(AINA) -- A conference on "Christians and the Arab Spring" was held at the Landmark Hotel in Amman, Jordan on September 29, 2013 under the auspices of HRH Prince al-Hassan Bin Talal. The following speech, by Chairman Ashur Giwargis, chairman of the Assyria Patriotic Movement, was delivered during the fifth session, titled "Are Christians partners in change or allies of regimes?"
In the name of Assyria Patriotic Movement (APM), we would like to congratulate you on this conference which was needed for the Middle East mosaic of components with all our nationalities and religions.
Dear Brethren, I believe that we are still living the conditions of Europe in the Middle Ages when the Vatican's decrees took precedence over European stands and bishops controlled emperors, and as Europe has changed, I am sure that the East must change because Muslims are getting alienated with the radical Islamic thoughts, we have to make the distinction here between a "Muslim" and an "Islamist". However, this change requires a long time during which there may not remain even one Christian in the Middle East, that is why we have to be frank in facing the truth. Hence, in order to achieve a balance in this conference, and in response to al-Basmala (In the name of the Merciful God, Peace on Mohamed and his followers) of Dr. Mohammad al-Hajj from the Islamic Bloc in the Jordanian Parliament, I shall begin with the Sign of the Cross.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God, Amen
As a non-Arab Christian, allow me to comment on the phrase "Arab Christians" as it appeared sometimes in this conference. As Assyrians we respect Arabism and the Arabic particularity, and our hope is that our Arab brethren specially the intellectuals, would respect the particularity of the Assyrian nationality, since the Assyrians differ from Arabs in their cultural and civilizational belonging, and it is impossible to mix between the Assyrian culture and another culture in a nationalistic mold, but rather in a collective patriotic mold within the principle of citizenship equality between cultural groups.
We are not participating in this conference to compete over patriotism or to offer diplomatic compliments as has been the case in our communities, but rather we are here as Assyrians and Christians, to name things as they are, raising our Christian nation's voice alongside other honest voices to deal with our tragedy as peoples living together. Indeed it is a tragedy which as Muslims and Christians we must go back to its ideological and political roots which will affect the "Christian - Muslim" or "Arab - non-Arab" coexistence in our countries. Hence, we have to admit that the changes in the Arab countries have begun to take a discouraging path, as the core ideology of what we call "opposition movements" in the Arab countries became clearer, these movements some of which cocoon in obsolete ideas whose demands materialized to what the media identifies as the "Arab Spring" beginning with Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, whereby the situation in these countries changed to be worse, particularly in multi religious countries.
Currently, Egypt is witnessing a migration of Copts to Canada, the United States, Germany, and in the last few months, 100.000 Copts migrated to Georgia, as for Syria, we are witnessing its unknown future in light of the severe disputes between the anti-regime factions, political Islam and secularism, and the ugly samples which we see in the media, will be the future heroine of the political scene in Syria following the supposed demise by some of Assad's regime, which reflects the reality of the Christians' fears in the event of any regime change, these fears have materialized in the migration of over half of Syria's Christians at present.
Allow me to leave the subject of today's changes in the Arab regimes, to take you in a short Iraqi trip to the world of democracy's wonders in the Middle East, since Iraq was the first scene for change towards democracy, (today's prevailing concept of "spring") about 300.000 Assyrians left Iraq during 35 years of Saddam's Arabization dictatorship, while 800.000 Assyrians were displaced in the first five years of the democracy of Islamization and Kurdification. Yes, a 100% democracy since the people elected the parliament which approved the governmental selection that is managing constitutional institutions based on a constitution of Islamization and Kurdification, chosen willingly by the majority of the Iraqi people.
I will be mentioning few official declarations, and the manner with which the leaders of the Iraqi state dealt with Iraq's indigenous people following the country's transition to democracy, which will provide us with clear examples as to the reasons and fears of Christians in the Middle East vis a vis regime changes, and Assyrians are a good example for the subject of our session :
On October 10, 2004, Mr. Mohammad Bashar al-Faidi, the spokesperson for the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq, was the guest of al-Jazeera show (Asda'a / Echoes) and demanded Church leaders to apologize for the American bombing of Mosques in Falluja or he would declare war on Churches. We are all aware that the Association of Muslim Scholars is the Sunni leadership in Iraq.
On May 02, 2005, the Middle East Online Agency published a statement for Mr. Muqtada al-Sadr advising Christians not to be a corruption in society, and in the same report , the agency published another statement by Sheikh Jaber al-Khafaji, Muqtada al-Sadr's adviser who called on Christian women of Iraq to veil themselves (put on a hijab), and we all know that al-Sadr is one of Shiite leaders in Iraq and his faction is part of the central ruling authority.
