Part B of Essay Three in a Series: The Suffocation of the Christian Communities in the Middle East.
Armenians were not the only victims of the massacres that took place in the northeastern part of Anatolia during the First World War (described in my previous essay, “How Christian Communities Die in the Middle East: The Sorry History of Armenia,” June 10, 2013) There are estimates that 750,000 Assyrians and 500,000 Greeks and many others were exterminated during the campaign of 1915 that also took the lives of a million and a half Armenians.
Like the Armenians, the Assyrian Christians had lived as a distinct population in the Middle East since the very beginning of the history of the Church – that is, for at least four centuries before Muhammad. Their story began in one of the Christian kingdom that on today’s map would be located partly in Syria, partly in Iraq. They were among several distinct national minorities still governed by the Ottoman Empire at the opening of the Twentieth Century and then set loose from that regime when the Allies dismantled the Ottoman Empire after 1919. Because the Assyrians were Christians, they were despised by all of the other national communities who competed with them for the privilege of founding a separate nation – among whom were the Arabs and the Kurds.
The Assyrian claim of entitlement to a nation-state was based on Ancient History. They claim to descend from the Assyrians, well known to students of the Bible as the conquerors of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, responsible for the dispersal of the Ten Tribes (2Kings 17.) The Assyrians themselves became subjects of the next great Empire, that of the Babylonians and afterwards that of the Persians. [See “Assyrians Beyond the Fall of Ninevah,” Assyria Times, April 29, 2013. w.assyriatimes.com.] The Twentieth Century leaders of the Assyrian communities in the Middle East imagined that since, unlike the Kurds, they were Christians and had indeed been Christians since long before any European nation had turned to Christian faith, they would enjoy some sentimental advantage, to say the least, with the leaders of the Great Western Powers. But the days when the leaders of Great Powers publicly declared themselves as Christians was already long gone and the days when their governments would pride themselves on not appearing to prefer Christian causes had now begun.
Complicity of the Kurds in the Extirpation of the Assyrians of Iraq
Whenever we are tempted to see the contest between oppressed nationalities and their oppressors in terms of angels of light on the one side and angels of darkness on the other we are brought down to earth by such realities as the following: that the Kurds of Mesopotamia (what is today Iraq) put themselves in August 1933 at the head of a military campaign toliquidate the Assyrians of Iraq, whom all sides hated because they were Christians. Several thousand were massacred in the course of a few days. In many accounts of these events the British government is found guilty of looking the other way while the attempt to eliminate the Assyrians was going on within its Mandate of Mesopotamia. British diplomats at theLeague of Nations, we are told, were instructed to suppress evidence of these massacres of Assyrians by Kurds. [http://www.ncas.rutgers.edu/center-study-genocide-conflict-resolution-and-human-rights/assyrian-genocide-1914-1923-and-1933-pres.] In any case, the actual dirty work was done, not by the British and not by the Turks (whose empire over these people was now long gone) but by the Kurds. The undoubted role of the Kurds in this matter underwrote for many decades thereafter the Kurdish people’s perennial claim to respect from the rulers of Iraq.
The Assyrian Remnant in Syria
After the events of 1933, much-reduced communities of Assyrians lingered in Iraq and in Syria. In Syria, most were concentrated in the northeast around Hasakeh, with others settled in Damascus and Aleppo. When the present troubles began in Syria in 2012, the local branch of the Iraq-based Assyrian Democratic Movement joined the opposition Syrian National Council. [“Aymenn Jawalal-Tamimi, Syria’s Assyrians, caught in the middle,” [http://www.meforum.org/3392/syria-assyrians December 7, 2012.] There is no reason to imagine, however, that the Assyrians have secured their future by this timely move, and there is every reason forSyria’s Assyrians to anticipate the same fate as Iraq’s Assyrians in the aftermath of the overthrow of Assad.
The Assyrian Remnant in Iraq
In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the surviving Assyrians had looked to the dictator as their protector against popular hostility. Saddam Hussein’s Machiavellian instinct to play off this vulnerable community against other communities did indeed serve to keep them alive – but only to a point: the secular Pan-Arabist ideology informing Saddam’s Baathist Party led Hussein to whittle down the Assyrian presence through destruction of numerous Assyrian villages in the north of Iraq.
Since Saddam Hussein’s fall, the small community of Assyrian Christians in Iraq has been nearly extinguished by the actions of Muslim mobs acting on the advice of their religious teachers. [www.aina.org/martyr.html; see also, Christopher Howse, “On the plains of Ninevah,” www.telegraph.co.uk, July 7; Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Syria’s Assyrians caught in the middle,” The Daily Star (Beirut), December 7, 2012, http://www..meforum.org/3392/Syria-assyrians); Raymond Ibrahim, “Why Christian persecution is Islam’s Achilles heel, www.frontpagemag.com, November 30, 2012.]
