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The Struggle of Iraq's Christian Assyrians

One day last October a small parcel was left at Sait Yildiz's home in Sodertalje, Sweden. Sait, who is the Chairman of the Assyrian Democratic Association of Sweden, realized that something was amiss when he saw that there was no return address and that the CD that it contained was unlabelled.

When he, despite his misgivings, played the CD he realized that it was a video. It begins with men chanting Islamic fundamentalist slogans, accompanied by a mixture of soft pop with Arabic folk music. Shortly someone can be heard shouting "Traitors! Betrayers! The unfaithful degenerates who have allied themselves with the evil representatives of the USA! They shall be slaughtered!" Across the screen are shown pictures of Iraq from before and during the current war. Five minutes of this, and then there is silence. The camera pans closer to a man sitting by a wall and focuses on face of 23 year-old Raymond Shamoun. He tries to smile at the camera as he is asked by a man off screen to defend himself against the accusations that he has betrayed Iraq, his nation, where he, "the Christian swine," has cooperated with the Americans.

Raymond replies that it isn't true that he has betrayed anyone and that he is only working as a watchman at the US military base in Mosul. But his kidnappers are relentless and press him to admit his treason. A sound is heard off camera, and suddenly Raymond's expression changes. He is told to read something written in Arabic. He swallows, hesitates but is ordered to continue. He reads the names of three other Assyrians who have also been labeled as traitors. He will not know that just three days after reading their names on this video, the three will be assassinated in Mosul. When Raymond has finished reading we hear the sounds of a door opening. He turns in the direction of the sound and suddenly there is terror in his eyes. The men in the room begin to chant in Arabic saying Allah is the only god and Mohammed is his only prophet and that their actions are in their name, and hence not a sin. The video cuts to a close-up of Raymond's torso. A knife flashes past the screen and pierces his throat. But it is dull and his head is sawed rather than cut off. He is hung upside down to empty the body of blood, much like in the Muslim ritual slaughter of animals.

Raymond was an Assyrian. The man who received the CD, Sait Yildiz is also an Assyrian. The video has been mailed to Assyrians all over the world as a way to frighten the community in Iraq and abroad. The Islamist group that carried out these executions and the production of the video calls itself the Salaheddin Al-Eyobe Brigade and has been terrorizing the Assyrian community in cities like Mosul, Baghdad and Kirkuk. Its purpose is to frighten Iraq's Assyrians into fleeing the country. The Assyrians are Christians and are accused of being allied with the Americans, in particular the American Christians.

Practically every week there are reports from across Iraq of the murder or kidnapping of Assyrians, the desecration of Christian religious sites and symbols, and the rape of women. Churches have been bombed, Christian shop owners murdered or forced to close down, students prevented from attending university and women forced to wear the veil In response, about two thousand young Iraqi Assyrians have taken up arms and are preparing to defend their towns. From Basra in the south to Dohuk in the north they are patrolling in the streets of Christian cities, and providing security around religious sites like churches and shrines. Ironically, in the new Iraq they face a double threat. In southern Iraq it is the Islamists who are targeting them as enemies of the state. In the north it is the nationalistic Kurds who, keen to establish a de-facto state let of Kurdistan, are intolerant of anyone challenging their vision of a homogenous Kurdish nation. Four days after Raymond was beheaded, his father, 66 year-old Farouk walked through the doors of one of Mosul's hospitals. He knew to head to the hospital yard where unidentified bodies are usually dumped.

