AINA Editorial
Conference Expropriates Assyrian Christian History, Denies Assyrian Identity
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Assyrian Monastery of St. Matthew in north Iraq (CBS NEWS).
(AINA) -- On May 4-5 the Salahaddin University in Erbil, Iraq and the French Institute of the Near East (IFPO) organized a workshop titled Christianity in Iraq at the turn of Islam. Its aim was to discuss important institutional changes for Christians in areas of the collapsed Persian Empire and retreated Byzantine Empire which were conquered by Muslims. Among these were expansion opportunities for the Church of the East, which had previously been limited by the Zoroastrian Sassanian Empire. The papers at the workshop also attempted to restitute the reality of this ancient Christianity and assess the modifications resulting from the conquests, as witnessed by differences and similarities in architectural patterns of churches, material culture and burials with worship function (relics) between Churches, liturgies and regional influences in northern Iraq and the Byzantine territories on the one hand, and southern Iraq and the Arab-Persian Gulf on the other. In doing this, recent archaeological projects, as well as epigraphic and textual studies documenting Christianity after the conquests in Iraq and the Islamification of the region were reviewed and considered in light of previous discoveries.

This workshop, which was attended by the Deputy Consul-General of France in Erbil, was held at Salahaddin University in Erbil, and was organized by Professor of Archaeology Dr. Narmin Ali Muhammad Amin, in collaboration with Dr. Julie Bonnéric and Dr. Barbara Couturaud from the IFPO. Its sessions included textual data, the latest archaeological results in al-Hira area, Christianity in the Sulaymaniyah area, Christianity in northern "Kurdistan," and regional comparisons. Additionally, this workshop's program included at least 24 scholars -- 9 of whom were French, 8 Kurds, 4 Arabs, as well as a German, an Italian and a Polish scholar.

None of the speakers at this conference actually came from any of the Churches which constitute Iraq's Christian community, whether clergymen or scholars. Moreover, not one scholar from this community was invited to participate. Also, not once was the Assyrian ethnicity mentioned in the titles of any of the papers presented at the workshop. On the other hand, Syriac is mentioned in only one title and "Kurdistan" is mentioned in three of them.

Prior to becoming professor of archaeology at Salahaddin University, Dr. Amin (a Kurd) obtained her PhD from Université de Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines in France in 2001. Her doctoral thesis was titled: Les églises et monastères du «Kurdistan irakien» à la veille et au lendemain de l'islam (the Churches and Monasteries of "Iraqi Kurdistan" before and after Islam). Through this, she studied Christian art since before the advent of Islam (i.e. before the 7th century) until the 19th century, and the place of this art in that of Northern Mesopotamia. Her study presented the geographical and historical data of "Kurdistan," then reviewed the leading Europeans who traveled to and through "Kurdistan" between the 13th and 19th centuries and their remarkable works on Christian art in "Kurdistan," from Marco Polo to Gertrude Bell. She then studied the basis of the general history of Christianity in "Kurdistan" and of the Sassanid period, during which the "Nestorian" Church of the East was born. She also examined the Arab conquest and the Kurds, the situation of the non-Muslim communities under Arab domination, and the state of the churches and monasteries. Finally, she studied most of the churches and monasteries of "Iraqi Kurdistan" (including the Mosul region) devoting a large part of her work to their situation, their history and their architecture.

Throughout her thesis, Dr. Amin only recognized historic Assyria as "Kurdistan" and mixed ethnic Kurdish history with that of the Christian Assyrians (including "Chaldeans" and "Syriacs") of the region, not once acknowledging their ethnicity, and taking them for granted as "Christian Kurds." Moreover, her thesis subsumed these historic Christian Assyrian edifices, including the ones in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, as Kurdish Christian monuments, completely divorcing them from their Assyrian ethnic and Syriac cultural and linguistic contexts. It is this person who is now a professor of archaeology at Salahaddin University and is organizing workshops on the history of Christianity in Iraq with mainstream French scholars from the IFPO.

In addition to this, an "international" symposium was recently organized in Hakkari, Turkey, by the Ataturk Supreme Council for Culture, Language and History, Ataturk Historical Research Centre, Hakkari Governorship Provincial Directorate of Culture and Tourism, and Hakkari University. This symposium, which only included one non-Turkish scholar, an Assyrian from Iraq, was titled: Hakkari, a Border City of the Republican Era and was held between 2 and 4 May. Its panels included one with four papers on "Nestorians" (Nasturiler) and "Christian Tyaris (Hristiyan Tayyariyler) -- all of which were presented by Turks (including local Turkish scholars of Kurdish ethnicity), and none of which recognize the Assyrian ethnicity or Syriac heritage. Other papers dealt with travel and tourism (including the 19th century), early 20th-century demographics and society, as well as art, music and dance. The only Assyrian-related paper, delivered by an Assyrian, dealt with the pottery industry in Dergni, which is Iraq and not in Hakkari. Again, unfortunately, no other Assyrian scholar was invited to participate in this symposium.

It's not enough that Assyrians are a stateless people, without a government to represent their interests or to invest in studying and preserving their history, heritage and culture, or that their homeland is divided between four states (in addition to a defacto one, "Iraqi Kurdistan") -- most of which do not recognize the Assyrians as indigenous, let alone as an ethnicity. It's not enough that so many areas have been completely emptied of their native Assyrian populations and that so much Assyrian/Syriac Christian heritage has already been destroyed in wars and conflicts over the past two centuries, not to mention the recent onslaught of the so-called "Islamic State" in Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, it's not enough that Assyrian history and heritage has already been colonized, bastardized and ripped apart by "unbiased" orientalist "scholars" hailing from European or Western backgrounds. Now, however, the "neighboring" peoples which have dominated Assyrians politically and culturally for so long -- rather than recognizing them and allowing them to have the space to tell their own story from their own point of view -- are additionally attempting to co-opt their history by shamefully excluding Assyrian scholars and preventing them from having a voice in mainstream academia.

This is nothing but a blatant attempt to further usurp and colonize Assyrian history and heritage, subsuming them under other ethnic or national labels such as Kurdish or Turkish, and only recognizing their Christian or sectarian identities. These acts of discrimination mirror the attitudes of certain Middle Eastern state institutions and can only be linked with cultural genocide, targeting the ethnic Assyrians remaining in these areas.

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