A urge direct aid and support to Assyrian IDPs from the international community channeled through independent NGOs; urge the Security Council to consider mechanisms for creating a zone of international protection in the Nineveh Plain’ finally, urge the Security Council to work with local, independent Assyrian forces in the Nineveh Plain to help secure these areas.
Mona, who was born in Baghdad, and emigrated to the U.S. with her family at the age of 9, has long lobbied for the recognition of the Assyrian indigenous history of Iraq, which dates back over 4,000 years, and for the Assyrian language (Syriac–a dialect of Aramaic) to be considered an official language in Iraq.
But while the community has long faced trials and persecution, the current crisis at the hands of ISIS is testing whether an Assyrian population can remain in the country. Mona complains that neither the central government nor the Kurdish authorities are incentivized to protect this minority population of Christians. “They don’t see the mosaic and diversity of the country as a positive aspect.” And now, a population that was recently a million and a half is under 400,000, (a figure Mona notes may be even lower.)
While she understands that the U.S. has “Iraq fatigue,” she maintains that, “If we broke it, we ought to fix it,” and that Americans should be aware of the critical situation and lobby on behalf of protecting Assyrians before it’s too late. “By the time people wake up, we will be gone,” worries Mona.
But she also pointed out the community’s resilience. “We’ve been through many genocides–the ones people know about, and even the ones people don’t know about, citing the 1933 Semele massacre as an example.
Another positive is that the epic crisis is forcing the Assyrian community within Iraq and in diaspora to come together. “There are so many factions and people are realizing we can’t solve this alone nor divided.”
Even the antiquities that are being destroyed–“maybe that will wake up UNESCO to pay attention and do something. We’re talking about the cradle of civilization, the history of all mankind. Once you lose an antiquity and a language, you lose a whole way of looking at the world.”