There are Assyrians and there are Assyrians
Recently the western press has been bemoaning the devastation by ISIS in Iraq and Syria of artifacts and monuments from the Neo-Assyrian Empire (See my essay, “A Meeting of Kindred Spirits In Iraq,” www.thebayviewreview.com, May 1, 2015.)
But the proper name “Assyrian” has been appearing with even greater frequency in quite another context and with quite a different meaning. Among such items is one originating with Newsweek, and distributed by AINA (ASSYRIAN International News agency(aina.org/news): “Fleeing ISIS Into Exile, Assyrian Christians Sing the Oldest Music on Earth, ” April 16, 2015.) It describes the exodus in panic of hundreds of thousands of Christians from Iraq and Syria following the capture by ISIS of Mosul and other major centres since January of this year.
A few days after capturing Mosul … ISIS issued its infamous decree: convert to Islam, pay a tax on unbelievers or die…. [The fleeing Christians] leave behind the bodies of brothers and fathers, and the shelled–out ruins of their shops and houses. They also leave behind much of what it meant to be a Syriac Christian. The ancient cities of Nimrud and Nineveh that they visited proudly to show their children the glories of the Assyrian empire from which they claim descent [emphasis added] — soon these will be bulldozed by ISIS. They leave behind the treasures of Assyria in the Mosul museum — ISIS will loot the smaller antiquities for the black market and smash the statues too big to sell.… From the steeple flies the black flag. In a few months, it will be destroyed.
The great majority of Christians who live in Iraq today are called “Assyrians.” Over the centuries of Muslim conquest, these Christians allowed themselves to become divided again and again, denominationally, as they sought to meet the challenge of maintaining their ancient Pre-Chalcedonian theological and ecclesiastical commitments, while finding some degree of political protection from the Roman Catholic Church and the government and people of France (the major imperial power in that area by the end of the 19th century.) In recent years, leaders of the several church communities have tried to reverse the damage done by divisions among “Chaldeans, Assyrians and Syriacs” by focussing on their common identity as a nation – as “Assyrians.”
It is not illogical to believe that Christians who today call themselves “Assyrians” are descendents of the race that founded the Assyrian empire. The best item of evidence pointing to this possibility is that they speak Aramaic, evidently a form of the language that the Assyrian masters spread throughout their empire and which stayed on as the most practical of all regional languages for communicating across barriers that could not be overcome by more-localized languages. But it does seem far-fetched for these Christian people to hook-up their claims for the respect of the world to the present campaign for rescue of the artifacts of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Why, on earth, would Christian people want to be associated with the monsters who built that short-lived regime –– whose names (Pul, Shalmaneser, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon and Sargon) stand in scripture as bywords for the most bloody sort of tyranny?
The Assyrians were among several distinct national minorities still governed by the Turkish majority of the Ottoman empire at the opening of the Twentieth Century. Their leaders imagined that since 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 the Western Democracies openly identified themselves as “Christian” were already long gone and the days when their governments would pride themselves on never appearing to prefer the cause of Christians anywhere in the world had now begun.
We have to set aside the good press that the Kurds are receiving these days and recall that the Kurds of Britain’s Mandate of Mesopotamia (what is today Iraq) put themselves in August 1933 at the head of a military campaign to liquidate the Assyrians of Iraq, whom all sides hated because they were Christians. Several thousand Assyrians were massacred in the course of a few days. (See Editorial: “The Origin and Meaning of Assyrian Martyrs Day,” www.aina.org, August 6, 2014.) In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the surviving Assyrians had looked to the dictator as their protector against popular hostility. After Saddam Hussein’s fall, and well before the Islamic State got into the game a few months ago, the small community of Assyrian Christians in Iraq was reduced to something like half its previous numbers by the actions of Muslim mobs acting on the advice of their religious teachers.
Taken together, these acts have driven approximately 1 million Assyrians from their homes. Many thousands now languish in refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey, and Syria.
The Case for Rescue of the Assyrians
Many well-intentioned persons and agencies in our midst have been calling out for the rescue of the Assyrians and their transportation to the Western world. While everyone with a heart or a place to put one must rejoice in the escape of Christians from the ever-diminishing portion of the Arab world where Christians are still permitted to live, we must not endorse escape from the Arab world as the best outcome for Christian people who, after all, had lived for many centuries in the Middle East before that glorious day, fourteen centuries ago, when Muhammad brought forth the message that brought Arab armies out of the deserts and that led to the subjection of civilization.
Instead, we should demand that our political leaders make clear to their political leaders that purging the Arab world of non-Arab people is not in line with our idea of ideal human relations. Nor, for that matter, should we go on acquiescing in the notion that we are honor-bound to accommodate en masse the pathetic hordes of “refugees” who are now in flight from centuries of incompetent and vicious government under Muslim rulers throughout the Middle East, North Africa, Central Africa, East Africa and God-only-knows how much further beyond the reach of our own civilization.
