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Christian Massacre Spurs Assyrian-American Rally
By George Slefo and Pam DeFiglio
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A deadly attack that killed more than 60 people at a church in central Baghdad last Sunday has triggered a new local movement by Iraqi-Christian Americans. SAWRA, which means hope in Assyrian, is working with a coalition of organizations in planning to draw thousands of demonstrators to the James R. Thompson Center in downtown Chicago on Monday. From there, the group will march to the nearby federal building and hopefully grab the attention of elected officials about the plight of those in Iraq. "We want to speak to the representatives and tell them to pay attention--that they need to protect the indigenous people of Iraq," said Arbela Baba, 23, a SAWRA member from Skokie. "They promised us they would." The movement comes just days after the attack by Muslim terrorists from an al-Qaida affiliate called the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Gunmen stormed the church and held dozens of parishioners hostage for several hours. The armed group eventually killed many of their captives using machine guns, grenades and suicide bombers when police raided the building to end the standoff. Many media outlets described the slayings as the bloodiest attack on an Iraqi Christian church in decades. The ISI said it would continue to execute Iraqi Christians until the release of two Egyptian women being held prisoner by Coptic monks in Egypt. Now, SAWRA has scheduled rallies in several cities across the globe to raise awareness. Chicago organizers will join those in Phoenix, Detroit and London as well as in Sweden and Australia to express their indignation. Organizers have even secured nine buses to transport demonstrators from Skokie, Des Plaines, Niles and various parts of Chicago, such as Warren Park, to the rally. While SAWRA plans on getting politicians' attention by rallying, other groups are helping out in a different way. Waleeta Canon, treasurer of the Assyrian American National Coalition (AANC) in Washington, began posting links to her website on Facebook. When people visit the site, they are asked to send President Barack Obama an awareness letter by entering their ZIP code. In three days, she has collected more than 20,000 letters to send to the White House. "People want to do something about this." Canon said. "A lot of our people are reaching out from places like Illinois, Michigan, Arizona and California." Iraq massacre hits home About three years ago, Rand Ishaq, an 18-year-old Assyrian, was living in Iraq with a different set of rules. "We had to wear something over our heads to school to pretend that we were Muslims," said the senior at Niles North High School. "We had to do that. We didn't go to church because we were so scared. [My family was] expecting that something bad was going to happen." Unfortunately, Ishaq and her family were right. Now, she plans on showing her support for those killed by attending the rally, and is even working with friends to raise money for Christian families in Iraq by selling ribbons. The largest U.S. concentration of Assyrians is in the Chicago area, according to Vasili Shoumanov, author of Assyrians in Chicago. A large portion of those Assyrians live in the suburban communities of Skokie, Niles and Morton Grove. While Iraq is largely made up of Muslims, a small portion of the population is Christian, with many falling into the Assyrian, Chaldean or Syrian faith. Christians number about 800,000 in Iraq, or about 3 percent of the nation's estimated 29 million people, according to the CIA World Factbook. Assyrians are among minor ethnic groups that comprise about 5 percent of the population. Members of Niles North's Assyrian Club are planning to skip school so they can attend the event in downtown Chicago and are asking their peers and relatives to join them. "I just want people to know that there are Christians in Iraq; that they just want to pray and practice their faith; but that they are getting killed," said Kaiser Hermiz, a senior and member of the high school club. "Al-Qaida said they are going to kill every Christian in Iraq and it's terrifying," he added. An estimated 66 percent of the country's Christian population have fled Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, according to a 2007 article by Radio Free Europe. Denita Shino, a 16-year-old junior at Niles North and another club member, said she felt obligated to do something when she first heard the news about the church massacre. "I feel it's every Christians' responsibility to go to this rally," Shino said. "We can't sit here and do nothing about it." Meanwhile, the upcoming rally has instantly become a hot topic within the community. Angie Warda Dwyer, a Morton Grove resident who left Iraq in 1991, said the recent attack is "100 percent about religion." "I talk on the phone with my relatives in Iraq [and] young men will guard the churches all night long," she said. "It's a problem for Christians in Iraq. "Nobody's helping them," Dwyer added. " The Sunni and Shia kill each other, but they're getting together to kill Christians." Ninorta Kasso, who works at her family's printing shop in Niles, hopes both sides keep things in perspective. "Before, they would say, 'You either convert or we kill you,' " she said. "Now, it's bombing churches, killing priests, kidnapping priests and taking people hostage. "These are Muslim extremists doing this. It's not all Muslims--a lot of Muslims are against what they are doing," Kasso added.

Carrie Porter also contributed to this story.

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