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
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. 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. 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 have found themselves
mostly concentrated in the mountainous regions north of Baghdad.
various Iraqi governments, particularly those following the British
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Recent events in the
north fuel fears that the Assyrians may become victims of Kurdish
aggression again. 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 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. "The KDP [Kurdish Democratic
Party] turns a blind eye to these attacks out of fear of an Islamic
The Kurds have an estimated
70,000 anti-Saddam soldiers in the north. 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. 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 is
already planning to send more 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.
Turkish rule would likely be far worse than continuing to live
under Saddam Hussein, and could very well spell the end of the
No nation in the region
has as much Christian blood on its hands as Turkey. The Turks
carried out major slaughters of Christians
in 1915 (close to two million Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks
that year alone), 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
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. Less
than 100 years ago, the numbers of Christians in what is now Turkey
numbered in the millions.
If a Turkish invasion
of northern Iraq leads 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.’
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
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?
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. 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.
Chancy [send him mail] is a graduate of the University of Florida
with a degree in Political Science, and a certificate in Eastern
European Studies. A former University lecturer in Poland, he currently
holds an MBA in Finance and works in Orlando, Fl as a business
analyst for an international software developer.
© 2003 LewRockwell.com