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We have betrayed Iraqi Christians twice

On the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War Mardean Isaac says western states are forcing Iraqi Christians to return home

By on Monday, 18 March 2013

Iraqi Christians protest in America. Their numbers have dramatically fallen in the ten years since the invasion (AP)

Iraqi Christians protest in America. Their numbers have dramatically fallen in the ten years since the invasion (AP)

The travails Iraq has undergone in the decade since the invasion in 2003 have largely played out among, and between, the country’s major ethno-religious groups: Sunni and Shia Arabs, and Kurds. But Iraq’s Christians have suffered disproportionately since the fall of Saddam. Their numbers have fallen from at least 800,000 on the eve of the war to fewer than 400,000 today. Those who have been displaced internally continue to struggle to find a future in Iraq or Iraqi Kurdistan, and those who have fled the country have encountered little support from their western host countries.

Iraqi Christians are culturally and linguistically distinct from other Iraqi communities. They are ethnically Assyrian: non-Arab, non-Kurdish peoples who trace their heritage to the ancient Assyrian empire. They speak a colloquial dialect of Aramaic, though the majority of the liturgy and literature of the Iraqi churches is in Syriac, the classical form of middle Aramaic which produced a wealth of seminal Eastern Christian texts.

Persecuted extensively under the Baathist regime because of their ethnicity, the war and its aftermath exposed Iraqi Assyrians to the horrors of violence and criminality unleashed by Islamist groups, who subjected Christians to an extensive campaign of kidnapping, ransom and murder. As Iraq descended into civil war, Christians – having no militias or security forces of their own, and unprotected by a national security apparatus heavily tied to the sectarian gangs involved in the conflict – were cleansed from their neighbourhoods, either killed or intimidated with threats of murder. The most extreme culmination of the campaign came on October 31 2010, when an al-Qaeda affiliate calling itself the “Islamic State of Iraq” stormed the Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad during evening Mass, killing almost 60 people and injuring 80 more in the worst single attack on Iraqi Christians since 2003. Church bombings have become a habitual occurrence in Iraq: 72 have been attacked since 2004.

Thousands of internally displaced Christians fled from urban centres to stay with relatives or to attempt to establish themselves among Christian communities elsewhere in Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan has been a prominent destination. The autonomous region has been spared the upheaval the rest of the country has gone through since 2003, and the consequent security and stability, coupled with Kurdistan’s considerable oil reserves, have attracted economic investment and development. But the incoming Christians have been largely unable to make lives for themselves there. The journalist Matteo Fagotto interviewed some of them on his recent trip to Iraq. He found a community “who don’t feel they have a future in their own country”, struggling to find employment and housing.

The gravity of the problems faced by Christians in Kurdistan is reflected in the work of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). They have noted that the number of displaced families in Kurdistan has been dropping starkly, as they seek to move to neighbouring countries or the West. In a recent publication of the IOM, details emerge of exorbitant house prices, rising with the demand incurred by the large numbers of new arrivals, and difficulties with finding employment and schooling.

Resilient and dignified nations, whose tribes have long inhabited the same lands, Kurds and Assyrians have had a complex history, which has witnessed both camaraderie and betrayal. Many Assyrian militias fought alongside Kurdish ones against Saddam, and Assyrian villages and churches were destroyed in the Anfal campaign. Today, however, Assyrians and Kurds find themselves on very different ends of Iraqi politics. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the ruling body of Kurdistan, has expanded its authority and territory of jurisdiction since the war, while Assyrian politics remains ineffectual.

The Kurdish theft of Assyrian land, which began under the auspices of the no-fly zone, has continued unabated. In late 2011, a group of Kurds rioted unimpeded in Zakho, a northern Iraqi town, burning down defenceless Christian shops and homes. The KRG, which has been criticised heavily for arbitrary detention and freedom of speech and assembly violations, has intimidated Christian voters and political leaders seeking to assert the rights of Christians in northern Iraq, such as Bassim Bello, the governor of Tel Kippe, a largely Christian area in the Nineveh province. Bello and others wish to establish – under terms of ethnic self-determination according to demographics in the Iraqi constitution – a semi-autonomous governorate in the province in order to provide a safe haven for minorities.