Juliana Taimoorazy, president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council speaks bluntly of “systematic ethno-religious cleansing in Iraq.”
[This process] began in 2003, when Christian families received threatening letters offering three options: convert to Islam, pay the jizya (a form of protection tax paid by non-Muslims) or leave their homes, empty-handed ….To date, there have been hundreds of Christians who have been kidnapped and murdered because of their Assyrian ethnicity and their Christian faith. These acts have driven approximately 1 million people out of their homeland, where their ancestors had lived for thousands of years. After these atrocities, the Assyrian nation once again finds itself in refugee camps in such countries asJordan, Turkey, and Syria, waiting their turn to receive entry visas into Western countries. Approximately 450,000 Assyrians have remained in their homeland, preserving the Aramaic language and centuries-old traditions …. As Christians have faced such calamities in Muslim-majority countries throughout the Middle East, the Christian West has remained silent …. Mainstream news media have largely ignored the plight of Iraqi Christians. Part of the reason is that the victims are Christians and do not fit the template of Muslim and Arab victimhood. If such acts of violence had been directed at Muslims, activists in the West would rush to raise awareness and condemn the perpetrators, as they did for the Muslim victims of genocide inDarfur …. How is it that the Christian world has forgotten what the Blessed Pope John Paul II called the Right Lung of the Church? …. How can Christians declare themselves followers of Christ when they forget about the church in regions where the body of Christ is being re-crucified? …. This is an age of terrible uncertainty for a people that has existed for over 6,700 years and is now on the verge of extinction. [Juliana Taimoorazy, “Iraq: When the Lights Go Off and the Dust Settles,” www.morningstarnews.org, March 25, 2013. ]
Relevance of the Story of the Armenians and Assyrians in the Present Middle East Crisis
Since the Armenians were driven out of the Arab Middle East and since the Assyrians have been reduced everywhere in the Middle East to this present shadow of their former strength as a community, only one Christian community in the Middle East — leaving aside for the present the unique situation of the churches in Lebanon — has the numbers and the standing to be considered a solid obstacle to unity of the umma. That is the Coptic community which makes up about 10 percent of the population of Egypt.
Each day, the situation of the Coptic community comes to resemble more and more the situation of the Armenians a century ago in Turkey and of the Assyrians in Iraq and Syria today. Mohammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader elected as President of Egypt just over a year ago and now deposed in a military coup, had long ago publicly dedicated his life to implementing the Prophet’s injunction to remove the Jews and the Christians from the land. Only days before his election as President, Mohammad Morsi declared to a rally of his followers that his upcoming victory at the ballot would amount to “the Islamic conquest of Egypt for the second time …. The second Muslim conqueror … will be Muhammad Morsi and history will record it.… [I will] make all Christians convert to Islam, or else pay the jizya.” Even as our media were celebrating the heady triumph of democracy in Tahrir square mob violence was proceeding against churches and the properties of Copts in Cairo, inAlexandria and throughout the land. [“Islamists Target Egypt’s Christians,”IPT News, www.investigativeproject.org/2904, May 25, 2011. “Arab Spring:Egypt’s Legal Persecution of Christians” IPTNews, May 29, 2013.] An estimated thirty percent of the Copts who had lived in Egypt at the end of 2011 have fled or are fleeing today. [“What is happening in Egypt to the Copts is the Kristallnacht of our times,” The Commentator, October 11,1 2011; Ramond Ibrahim, “Death to Churches Under Islam: A Study of the Coptic Church,” www.algemeiner.com, April 30, 2013.] And, as inMesopotamia in 1933, leaders of the Western nations whose governments claim to be mentoring the emerging political leaders in the ground rules about the Rights of Man have looked the other way. A spokesperson for the Hudson Center for Religious Freedom, has summed that story up efficiently: the Obama Administration “chose to throw the issue of religious freedom under the bus in the interest of greater peace.”
The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations are now rallying public opinion against the Copt by promoting a conspiracy theory that it was the Coptic Pope in person who provoked the Defense Minister General Al-Sisi to mount his coup of June 30. In this interpretation, the June 30 coup is a “Crusader Revolution.” Islamist leaders are now calling for revenge on an appropriate scale. Violence against Copts, including widespread arson against churches, has begun to exceed levels reached during the Morsi months. [“Muslim Brotherhood: The Copts Are Behind The Egyptian Military Coup That Removed Morsi,” MEMRI Special Dispatch’5366, July 17, 2013, firstname.lastname@example.org.]
However much it might improve the new regime’s image in our part of the world to act now aggressively in defense of this unpopular minority, it seems unlikely that with all the other demands on their services required in suppressing pro-Morsi demonstrations, rounding up Brotherhood leaders and collecting taxes, clearing the streets, the police and the military will have the resources or the will necessary needed to give genuine protection to Copts . In brief, the situation of the Copts of Egypt is coming to resemble that of the Armenians a century ago and of the Assyrians of Iraq, Turkey and Syria today.