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RIGHTS: Assyrians Face Escalating Abuses in “New Iraq”

Lisa Söderlindh

UNITED NATIONS, May 3 2006 (IPS) - The longstanding persecution of ethnic minorities in Iraq is quietly writing the end chapter to Iraqi Assyrian history: if the world doesn’t wake up to the plight of this people, they will soon be shoved through the door of extinction, warn patrons and human rights defenders.

The Assyrian Christian population of Iraq, historically traceable to the Mesopotamian cradle of civilisation, has increasingly become the target of both ethnic and religious attacks since the U.S.-led invasion and the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003.

“Today, the situation is the worst we have ever lived in Iraq,” Andy Darmoo, head of the “Save the Assyrians” campaign, told a recent news conference at U.N. headquarters in New York.

The non-political human rights campaign, aimed at saving the Assyrian people of Iraq from oblivion and helping them reclaim their rights, was launched in January 2005 by the former British Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey.

Fellow campaigner Glyn Ford, a Labour member of the European Parliament, said that torture, kidnapping, extortion, harassment, church bombings, forced religious conversion, political disenfranchisement and property destruction are some of the deliberate human rights violations that are wreaking havoc in the lives of the hundreds of thousands of remaining Assyrians in Iraq.

The atrocities are rapidly spreading and escalating in the Assyrian-concentrated northern region, and in cities such as Kirkuk, Mosul and Baghdad, said Darmoo.

“The dangers we are facing are even greater now than a few hundred years ago,” he continued, recalling the 13th century when Mongolian forces led by the warrior Prince Hulagu, the grandson of Genghis Kahn, swept across ancient Mesopotamia – now Iraq – and killed an estimated 800,000 people.

According to various sources, eight to 12 percent of the Iraqi population of 26 million belongs to a Christian denomination, mostly Assyrians, Chaldeans, Armenians and Catholics.

Iraqi’s Assyrians speak a classical Syriac, an offshoot of Aramaic – the language of Jesus Christ – and most belong to one of the four churches: the Chaldean Uniate, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Syrian Catholic and the Assyrian Church of the East. They were estimated at around one million before the recent exodus of Assyrians seeking refuge outside Iraq.

With over half of the Assyrian Iraqi community residing in the north, primarily in the Nineveh Plains and its surrounding areas, the illegal confiscation of Assyrian lands in northern Iraq under the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) remains a challenging issue confronting the ethnic-religious minorities, Shamiran Mako, an analyst with the Council for Assyrian Research and Development (CARD), a Canadian-based think-tank, told IPS.

She said that since the “liberation” of Iraq, oppression has become more prevalent.

“Recently, there have been systematic measures taken by the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) officials, under the Kurdish-controlled areas to marginalise and suppress Assyrians through the dictatorial policies of the KRG.”

There, the recent vast exodus of Assyrians has been two-fold, Mako continued: it has been due to the rise of insurgency against those residing in the targeted cities; and in the north it has been directly as a result of the discriminatory measures of the KRG, under the auspices of the KDP and the second main Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Though the number of refugees in the world has been declining in recent years, the international system for dealing with human displacement has reached a critical juncture, including the challenge of a tougher climate awaiting refugees fleeing their homeland, according to a recent U.N. report on the worldwide refugee situation.

Statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in October 2005 show that out of the about 700,000 Iraqis who took refuge in Syria between October 2003 and March 2005, 36 percent were Iraqi Christians.

Despite the vast number of Iraqi Assyrian refugees living under terrible conditions, Darmoo was astonished “that there is yet no help whatsoever from any quarter.”

“But we are not going to stop this time until we get our human rights,” he told IPS.

Save the Assyrians has taken their case to the British and European Parliaments. In a session devoted to human rights at the beginning of April, a resolution was passed on Iraqi Assyrians recognising their plight and calling on the Iraqi authorities, the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, and the international community to take action.

In the months preceding the new federal Iraq, the campaign sought to influence the drafting of the country’s new constitution, which was adopted in October 2005, with respect to Assyrians and other minorities. But despite some minor revisions, Darmoo said it did not really change anything.

“The constitution means nothing unless our rights are guaranteed by the U.N. and by the superpowers,” he told IPS. “The Iraqi government will not give us our rights – so international pressure must be enforced,” he added.

But Mako, who represented the Assyrians at the 11th session of the U.N. Working Group on Minorities in May-June 2005, said that the world body, which has a limited presence inside Iraq, “has not doing anything tangible”.

“The representatives on the ground are not attentive to the plight of Assyrians following the fall of Saddam’s regime,” she told IPS. “Instead, they focus on the oppression inflicted upon the Shiites and Sunni Arabs, and the Kurds.”

However, the U.N. could play a key role by offering Assyrian refugees residing in neighbouring countries the right of return, “as it has for Kurdish settlers arriving from neighbouring Iran and Turkey,” reasoned Mako.

Since 2005, the Council for Assyrian Research and Development has sought to record the abuses endured by Assyrians living in the heartland of northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, western Iran and eastern Syria, and those in the diaspora, by way of its Assyrian Human Rights Documentation Project.

“At the current rates of ethnic cleansing, forced assimilation and migration, the indigenous Assyrian Christians will be fully eradicated from the new ‘democratic Iraq’ in less than 10 years,” warns the first outcome paper, arguing that “the Kurdification, Arabisation, and Islamification of Iraq have left an ancient people at the doors of extinction”.

The paper argues for a special territory for Iraq’s Assyrian population and calls on the world to help secure the return of all Assyrians refugees to their ancestral homeland in northern Iraq.

“We and all other ethnic and religious parts of Iraqi society are entitled to basic human rights, same as the larger ethnic religious groups in Iraq,” Edison A. Ishaya, president of the Assyrian Academic Society, a U.S.-based group with members worldwide, told IPS.

“We plead to the world, and especially to all brothers and sisters from all sectors of Iraqi society, for protection and basic human rights,” he said. “All we pray for is to live in peace and continue to be a productive and contributing part of Iraqi society – as we have always been.”

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