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Christian Minorities in the Islamic Middle East

ICC Note:

The Christian minorities are facing extinction in Iraq as this interview indicates.

The following interview with Assyrian author and activist Rosie Malek-Yonan was conducted by Stephen Crittenden of the (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) To listen to the interview, click here.

Stephen Crittenden: Welcome to The Religion Report.

Stephen Crittenden: The plight of Christian minorities in the Islamic Middle East is one of the 20th century tragedies to which we pay least attention.

From the Copts in Egypt, to the Maronites, the Melkites in Lebanon, Orthodox and Chaldeans, the Christian population of the Middle East is a fraction of what it was, and more vulnerable than ever. Nowhere is the situation worse at the moment than in Iraq . And few groups are more vulnerable than the ancient Assyrian Christian community. In fact, this week the Italian journalist Sandro Magister, has warned of the end of Christianity in Iraq .

In early May in a heavily Christian suburb of Baghdad , a Sunni extremist group began broadcasting a fatwah over the loudspeakers of the neighbourhood mosque: the Assyrian Christian community had to convert to Islam or leave, or die. Their Muslim neighbours were to seize their property. The men were told they had to pay the gizya – the protection money Jews and Christians traditionally had to pay to their Muslim overlords – and families were told they could only stay if they married one of their daughters to a Muslim.


Rosie Malek-Yonan is an Assyrian-American. She is a successful film and television actor who has appeared in many popular shows including Dynasty, Seinfeld, E.R. and Chicago Hope. Her novel, The Crimson Field, is a fictionalised account of the little-known Assyrian genocide that took place at the hands of the Ottoman Turks during World War One at the same time that the better-known Armenian genocide was taking place. She recently directed a documentary film on the same subject. And last year she was invited to give testimony before the US Congress about the plight of Assyrian Christians in Iraq . Rosie Malek-Yonan spoke to me from her home in California .

Rosie Malek-Yonan: The Assyrian people are the indigenous people actually of Mesopotamia, before it even was Iraq . All of that area was Mesopotamia and is the original homeland of the Assyrians. They date back to over 6,000 years and were always concentrated in that region.

Stephen Crittenden: And Christianity was accepted by Assyrians, well virtually in apostolic times, right at the very, very beginning?

Rosie Malek-Yonan: Right. Assyrians were actually the first nation to accept Christianity as an entire nation, not just individuals, but the entire nation, and we built the first church of the east.

Stephen Crittenden: Now in early May, a fatwah was issued by a militant Sunni group in Baghdad , calling on the Christians in a particular suburb of Baghdad called Dora, to convert to Islam or die.

Rosie Malek-Yonan: Yes. Actually as we are speaking, I’m getting bombarded with emails, and one of them is a plea to help the Assyrians of Iraq. The women in particular – I’ll just read you a little bit of this email – says the Virgin Mary put on a hijab (hijab is the covering) so why not all Christian women dress the same? They are asking all women to dress in that fashion.

Stephen Crittenden: I understand there’s a lot of kidnapping and murdering of particularly of young kids?

Rosie Malek-Yonan: Absolutely. Our children are being murdered, they’re being kidnapped for ransom, even when the ransom is paid they’re still killed. Priests are being beheaded, nuns are being killed, and not just a beheading, they behead them, they cut also arms and legs, they hack them off and they return them in that manner. Little children, their heads are bashed with concrete blocks. This has been going on since the beginning of the Iraq War. This is isn’t just an isolated incident here or there, this is an ongoing genocide.

Stephen Crittenden: I understand that there were 1.4-million Christians in Iraq before the American invasion, in 2003, and that many left at that time, and went particularly to Syria . How many are left?

Rosie Malek-Yonan: In Iraq there’s probably between 600,000 and 800,000 left. The majority of the refugees that are now stranded in Syria and Jordan 40% of them are Christian Assyrians. They are not protected, they have nowhere to go, they have no shelter, they have no food, they’re living in the streets in poverty.

Stephen Crittenden: What are the American troops in Baghdad doing about these developments of the last month or so?

Rosie Malek-Yonan: They’re doing absolutely nothing. If they were doing something, we would see something, we would see just a glimmer of hope, but there’s nothing there. I mean there’s reports of them saying ‘We’re not here to save you, we’re not here to help you.’

Stephen Crittenden: Rosie, there are reports that the persecution of Christians in Baghdad at the moment is being directed by the imams in the mosques, that the loudspeakers in the mosques are telling Muslims to seize the property of their Christian neighbours and carry out their fatwah, that it’s not just criminal elements, it’s being directed from the mosques.

Rosie Malek-Yonan: Oh, of course. I mean look, any time we go to war with the Middle East , it is going to become a religious war. The Assyrians wear the face of Christianity, we are the first that are going to get hit. Our properties get seized, our homes are taken, and our lives are taken. That goes without a doubt, and of course it’s the religious leaders that are doing this. It comes from them, and it also on the other hand, comes from the Kurds. We are getting it from every side, it’s not just one element, and we’re isolated, with absolutely no assistance. And the thing is, since 2003 when Assyrians started getting hit, we have never retaliated. We have never hit back; we have never fired back. They burnt more than 30 churches in Iraq . Not once has an Assyrian gone to burn a mosque in retaliation.

Stephen Crittenden: Rosie, you’ve devoted a lot of time, you’ve written a novel, and last year you made a documentary film to draw public awareness to the Assyrian genocide that took place at the same time that the much better known Armenian genocide was taking place, both at the hands of the Ottoman Turks during World War I. Tell us about the Assyrian genocide.

Rosie Malek-Yonan: The Assyrian genocide started in 1914 with the onset of World War I. It began in the hands of the Ottoman Turks, with the help of the Kurds and Persia at that time, or Iran as we know it now. The Assyrians that were being massacred were in South East Turkey (Hakkari), and also in the Urmia Region, which is north-western Iran . And this went on for nearly four years, till the end of World War I. But I believe more than that, there has been an ongoing, slow genocide that the Assyrian people have been caught up in. And actually even before the 1914 World War I Assyrian genocide, it began in 1895 in Diyarbekir where about 55,000 Assyrians were killed and about another 100,000 were forcibly Islamicised.

Stephen Crittenden: This is in Turkey ?

Rosie Malek-Yonan: Yes, and this really paved the way for the Assyrian genocide in the shadows of World War I, with two-thirds of the Assyrian population totalling 750,000 were annihilated by the Ottoman Turks, Kurds, and Persians. And their crime was only being Christian, but it didn’t stop there. Again, 1933 in Iraq , the Semele Massacre, we saw 3,000 Assyrian men, women, children unarmed, massacred by the Iraqi Army, and Kurdish warlords, and again, the Iranian Revolution, we saw what that did to the Assyrian population in Iran .

Stephen Crittenden: Thank you very much for being on the program.

Rosie Malek-Yonan: Thank you.

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