The Nineveh region is a crucible of Assyrian civilisation and the only one in Iraq composed primarily of minorities, Christians around half of them. The KRG flooded the area with militiamen in the aftermath of the invasion, securing a presence in the territories, which belong to Iraq proper, and continues to refuse to allow minorities to train their own security forces to replace the occupying Kurdish forces. Bids in parliament for a referendum over control of the region have been vetoed by the Kurdish government, which hopes that an exodus of minorities and a continuing influx of Kurds to the area will swing the vote, and the control over oil and gas that will accompany it, their way.

The Assyrian-Swedish journalist Nuri Kino recently wrote a report on the horrors faced by the Iraqi Christians who fled violence in their own country for Syria, where anti-Christian violence has become increasingly common. He told me that while many are returning to Iraq, the Nineveh Plains in particular – almost all those who fled their homes in Baghdad have since had them occupied, and have no legal recourse to reclaiming prior residences – their focus is on migration to the West. But western states have been sending large numbers of refugees back in recent years: even Sweden, once the European country most receptive to those fleeing Iraq, has deported hundreds of Christian families in the past few years, back to peril, if not doom. So the extirpation of Assyrian Christians from their ancient lands continues: from old homes to new ones and back again, finding repose in none.

Mardean Isaac is a writer and graduate of the MSt programme in Syriac Studies at Oxford University

  • Shahid Khan

    Thanks . A very enlightening article over situation of Christians in Iraq. Good read.

  • maxmarley

    Anti Christian hostility in both the west and the east is so depressing.
    These good people are wanted by no one

  • David

    Seriously, such articles are just so annoying to read. I find it very painful to read all these articles about the indigenous people of Iraq. They have suffered for centuries now, literally! Isn’t it about time to stop this madness! There have been talks to establish at least a semi-autonomous Assyrian region in the north, in Nineveh, you know the region these people have inhabited for thousands of years! Why do the kurds cry out to the entire world when it is about their freedom but at the same time stand in the way of these people’s freedom? The KRG is grabbing more and more land and intimidating everyone else to leave. How can that even begin to be justified? Why cant the Assyrians have the same opportunity to establish themselves and build a future in their own home country? An Assyrian autonomy in a federal Iraq can put an end to this misery! A place where these people can find some peace…

    for those of you interested in the modern history of the Assyrian people I deeply recommend the following book, written by an Assyrian from Iraq

    “Assyrians: From Bedr Khan to Saddam Hussein”, which can be found on

    In this book you will find all the madness the Assyrians have gone through in the past 100+ years, a large portion of it due to kurds and turks and their nationalistic agenda!

  • Alba

    Thank you Bush and Blair. Thank you NATO and UN. Thank you “secular” Turkey and the Kurdish tribes that for centuries have done your dirty work. Thank you a supine West that in wilful ignorance cares nothing for the plight of pre-Islamic Christian communities in the ancient Near East. Thank you for aiding the spread of an intolerant Islamism liberally financed by your Gulf allies. Couldn’t be better for your next target, Syria.

  • Eskhiria Gilyana

    If it’s so that you’ve betrayed us Assyrians twice then it’s never too late just say that this autonomy is for you and we’ll help you establishing it. Case closed and God will forgive you and for us we’ll return to our beautiful homeland one more time it’s much better than our necks get cut by cotton slowly. long live Assyria (KHAYA ATOUR)

  • Dean Beth-Lahdek

    Seriously, West can’t be respected in any favour twords Christian-Assyrians, beside collecting our haritage, making their museums richer, in return salling Assyrians to Islam; betreyal against Assyrian and God… The question is, if Assyrians were Muslim, woulden’t they have had their country? I think they would. Then have we made mistake to be Christians?.. No sir, we have given extencive secrifice to be called Assyrian-christians, who keept Christianity alive in middle-east for 2000 years, where its now coming to extinction. Hopping, his hollyness Pope Francis will remember “the work of right hand of God assyria”, to be set to work in Middle-East.

