No Rest for the Weary: The Plight of Assyrian Christians in the Levant
By Todd Daniels and Sandra Elliot
07/10/2015 Washington, DC (International Christian Concern) – “Within minutes, tens of thousands of people fled their homes,” Nuri Kino, founder of A Demand for Action, explained to International Christian Concern (ICC).
“We actually heard them [ISIS] crying takbir (God is greater),” Ahmed Siraj Aji Mohamed, a former resident of Hassakeh told IRIN News.
These are the first and second hand recollections of those who fled the northeastern Syrian city of Hassakeh on June 25. Islamic State militants entered the city by the southern neighborhoods reigniting familiar fears and terror for the largely Assyrian Christian population. Families, some seeking only temporary refuge in the city, faced the decision of chancing death and abduction or running north.
A Demand for Action told ICC that an estimated 60,000 people have been displaced within the city while another 10,000 people have fled to Qamishli and other areas. Assyrian International News Agency reported that approximately 2,000 Assyrian families were among those who fled north. This is the fourth attack of its kind in Hassakeh but it has been the strongest one as ISIS was able to gain control of multiple neighborhoods in the city.
Since the initial incursion on the 25th, Kurdish and Assyrian/Syriac militias have reclaimed much of the city and cleansed Hassakeh of terrorists; however land mines planted by the militants still litter the area. This is a single win in a string of losses for the people of northeastern Syria.
An Ancient Community Under Threat
Assyrians in the northern regions of modern day Iraq and Syria have roots dating back to the third millennium BCE. Christianity came to the area in the 3rd century, which is over 300 years before the birth of Islam and well over 1000 years before the discovery of the New World. Syria itself is named after these ancient people.
With the growing face of Islamic radicalism in the Middle East and the direct targeting of Christian demographics, Assyrians are now facing exile and execution for their belief and dedication to Jesus.
Entire Villages Drained of Christians, Again
This past February, ISIS invaded the northeastern Khabour area of Syria and ruthlessly drained around 30 villages of their Assyrian Christian populace. According to Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organization (UNPO), over 200 of these captives are still being held by the jihadi militants who have demanded $100,000 ransom per prisoner, a price few in the region can ever expect to meet. There has been no real effort made to rescue these Christians, many of whom are women and children.
It’s a dire state to live in, an atrocity that seems unthinkable.
Yet, we are reminded that the Assyrians of the Levant region are no strangers to atrocity, having suffered two genocides and a civil war in the past 100 years.
Assyrians, alongside of Armenians, were targeted by the Young Turk’s genocide during and after WWI. In 1933, with the formation of the new Iraqi state, they were massacred yet again, causing many to flee to the Hassakeh region of Syria. And for decades they suffered under Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi Ba’ath party. The plight of these in Syria has been most serious with the outbreak and longevity of the Syrian Civil War.
Now as the country has been devastated by war for over four years with opposition groups, Islamic extremists, and the Syrian regime battling each other, Christians are not just collateral damage but prime targets in the conflict.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SN4HR) reports that, “Christians have become trapped and squeezed between the fire of the Assad Government and the hell of the extremist groups.”
Despite Bashar Al-Assad’s distinct claim to protect minorities, 63 percent of Christian worship places destroyed in the war have been targeted by government forces. Missiles unfortunately do not differentiate between Christian and non-Christian facilities. This is second tiered, but still an added burden to the suffering ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other extremists have inflicted on the Assyrian Christians.
“It Is Imperative We Find Another Solution”
With no protection from the outside world or even their own leaders, Assyrian Christians have been forced to take up arms of defense. The Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Ignatius Aphrem II recently visited Qamishli and called on the youth to fight.
“We are not the type of people who want to carry weapons,” the Patriarch explained in his address, “but because the army is not able to protect us, it is imperative that we find another solution.”
There seems to be no rest or refuge for the Assyrian population. The world today continues to turn a blind eye to the suffering of this ancient and deeply rooted people group. Eshu Paul, an Assyrian Christian now living in Canada, expressed his concern to ICC in an interview, “If nothing is being done [for] Assyrians in the next decade, I don’t think there will be any Christians left.”
We must not allow these fears to manifest and be proven legitimate. The world, specifically the Christian world, has a responsibility to help these brothers and sisters in Christ.
Will it take another genocide for the church to wake up and see the needs of its own?
If so, we need only look to Hassakeh to realize it is already happening.