Date: Friday 30 January 2004
Subj: Iraq: The Assyrians and a federation for Iraq
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal
IRAQ: THE ASSYRIANS AND A FEDERATION FOR IRAQ
Fikret Bila reports for the Turkish Press (12 Jan), "Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, the US civilian administrator in Iraq, said that a federation would be the best regime for the country. The Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq are pushing for an ethnic-based federation. They are planning a dual federation based on the Kurds and the Arabs. The ethnic Turkmen and others would not be taken into consideration. Bremer's approach shows that the US is leaning in the
same direction." (Link 1)
The civilian administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, announced however that the U.S. would agree on establishing federalism in Iraq, but based on geographic and not demographic, ethnic partition, although he would be happy for the Kurds to control the northern regions with the exception of Kirkuk. ("Washington And The Kurds." By Abdullah Al Ashaal. Al-Hayat. 19 Jan 2004)
Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party regime exercised a policy of Arabisation, whereby Arabs were moved in to regions formally dominated by ethnic minorities, in order to change the demographics. The Kurdish claim is for an ethnic federation and a reversal of Arabisation. One thing that is not being talked about is the effect such a situation would have on the other inhabitants and ethnic minorities of northern Iraq, such as the Assyrians, who are the indigenous inhabitants of northern Iraq and are Christian.
THE ASSYRIAN CHRISTIAN REMNANT
According to Nineveh.com, "The Assyrians of today are the indigenous Aramaic-speaking descendants of the ancient Assyrian people, one of the earliest civilizations emerging in the Middle East, and have a history spanning over 6750 years. Assyrians are not Arabian, we are not Kurdish, our religion is not Islam. The Assyrians are Christian, with our own unique language, culture and heritage. Although the Assyrian empire ended in 612 B.C., history is replete with recorded details of the continuous presence of the Assyrian people till the present time." (Link 2)
Peter BetBasoo has produced an excellent summary history of Assyria and the Assyrian people on the website of the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA). He describes Assyrians as "a Semitic people indigenous to Mesopotamia". With a map he shows the historic Assyria as located in north Mesopotamia, spanning four countries - from the Euphrates River in north-eastern Syria, through the eastern corner of Turkey, western edge of Iran, and northern Iraq to about 100 miles south of Kirkuk. The plains of Arbil and Nineveh (Mosul) were the breadbaskets of the Assyrian people.
The Assyrians converted from Ashurism to Eastern Christianity in the three centuries after Christ. The Assyrian Church of the East was founded in 33 A.D. Once Assyria had been major military Empire, but after 33 A.D. it was to become a great religious empire with a large active missionary movement that took the gospel into China and beyond. Arab Islamic invaders captured Mesopotamia in 630 A.D. and subjugated the Assyrians under Muslim domination.
Kurds swept into Assyria in 1261 A.D. after King Salih Isma'il ordered them to emigrate from the mountains of Turkey to the Nineveh plains. Assyrians left their homes and fled to Arbil. Many lost their lives. When Timurlane the Mongol arrived in 1300 A.D he found the Assyrian people already traumatised and decimated. He massacred the Assyrians and drove them out until only a remnant remained.
Only a decade after the genocide of the Armenians (1915-23), the Assyrians suffered a major massacre in Iraq during the post-WW1 mandate period (1933). Actually the history of the Assyrian people, particularly since the arrival of Islam in the region, has been one of frequent massacres and almost continual oppression and persecution. (Link 3)
The Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) reports that the present Kurdish proposal "to establish an ethnically based autonomous area even beyond the current occupied northern provinces has alarmed various Iraqi communities including Assyrians (also known as Chaldeans and Syriacs), Arabs, Turkman, and Yezidis within Iraq and abroad. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's (PUK) Barham Salih recently declared that the Kurdish autonomous area ought to be extended beyond the three occupied and already diversely populated and contentious provinces of Dohuk (Nohadra), Arbil, and Sulaimaniya to include large portions of Diyala, Nineveh, and Karkuk.
"According to a December 25, 2003 Jordan Times article, Mr. Barham Salih asserted that, 'Karkuk is an integral part of Kurdistan, administratively, geographically, and historically.' In addition, Mr. Salih affirmed that the Kurdish map includes the historically Assyrian provinces of Arbil and Dohuk and now unabashedly extends the proposed area to occupy the remaining Assyrian towns and villages in the plains of Nineveh, the ancient Assyrian capital, which up until the war of liberation were under government control." (Link 4)
The escalation of fighting along ethnic lines in northern Iraq is cause for great concern. AINA quotes Mr. Abgar Maloul of the Assyrian Democratic Organization (ADO) as saying that "ethnic federalism built on the premise of the subjugation by one ethnic group of other minorities is not what we envisioned a liberated Iraq would resemble. We have long stood for a free, sovereign, secular, and democratic Iraq for all Iraqis." (Link 4)
Ashor Giwargis, born in Beirut in 1970, is a researcher and writer concerning the Assyrian cause. He writes out of great concern for the future of Iraq's Assyrian Christians. "Before the coming of the Ba'ath regime to Iraq in 1968, Assyrians constituted 65% of the population of the northern region, and the Kurds were about 15% and Arabs about 20%. During the 1st Gulf War, Kurdish tribes came in from Iran, supported by the Iranians, to fight against Iraq. They destroyed our villages. As a result, the majority of the Assyrians fled their towns and migrated to Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, seeking refugee visas to U.S.A, Europe, and Australia. That's why today we have some 3.2 million Assyrians in the Diaspora. The Assyrians make up 30% of Iraqi immigrants.
"In Iran the Assyrians were more than 150,000 before the coming of Khomeni in 1979, but now they are only about 30,000. We have churches that date back to the 1st century, built by St. Thomas and other churches from 2nd, 3rd, 4rth century. The indigenous people of Assyria are today scattered around the world. We are watching the news and hearing how the descendents of Tamorlane the Mongolian are announcing their 'Kurdistan' in Assyria, but we are unable to say a word for the great powers are busy with more important issues."
This is a situation to watch very closely. Christians worldwide must make it known that we regard the future and fate of our Assyrian Christian brothers and sisters as a very important issue.
- Elizabeth Kendal
1) Iraq Federation?
By Fikret Bila, Turkish Press, 12 Jan 2004
4) Kurdish Autonomy Proposal Threatens Iraqi Territorial Integrity
Assyrian International News Agency. 8 Jan 2004
Recommended further reading:
Middle East Quarterly (Summer 2003)
Iraqi Assyrians: Barometer of Pluralism.
By Jonathan Eric Lewis.