On December 05, 2009, Mahmoud al-Mash'hadani, the Iraqi parliament chairman made a declaration to Iraqi newspaper al-Mada and I quote : "We are in power and we shall not give up on Islamizing Iraq, we disapprove the actions of liberal factions to preserve civil liberties stipulated in the constitution, and the Islamization of society is an important duty by imposing the Islamic doctrine on all the components of Iraqi society" and he added "as for the second part of the constitution, civil liberties are a breakdown in morals and democracy is a destruction for the Iraqi society". This was the chairman of a parliament elected by the people in a flawless democratic manner which bloomed in the "Iraqi Spring" as a shameful degeneration.
On December 02, 2011, Assyrian and Yazidi shops were burned down in Zakho which is within the Kurdish occupation, whereby Sheikh Ismail Othman al-Sindi, took to the streets and used the loudspeakers of a police car belonging to the Kurdish occupation authority, and called on Kurds to burn down Christian and Yazidi shops claiming that what he called "Kurdstan", was a Muslim land which had no place for infidels and that he is supported by Kurdish authorities (we have an audio/video of the event). All this In addition to ethnic oppression practiced by the Kurds against Iraq's indigenous people forcibly confiscating Assyrian lands according to self-created legislation, something which I will not go into to save you time. All this is taking place knowing that Kurdish currents are part of the central governing authority.
Hence, no wonder that Iraq has been classified by Transparency International as "the most corrupted state in the world" after changing the regime and it appears today that the "Failed States" train is passing through all the stations of Arab change where its spring is not blooming except blood and corruption.
Based on what has been stated, we deduce that the problem of Middle East Christians is not in political currents (supporters or opposition) but the problem is rather the higher religious authorities and state regimes formed in accordance with the aforementioned examples. Thus, if we are to look for a solution to the situation of the Middle East Christians, we have to call for equality before democracy specially if we reflect upon a saying by democracy's father, the American thinker Benjamin Franklin: "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for lunch".
Christians under the rule of Arab regimes are not necessarily their allies, but the control of religious extremism exerted on the proposals, field, and political developments within opposition fronts in Arab countries, do not allow Christians to be partners in the change and most of them hesitate for the lack of effective guarantees for the implementation of secular opposition currents specially that the power and activities of religious currents are equivalent or rather surpassing the proposals of the secular currents as was the case with the Kurdo-Islamic coup in Iraq, followed by the Egyptian revolution, and today the Syrian chaos, in addition to all that I have mentioned lead to the establishment of a "Failed State" in the scientific interpretation. A democratic state in our countries following the change does not have control on its lands, is incapable to extend its central authority over or meet the economic and security needs of the people, the simplest example being the situation of Sinai in Egypt and North Iraq in Iraq.
Christians are part of the state's public base but they are not necessarily part of the regime which if it turns to a democracy, the Christians will be persecuted more than in a dictatorship, thus their fears are 100% justified with respect to the concept of their existence after the change, this concept has been proven in Egypt, Iraq and soon in Syria, God forbid, that it is outside the choice of democracy and dictatorship, rather it is confined 200% in the issue of equality under any regime. Thus, we can confidently and with a clear Assyrian and Christian conscience say : No to a democracy that displaces and persecutes me, and yes to a dictatorship of equality, which creates a united popular opposition.
Christians find themselves isolated following a huge disappointment and they do not find any other choice but migration with a push and support from immigration organizations, to an extent that in the coming years, you will not find one Christian to share your opinions in respectful councils like this one. In this case, the Christian group that decides to stay in its country will be forced to voice its demands abroad, like our movement (APM) which is working on the project of a Safe Haven for the Assyrians as the indigenous people of Iraq and in accordance with international legislation.
Lastly, our hope is in the importance of forming a follow-up committee of secular personalities of all creeds and institutions to prevent the loss of an indigenous and important segment in the Middle East, which has always contributed, even while being persecuted for centuries, to the building of the same countries which have been invaded by a spring which is only blooming into failed states. This committee must also contribute with more recommendations and hold more conferences to create a secular current which would be a means to pressure the Arab regimes (old and new) since the so-called Christian - Muslim dialogue is futile because the Christian clergy's position is defeatist and does not represent the Christian public opinion, the simplest example being the declaration of Mar Louis Sako, Patriarch of our Chaldean Church, to An-Nahar Lebanese newspaper on September 27, 2013, that a Christian accepts to die just like Christ accepted death, and to him we say, he who accepts death let him accept it for himself, because Christians love life.
Muslim Brotherhood - Syria: Why the insistence on mentioning the phrase "Syrian Christians?" Why don't you say "Syrians" only ?
Assyria Patriotic Movement: You are 100% right, but we will say "Syrians" only when your organization changes its name to become "Syrian Brotherhood".
Al-Wasat Islamic Jordanian Party: We denounce making the Sign of the Cross at the beginning of Mr. Ashur's speech, this is an insult to us, also the Assyrians are Arabs, and not a separate nationality.
