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Lambs To Slaughter: the Assyrians of Iraq
Iraq (Assyrian International News Assoc.) When most Westerners think of Iraq, more than likely the images that come to mind are related to the U.S.-led war there, or perhaps the suffering of Iraqis trapped between warring Shiites and Sunnis, rival Muslim sects.
That would be understandable. Such images have dominated the news since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003.
But there is a story beneath the daily images of patrolling U.S. troops or the gruesome results of roadside bombs and terrorist attacks on civilians. According to some, Iraqi Christians are facing annihilation at the hands of an increasingly militant Islam that demands submission — or else.
There are Christians in Iraq? Westerners might think Muslim nations like Iraq are practically devoid of Christians. But at one time there were 1.5 million believers in that country — comprising 8% of the population.
Peter BetBasoo, an Iraqi Assyrian and the director of the Assyrian International News Agency, said his people — the Assyrians — are ethnically distinct from the Arab and Kurdish populations of Iraq. They are, in fact, the only indigenous people there, having lived in that part of the Middle East for 7,000 years.
The majority of Assyrians are Christians, and belong to three main denominations: the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Chaldean Church of Babylon.
“This distinct identity of Assyrians, especially their Christian faith, sets them apart from the rest of the population,” BetBasoo said.
It has also made them the target of Muslim violence. In his report, Incipient Genocide: The Ethnic Cleansing of the Assyrians of Iraq, BetBasoo said, “A systematic campaign of persecution of [Christians] … is unfolding.”
The result has been devastating, as thousands of Christians flee the country. The percentage of the Iraqi population that is Christian is now down to 3-4%, according to Archbishop Avak Asadourian, the primate of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Baghdad.
According to an article on, Asadourian told a World Council of Churches gathering of 130 international church officials in Amman, Jordan, that due to persecution the members of his own church had declined from about 650 members to about 125.
Asadourian’s estimates reflect U.S. government statistics. The yearly report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (, released in May 2007, said that since April, 2003, 50% of Assyrian Christians have fled Iraq.
Oppression, expulsion and flight Muslim anger towards Christians in Iraq always seems ready to explode. In one night, for example, Incipient Genocide said 500 shops owned by Assyrians in Dora, a primarily Assyrian neighborhood in Baghdad, were burned.
Church buildings are not exempt from Muslim rage, either. Last June, St. Jacob Church in Dora was attacked, the Christians guarding the building were murdered, and the church was looted and then designated to be turned into a mosque.
Meanwhile, in northern Iraq, which is home to Kurdish Muslims who have escaped the brunt of the war and the civil discord between Sunnis and Shiites, Assyrian Christians have also come under pressure.
“Kurdish authorities denied foreign reconstruction assistance for Assyrian communities and used public works projects to divert water and other vital resources from Assyrian to Kurdish communities,” Betbasoo said. “Kurdish forces blockaded Assyrian villages.”
When Christians aren’t being denied help, they’re often being forced to pay extortion. Incipient Genocide related that in March 2007, al-Qaeda terrorists moved into Dora and began forcing Assyrian Christians to pay the jizya, the tax demanded by the Koran which all Christians and Jews must pay in exchange for being allowed to live and practice their faith in Islamic countries.
Christian families were told by Muslims at their doors “to either pay money (jizya) to support the insurgents or convert to Islam, or leave the house within 24 hours or else be killed.”
As early as October 2004, BetBasoo said Muslims were distributing leaflets with the message: “Christians go; leave Iraq.” He said, “Word was passed around in the mosques, telling Muslims not to buy anything from the Christians. Not only are they infidels, it was said, but also they would soon be leaving, so the Muslims would be able to take their homes and property for free.”
Sometimes poorer Christians were allowed to pay a different price if they did not have enough money to pay the jizya. BetBasoo said one representative from a nearby mosque said families who could not pay “were told to send one family member to the mosque on Friday to announce their conversion to Islam. Families who refused to do this were told they must leave their homes immediately and not take any of their belongings with them because ‘your properties belong to the mosque.'”
This spring Mar Addai II, the Patriarch for the Ancient Assyrian Church of the East complained to AINA, “Only the families that agree to give a daughter or sister in marriage to a Muslim can remain, which means that the entire nuclear family will progressively become Muslim.”
This oppression is taking its toll on the Christian community in Iraq. In May the Reverend Temathaus Eisha, pastor of the Church of St. Shimoni in Dora, confirmed to AINA that Christian Assyrians are, in fact, being displaced from their homes in the district. He said that the majority of Assyrians have abandoned these areas, and that churches and a number of monasteries had also been deserted.
Killing of Christians While the persecution of Christians has not turned into a killing spree involving thousands, some of the murders are horrific and appear to be meant to serve as a warning. For example, in one incident in October 2006, a 14-year-old boy in the al-Basra neighborhood of Mosul was actually crucified.
“There is no greater symbol of life and hope for Christians than the cross and crucifixion of Jesus Christ,” BetBasoo said. “This very symbolism was inverted and used to terrorize the [Christian] residents” of that city.
The boy’s family certainly got the message. “The family intended to leave Iraq as soon as possible,” he said. “So effective was the terror effect of the crucifixion that even the victim’s family could not properly grieve for its son. The Assyrian community in al-Basra was terrified.”
Also that same month in the city of Baquba, another 14-year-old Christian Assyrian named Ayad Tariq, was decapitated at his work place. A co-worker witnessed the incident after hiding himself when a group of masked Muslim insurgents approached.
The Muslims asked the boy for his identification. BetBasoo relayed what happened: “[T]he insurgents questioned Ayad after seeing that his ID stated ‘Christian,’ asking if he was truly a ‘Christian sinner.’ Ayad replied, ‘Yes, I am Christian but I am not a sinner.’ The insurgents quickly said this is a ‘dirty Christian sinner!’ Then they proceeded to each hold one limb, shouting ‘Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!’ [“God is great! God is great!”] while beheading the boy.”
Another murder that month, as explained by Incipient Genocide, was also particularly gruesome. The report said, “An Assyrian toddler was kidnapped in Baghdad. The mother, a Christian, could not pay the ransom and the young child was returned to her, beheaded, roasted and served on a mound of rice.”
Genocide under cover of war These grisly murders reveal a savage hatred for Christians that must seem alien to believers in the West, who consider it persecution when they aren’t allowed to sing Christmas carols at a public school. But for the Assyrian Christians living in Iraq, extortion, expulsion or even death are a daily threat to the lives of family and friends.
It is true that the persecution of Assyrians is occurring during what is arguably a Sunni-Shiite civil war in Iraq. But BetBasoo said he did not believe that Assyrians are random victims of this civil war; rather they are being “targeted specifically because of their ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic differences.”
In other words, BetBasoo said the Assyrians are facing, literally, an “incipient genocide.”
According to the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, “genocide” is defined as specific crimes “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
While the use of words like genocide may be controversial, Doug Bandow, vice president for policy of Citizen Outreach, agreed that the word is appropriate.
In an article for The American Spectator, Bandow argued that “Christianity is disappearing from Iraq. A distinct ethnic, language, and religious community is being driven out.”
He said, “Although the violence appears to be more anarchic than concerted, it has had the same effect as an organized campaign to destroy Iraq’s Assyrians. Virtually every member of the community is under siege.”
By Ed Vitagliano