He searches through the corpses and finds a body without a head. He opens the sheet in which the body is been wrapped and recognizes, by the clothes, that is his only son. He embraces the headless corpse screams in despair. Something rolls out from under the sheet. It is the head. He picks it up, kisses the forehead and closes the eyelids. Tearing off a piece of the sheet he carefully binds the head to the breast of the corpse and carries it to a waiting car. Many look on. No one helps. It is known that those who help someone murdered by the Islamists may themselves be considered as collaborators. We met Farouk in early January. He and his wife have fled to the city of Dohuk in northern Iraq where they are in hiding in a small one-room flat. The family had to leave all their belongings behind in Mosul when they left. His wife has been in a deep depression since her son's beheading. Matters were made worse for her when she found out that a video of the act was available in the marketplace. Farouk told us that we would not be able to interview her because she has not woken up or left her bed for over 6 days. It is an empty flat with just a few mattresses laid out on the floor. Farouk's eyes are equally empty. This is the first time he has agreed to talk to journalists. We can see that it will still not be easy for him. After several minutes of silence he tries to say something. All that emerges is the first syllable of his son's name. His face is expressionless. When he finally manages to speak, his voice is like a rasping whisper. "We have no future in Iraq. Now even our neighbors have turned against us. Sunni and Shia Muslims in the south and the Kurds in the north have become our enemies."

Assyrians are amongst the earliest converts to Christianity and Aramaic, the native language of Jesus Christ, can still be heard in Assyrian villages and cities. Descendents of the great Mesopotamian civilization, they still celebrate through art and memory their roots in what is commonly referred to as the cradle of civilization. Today there are little under 1 million Assyrians left in Iraq. Fifteen years ago there were over one and half million. Hundreds of thousands have fled to neighboring countries like Syria and Jordan to escape the persecution and seek a better life, any life, elsewhere. The Assyrian political and community leadership is desperate to keep the rest from following suit. Under Saddam Hussein's regime the Assyrians could practice their religion freely but were forced to assimilate with the Arab population and were not permitted to call themselves Assyrians. They were either Christian Arabs or Christian Kurds. Hundreds of Assyrian villages were destroyed and thousands lost their lives as Saddam tried to eliminate any trace of them as a distinct community and people. Those who submitted to the whims of the regime were allowed to remain in relative peace, though constantly under observation. Those who resisted and attempted to celebrate their Assyrian roots and traditions were accused of treason and threatened with death. In the 1990s, soon after the conclusion of the first Gulf War, the Assyrians found themselves in alliance with the Kurds as they attempted to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Today, however, things are very different.

Estimates on the number of recent Assyrian refugees range from 40,000 to 150,000. It is amongst the refugees that the discontent with the American occupation is greatest. They had welcomed the arrival of the US troops as it rid them of Saddam's terror, but the handling of the post-Saddam Iraq has filled them with deep misgivings about America's intentions and its commitment to the stability of Iraq. They fear a repeat of history when in 1933 the British, promising much but delivering little, departed Iraq, leaving behind a monarchy that proceeded to slaughter the Assyrians. The memory of the violence that followed when the British de-colonized the region still haunts the older generation. Even today Assyrians around the world commemorate the 7th of August as the Day of the Assyrian Martyrs -- in honor of those who were killed during those years. Talk of Balkanization of the country is common over Sunday morning card games in Assyrian towns.

Assyrian political leaders are very forthcoming with their frustrations with the Americans and the interim government. "We are disappointed in the United States," says Sait Yildiz as I sit with him in his Sýdertýlje flat watching the video of Raymond's beheading, "They have made us into the targets for Islamists in southern Iraq. It did not help that American evangelical missionaries accompanied the US forces and spread Christian propaganda." And for the Assyrians in the north of the country, in what is now commonly referred to Kurdistan of Yildiz points out that the persecution manifests itself in different ways. Kurds are being relocated into Assyrian towns and villages to shift the demographic balance. Assyrian villages remain in disrepair while new housing developments are cropping up across most all Kurdish towns. Even the roads to Assyrian towns remain unpaved. "Our pleas to the US administration in the US fall on deaf ears" he laments Rumors pervade the air in Iraq. Our guide, Wisam, who drove us around Iraq for three weeks, told us that there is a rumor that the U.S. and Iranian Kurds are cooperating in preparation of an eventual invasion of Iran. At a restaurant in Zakho a Kurdish waiter asks what we are doing here. When we tell him that we are here to report about the situation of the Assyrians, he blurts out "I don't know why they are not satisfied. They should be glad that we don't kill them as Saddam and be satisfiedý" Wisam, confronted with such attitudes before, stares at him coldly and replies, "We are not your guests. We are from this land and been here for over 5,000 years."

By Nuri Kino


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