The Muslims will have won total victory for their hateful programme if we accept this as a “refugee” issue, and allow our energies to be concentrated on facilitating the removal of people who have the absolute right to live with the protection of stable governments in the lands of their birth.
A Lesson From History: The Expulsion of the Jews from the Arab Middle East Following 1949
What is happening now to Christians in the Middle East happened to the Jews of the same Arab lands sixty years ago. During Israel’s War for Independence and in the years immediately following, the Arab nations looted the property of an estimated 400,000 Jews and forced them out. Most of them made their way to Israel. These Arab-speaking Jews had been resident throughout the Middle East for several centuries before the first wave of Arab conquerors came out of the deserts.
In colleges throughout our part of the world, most Professors of History and Political Science tell the story of these years in terms of the co-conspiracy of imperialists and Zionists to steal Arab lands, with the codicil that Israel is obliged to compensate the Arabs unto the thousandth generation. The reality of the displacement of the Jews from the homes held by their ancestors throughout the Middle East is usually just left out of this story.
Now that the Jews are gone forever from every corner of the Middle East (except, of source for Israel), the religious and political leaders of the Arab are sending what remains of their Christian populations down that same path. It is absolutely essential that we not acquiesce in this genocidal crime, as we did in the expulsion of the Jews from Arab lands sixty years ago.
Here is a powerful paradox. Drawing the line on the matter of the rights of Christians to exist in the Middle East is absolutely essential if Muslims are to be saved from annihilation by other Muslims.
Most reporting from the Muslim world over the last several years makes clear that Muslims are liquidating other Muslims on a scale much greater than they are liquidating Christians, etc cetera. This is explicable in terms of simple arithmetic. There are more Muslims for other Muslims to hate than there are Christians, and the zero-sum mentality that the Qur’an generates in the minds of all devotees ultimately puts every Muslim under urgent obligation to denounce those who call themselves Muslim but who are not real Muslims and who are thus the greatest enemies of true Islam.
Over the last few months, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been pouring unlimited support in form of money, weapons and propaganda upon the Shia activists of Syria. Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and elsewhere, in aid of their insurrection against their Sunni Princes. If the Shia warriors succeed in bringing down the Sunni warriors these will share the same fate as the helpless Jews who lived in these same places a half-century ago.
Freedom of Religion is the Issue
Morally-speaking, arguments about whether one is “an Assyrian’ by religion or by “culture” are a red herring. Our governments should be standing up now and defending the absolute right of instatement in situ of all races, tribes, cultures, and other communities presently existing in the Middle East. This should apply in spades to indigenous people – which certainly covers the case of the Assyrians, the Armenians, the Copts in Egypt, and the other Christians who have lived for centuries in Arab lands. But whether one belongs to an ancient religious tradition or whether one is simply asserting his adherence as an individual to his faith, every person has a basic human right to be protected in his declaration of that faith.
Left entirely out of current journalistic and editorial discussion of the present situation of the Assyrians and other “religious minorities” is the fact that there has been since 1948 a United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which explicitly endorses the right of every individual anywhere in the world to choose his religion. This includes the right to conversion, as well as the right to have no religion. After that Declaration was adopted by the United Nations, the Muslim nations met in full congress and publicly declared their refusal to honour it. This determination was later ratified more formally in the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI), issued by the member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in Cairo in 1990.
The case for Assyrian autonomy has been in the world as a matter of practical politics since the days when Woodrow Wilson and the Allies took the first steps in dismantling the Ottoman empire. But the case for Assyrian autonomy got ground up in the contests among the bigger parties, and it is now far too late in the day to start up that campaign again with any hope of success. What is urgent is to implement ways and means for protecting the right to religious freedom of Assyrians and of all people of whatever persuasion throughout the Middle East.
We should certainly not join those voices who say that the solution to the sorrows of the Christians in the Middle East is to leave! Spokesmen for the Assyrian diaspora are themselves divided on this matter – as one prominent voice among them notes with despair:
Some are asking for a complete exodus of Iraqi Christians from Iraq … [while] others … are saying we want a safe haven to preserve our heritage back home and want our own military and government. Two groups are conveying different messages. The danger of this? First of all they are laughing at us at the White House . .. Why not unite our churches and show the world that we are united and want our land back? [arabamericannews.com. May 7, 2015; “Chaldean Patriarch: Kurdish Constitution Should Mention Christians,” Fides News Agency, May 6, 2015.
We lose everything when we attach our defense of Christians to live wherever they are presently living to historically-based arguments about tribes, nations or cultures. We claim the right to worship (or not) and to proclaim one’s religious faith (or not) according to conscience without hindrance.
This used to be clearly understood as an absolute right. In this light, the campaign by Assyrian Christians to add antique lustre to their cause by linking their story to the story of the ancient Assyrian Empire should be considered neither-here-nor-there.