Assyria Patriotic Movement: We have accepted al-Basmala from Dr. Mohammad al-Hajj and as I have mentioned, my intention is to bring a balance to the conference, the Assyrians are not Arabs, Assyrianism has nothing to do with Arabism which came with Islam and was forcibly imposed in areas where Arabs had not set foot in before.
A Philosophy Professor at Yarmouk University: Brother Ashur, when we say "Arab Christians", we do not mean to abolish Arab nationalism, for as long as the Assyrians and others are living in the Arab world then they are partners in the Arabism renaissance that is, they are culturally Arabs.
Assyria Patriotic Movement: Christians in the East are living under Arab rule and in Arab "States" but not necessarily in Arab "Countries" since the land is not Arab, as an example, you can not convince people that Nohadra (Kurdified to "Dohuk") was once inhabited by Arabs, not even Arbil or Sulaimaniya. As a matter of fact, we are not here to discuss Arabism but I am willing to challenge and have a debate on any media outlet with any one among you with all due respect to your knowledge and intellectual levels, regarding Assyrianism and Arabism based on historical and anthropological aspects.
Dr. Haidar Said (Iraqi Center for Strategic Studies): Mr. Ashur, you and Mr. Khales have spoken of demographic changes, what are specifically the Assyrian demands?.
Assyria Patriotic Movement: Briefly, our demands are "equality" within the principle of citizenship, if Iraq is a federalism, then let federalism apply to everyone or to no one, the Assyrians must be mentioned in every article of the constitution mentioning nationalities, and Christians must be mentioned in every article mentioning religions, or not to mention any religion or nationality - that is equality - Unfortunately, we have seen that the Iraqi constitution in all its articles is unjust towards us, for example, Article 143, annuls the TAL (Transitional Administrative Law) of 2004 except its Articles /53/ and /58/ which Kurdify Assyria.
Former Iraqi ambassador: Brother Ashur, you have mentioned important facts which we had not heard of before regarding the Islamization speech in Iraq, but you know as we do that during Saddam's regime it was unreasonable to hear such speeches, so why don't we give history its due and draw a comparison between the former and today's regime?
Assyria Patriotic Movement: Indeed, I did not speak much about Saddam because our topic is regarding the period following the change, but to answer your question, Saddam was not better than today's regime since he forced the Arabization policy upon the Assyrians, as an example, they were forced to register as "Arabs" or "Kurds" in every census and those who refused, their fate was either imprisonment or death; In the 1987 census many Assyrians refused his policy and registered as "Assyrians", thus, he killed and displaced them in 1988 during the Anfal operation "As punishment", as witnessed by the correspondent of the Washington Post Jonathan Randall, who mentioned these events in his book "After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness ?". Saddam also carried out dangerous demographic changes such as displacing Assyrians from their towns and villages and replacing them with Kurds, this is one of our calamities today, since the Kurds are refusing to leave the Assyrian lands even though their homes in their villages are still reserved for them. The Kurds are also demanding to implement Article 140 of the constitution only in Kirkuk but they do not apply it in Nohadra (Kurdified to "Dohuk") where they are occupying hundreds of Assyrian villages.
If the former regime was a dictatorship, that did not mean the opposition was any better, for example, the Assyrians participated with the opposition in its struggle against Saddam's regime but the opposition used to refuse the participation of Assyrians in opposition meetings until the Assyrian Democratic Movement (APM) decided to get in touch with the Assyrian Lobby in the United States, whereby the American president Bush (the Iraqi opposition's master) issued an "order" requiring the acceptance of Assyrians in the opposition meetings and that is what took place, just like with the Syrian opposition, when Moaz al-Khatib resigned, the spokesperson for the U.S. State Department made a public declaration that al-Khatib was to return the following day to the Istanbul Council, and that is exactly what happened, he returned the next day like a good boy..
Tariq al-Tal from the "Islamic Action Front" (in response to Khales Isho, the Assyrian MP in the Iraqi Palrliament): You have mentioned the confiscation of Christians' lands in Nineveh Plain, my question is : Were Christian lands the only lands confiscated or the lands of all Iraqi groups were confiscated as well ?
Assyria Patriotic Movement: Brother Tariq al-Tal, your question is misplaced and it should be, "did any Christian confiscate the lands of others?". Muslims in Iraq have been fighting each other for lamentation slogans over 14 centuries, while Christians had nothing to do with them, Muslims are confiscating each others' lands and they are armed, while the Christians are unarmed and outside the struggle, so why their lands are being confiscated and they are being displaced? Leave the Nineveh Plain aside, 800.000 Christians have been displaced from Baghdad and other areas following the fall of Saddam, what can you say about that? You also have to know that the percentage of Assyrians in Iraq was 5%, while the number of Assyrians displaced from Iraq reached 50% among other displaced groups... and I am truly surprised with Mr. Khales, how did he concentrate on confiscation of lands outside the Kurdish occupation but he did not mention the confiscated towns and villages in Nohadra (Kurdified to "Dohuk").
Translated from Arabic by Mary Challita