  • Justice

    For obvious reasons [OIL] Bush and Blair conspired to destroy the Assyrian (Christian) Identity to appease their Arab friends. By expelling (Christians) Assyrians from the Middle East they have openly encouraged the eradication of the Aramaic language, the Assyrian mother language, the language that Jesus spoke!!!!!! A clear indication of yielding before dirty OIL money… How sad!……. But God is so justice, look what is happening in the Western World, UK in particular! Where non-Christian Immigrants are playing havoc with the Laws of the land! Uprooting Christian population, in particular the Indigenous Assyrian people, is against God and humanity!!! The Western Governments must stop repeating wrong historic decisions – Assyrian people (Christians) have given enough sacrifices, this noble Human Race deserve long awaited protection to live in Peace.

    It’s time to review the ailing world Leaders conscience.

    In God We Trust!

  • schmenz

    And thank you, Israel, for instigating the Iraq invasion of 2003.

  • Kay Bueno

    Shame on the Kurds, who have been such an oppressed and mistreated minority themselves. They COULD be the saving grace for the Assyrian Christians but instead they are overcome with lust for power and oil money. At least, that is what I learned from this article. Someone tell me differently, please.

  • Just a thought

    65 years of West hating, Jew hating and these people didn’t left a finger and thought it was just good fun. And now that their Arab best buds have turned on them and you except any sympathy, Boo Hoo. You chose make your future and it looks grand.

  • Nathan Kalasho

    Mr. Isaac,

    as a 1st generation American of Iraqi-Christian descent, I am outraged at the lack of institutional control in the current Iraqi Parliament: more so with the sheer disregard from many Christians around the world. However, it was imperative for you to include the biggest Christian demographic in Iraq: Chaldeans. You made no single reference to this ethnicity, although every demographic study will list them as being the overwhelming majority of Christians in the region. While differences among Assyrians and Chaldeans pervade throughout the world, specifically in Mid-West America, that should never contribute to a misrepresentation of facts, even if it is commentary.

    I commend you for your work and, what seems like, genuine concern of our native land. But I also feel that it is very important to include all Christian ethnic plights, especially one with the biggest population in Iraq.

  • Mardean Isaac

    Mr. Kalasho,

    Any reference to ‘Assyrians’ or ‘Iraqi Christians’ is intended to include members of the Chaldean church within it. I make absolutely no distinction between members of any of the three Syriac churches as far as the extent of their suffering or their worth as communities or individuals.

    However, I do not believe that there is such a thing as a ‘Chaldean’ ethnicity: it is a confession, not a distinct identity with its own cultural, linguistic, and social attributes. The very recent and utterly ahistorical attempt made by Chaldeans to falsely distinguish themselves from ‘Assyrians’ (i.e. members of the Church of the East, though I think that membership in that church does not define you as an Assyrian) is not only intellectually and historically vacuous, but it is doing great damage to our efforts to unite and flourish in Iraq and everywhere. There is no ‘Chaldean neo-Aramaic’; there are a range of dialects of Suret, which vary according to location and village. There is no ‘Chaldean’ culture; there is a group of Middle Eastern Syriac Christians who decided to become Catholic a few hundred years ago. The propaganda issued by church leaders which seeks to claim a separate racial heritage for Chaldeans, based on the pretense that a 70 year old Mesopotamian Empire yielded a population that remained indistinct until the early 20th century, and for the purposes of the Ottoman millet system (which astutely divided us according to Church affiliation) is not grounded in empirical reality; it is grounded in the desire of Church leaders to reinforce the loyalty of their own communities in the wake of the failure to claim an Assyrian homeland.

  • Laurie

    I think it’s inaccurate to state “Iraqi Christians are culturally and linguistically distinct from other Iraqi communities. They are ethnically Assyrian: non-Arab, non-Kurdish peoples who trace their heritage to the ancient Assyrian empire. They speak a colloquial dialect of Aramaic…”

    This statement makes it seem as if there are no Arab Iraqi Christians which certainly is not the case. The US has resettled a number of Iraqi Christians who speak Arabic, not Aramaic. I believe most of the people the writer of this article is speaking about are those who fled from the Armenian genocide.

  • Suryoye

    Its because “Chaldeans” are Assyrians. “Chaldean” are not an ethnicity its a religious term. We are all part of the Assyrian nation dosent matter if you are coming from the Nestorian church, Chaldean church or the Syriac church

  • john

    They are Assyrians Bitchiz, Not Iraqi Christian.

  • john

    They are Assyrians, Not Iraqi Christians.