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Assyrian Christians object to their exclusion in Iraq homeland

Daniel González

Arizona Republic Bring up the plight of Assyrian Christians in Iraq and she can go on for hours.
The Assyrian Christians are the indigenous people of Iraq , Oshana says, comparable to Native Americans in the United States .

After years of being persecuted by Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime, they were hoping to have their voices heard under Iraq ‘s new democratic government, the one the United States helped create.
But so far, that hasn’t really happened, says Oshana, an Assyrian Christian whose family fled Iraq in 1977, when she was 8. Assyrian Christians continue to be politically marginalized and persecuted, she said.
“It’s almost like we lost one oppressor to get another one,” Oshana says.
That’s why Assyrian Christians in the Valley are determined to help their countrymen back home, she said.
Today about 30 will join others from California , New York , Illinois and Michigan in Washington , D.C. They plan to demonstrate in front of the Iraqi Embassy and the U.S. Capitol to call attention to the continued challenges facing Iraq ‘s Assyrian Christian population.
“We want the U.S. to take action,” said Glendale resident Sargon Zomaya, 57, one of those traveling to Washington .
With about 15,000 Assyrians Christians, the Phoenix area has the fastest-growing Assyrian Christian community in the country. Most have relocated here over the past 10 to 15 years from the Chicago and Detroit areas.
In helping Iraq establish a democratic government, the United States has focused most of its efforts on striking a political balance between Iraq’s three largest ethnic groups, the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds, overshadowing the Assyrians, said Steven Cook, an expert on Arab politics at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
He doubts today’s protests will make much difference.
“The United States ‘ policymakers have larger issues to worry about than to what’s happening to a relatively small community,” Cook said.
With a population of about 800,000 people, Assyrian Christians make up just 3 percent of Iraq’s 27 million population.
Because of a rise in Islamic extremism and political persecution, roughly 100,000 Iraqi Christians have fled the country or have been displaced since the start of the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, according to Michael Youash, project director for the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project in Washington, D.C.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back,” Youash said, was the recent appointment of Iraq’s cabinet ministers. None was a member of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, even though the political party garnered 79 percent of the votes cast from Assyrians both inside and outside Iraq during Iraq’s parliamentary elections in 2005, he said.
The only Christian appointed to a minister’s post came from the Kurdish Democratic Party. Most Assyrian Christians consider that unacceptable, accusing the Kurdish Democratic Party of being responsible for driving Christians from their homelands in northern Iraq and discriminating against them, Youash said.
Though Assyrian Christians are a small minority in Iraq, they make up the largest proportion of Iraq’s exile community, numbering between 250,00 and 400,000, Youash said.
By organizing demonstrations, Youash said, the community hopes to push the U.S. government to use its “diplomatic muscle to indicate its dissatisfaction with the political marginalization of the Assyrians.”