by Glen Chancy
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. 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.
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.
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. u2018allies' 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.
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 u2018Arabization' in Saddam's Iraq, may find themselves subjected to a harsh u2018Kurdization' 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 backlash.”
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 u2018allies' 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 Assyrian communities.
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 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. 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 u2018ethnic cleansing,' will the United States defend the Christians?
History would lead one to conclude that the answer is an unqualified u2018no.'
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 u2018offending' 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?
If history is our guide, the answer is an unqualified u2018no.'
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 u2018peacekeepers' 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.