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November 2, 2002
Column #1105

The Forgotten Christians

     "With signs of war with Iraq increasing every day, lost amidst the fog of war are a small, once proud and once very influential people. 

     "Almost completely ignored in the current discussions are 1.2 million Assyrian Christians. Scattered throughout Iraq, but with many near the city of Nineveh, currently known as Mosul, these remnants of the great Assyrian Empire are frozen in time. 

     "It is their history that is little known. It was to them that Jonah came to bring the message of repentance and they repented. It was to them that the Apostle Thomas came and their King Abgar repented for his people and Assyria in the first century became the first Christian nation."

     Those are the words of Ken Joseph, Jr., a Christian missionary in Japan and grandson of Stephen Joseph, an Assyrian Christian who fled a Kurdish massacre in 1919 which destroyed two-thirds of the nation. Stephen came to America, settling in Chicago, and for 50 years to the day he died, awoke at night screaming of terrors he refused to describe to his descendants.

     Does another massacre lie ahead for today's Assyrians, the second largest group of Christians in the Middle East, second only to Egypt's Christians?

     That's the fear of an international group of Assyrians meeting in London as you read these words. From America, Europe, Asia, and Iraq, the Assyrians and their descendants are gathering to develop recommendations for the U.S. Department of State which is expected to hold a conference in November on "The Future of Iraq" after Saddam's demise.

     Within Iraq there are two Christian groups: "The Church of the East," of about 200,000 and a million Chaldean Catholics who recognize the Pope.

     Approximately 150,000 now live in northern Iraq amidst 4 million Kurds who have fought for independence from Iraq. Hundreds of Kurdish and Assyrian villages were destroyed by the Iraqi military from 1961-1979, forcing surviving Assyrians to flee abroad or to central Iraq. Saddam Hussein used poison gas against northern Iraqi villages in 1988 to douse rebellion.

     Hundreds of Assyrian churches "have been destroyed by Saddam," according to Wilfred  Bet-Alkhas, editor of Zinda Magazine, written for the Assyrian diaspora from San Francisco. He estimates that only 100 churches survive in their native land. 

     However, under the "no-fly zone" protected by British and U.S. air forces, a new era of peace has settled in for a decade. Churches are being rebuilt and Assyrians have built 40 schools for 8,000 children who are being taught in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. Such schools and the teaching of any non-Muslim language is strictly forbidden by Hussein.

     An informal Kurdish Parliament has emerged, with five of its 105 seats assigned to Assyrians. No such political freedom exists in the Iraq controlled by Saddam. Even the economy is thriving in the region. While Muslims are prohibited from paying interest, Christians have borrowed money and built small businesses - grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations. 

     Few realize that Christianity's respect for the individual has been the soil out of which the fruits of democracy and economic growth have emerged. Conversely, as Christians have been persecuted in Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and Israel and fled to other countries, unemployment has grown, adding to the radicalization of Islam.

     However, what could happen to the Iraqi Christians if war breaks out? 

     Saddam might exact revenge on the people of northern Iraq with more poison gas attacks. After Saddam, the fate of Christians in the hands of militant Muslim majorities could be horrific. There are three warring Muslim factions in Iraq. Three-quarters of the Arab population are Shi'ah Muslims, but political power is held by minority Sunni Muslims loyal to Saddam, who assassinated Shi'ah leaders and blocked access to many Shi'ah mosques. The Muslim Kurds are implacable foes of both Sunni and Shi'ah.

     In a post-Saddam Iraq, the one thing 21 million Muslims might agree upon is to snuff out the million Christians in the world's oldest Christian community.

     "We have four goals," says John Nimrod, Secretary General of the Assyrian Universal Alliance: " having one name, one language, one homeland, one representation."

     The Assyrian Archbishop for Iraq, Mar Gewargis pleads for help for his people and his church: "We understand the concern and support of Christians in the West for Israel, but find it hard to understand why the Church does not have the same concern and support for Christians."

     Good question. 

     Why aren't America's Catholic bishops and the National Council of Churches issuing any pleas for the safety and future of Assyrian Christians? 

     A basic political rule is only squeaky wheels get oiled.

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