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Iraqi Christian Youth Rise Up at Chicago Rally

Assyrian teens help organize Black March to memorialize victims of Baghdad massacre; event draws nearly 1,500 to Thompson Center.

ICC Note:

Chicago protestors bring awareness to the suffering of Iraq’s forgotten Christians.

By George Slefo and Carrie Porter

11/9/2010 Iraq, United States (Skokie Patch) – The theme was black on a beautiful November day as hundreds gathered to mourn and highlight the plight of relatives and friends facing persecution in Iraq.

The Black March drew nearly 1,500 Iraqi Christians to demonstrate and pray for action Monday in downtown Chicago. SAWRA helped to organize the local rally, which joined others in Phoenix, Detroit, London, Sydney and elsewhere around the globe.

“We wanted to send a very clear message that we’re still paying attention to Iraq,” said Waleeta Canon, treasurer of the Assyrian American National Coalition (AANC) in Washington and a member of SAWRA. “We’re not going to be quiet until we know that Assyrians and other Christians are living safely and securely.”

Canon’s comments came after more than 50 Iraqi Christians were killed inside a church in central Baghdad on Oct. 31. Congregants were held hostage for several hours before their captors–gunmen from the Islamic State of Iraq–opened fire and detonated bombs as police raided the building to end the standoff.

The rally was organized on a global scale in less than six days, Cannon noted. “It was a whirlwind of activity,” she said. “It was really a youth effort in all of the cities, which is actually rare in the Assyrian community.”

On Monday, a few hundred demonstrators swelled to thousands during the course of the afternoon rally. High school students, couples with children and senior citizens were among those who took part in the event.

Symbolic start to rally

The rally started with a moment of silence as more than a dozen SAWRA members laid on the ground in red-stained clothing alongside body bags to symbolize those killed inside the church.

“I think it’s always a good thing–about having a visual–so people can see what’s happening, [to] get a real sense of what’s going on,” said Rachil Zaia, who was among those representing the dead. “I hope people really realize what’s going on in Iraq. I’m confused as many people are–I just want some answers.”

The largest U.S. concentration of Assyrians is in the Chicago area, according to Vasili Shoumanov, author of Assyrians in Chicago. A large portion of those Assyrians live in the suburban communities of Skokie, Niles and Morton Grove.

Although Iraq is largely made up of Muslims, a small portion of the population is Christian, with many falling into the Assyrian, Chaldean or Syrian faith.

Personal courage

Rita Jacob, who recently emigrated from Iraq to the U.S., was friends with four of the people who were killed inside the Baghdad church. Moments before her speech, the petite Jacob was shaking, yet she managed to get in front of the microphone and tell her story.

“I’ve been writing this speech for a couple of days, and it really doesn’t matter,” Jacob said as she cried and ripped up her speech. “It won’t bring nobody back. Do you even need a bigger wake-up call than this?

“It hurts because [my friends that were killed inside the church] were only 28-years-old. I can’t handle this anymore. I’m not the same person. Just seeing my Christian people die, it hurts.”

Christians number about 800,000 in Iraq, or about 3 percent of the nation’s estimated 29 million people, according to the CIA World Factbook. Assyrians are among minor ethnic groups that comprise about 5 percent of the population.

And an estimated 66 percent of the country’s Christian population have fled Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, according to a 2007 article by Radio Free Europe.

At the rally those in front of the microphone weren’t the only ones fighting back their grief.

Skokie resident Mores Hawel was standing in the crowd holding a photo of Wissem Sabeh, a friend who was among the priests killed during the Oct. 31 massacre.

“I knew him in Iraq; we used to work together,” Hawel said.  “I think he tried to [reason] with the terrorists as much as he could.”

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