In isolated villages and monasteries in northern Iraq, and in churches in Baghdad, Irbil and Mosul, it is still possible to hear Assyrian Christians talking and praying in ancient Aramaic, which is said to be the language of Christ. Fewer in number now, the Assyrians are the direct descendents of the empires of Assyria and Babylonia, their 2000 year history making them the original inhabitants of Mesopotamia. The Church of the East, currently presided over by Archbishop Gewargis Sliwa in Baghdad is the World’s oldest Christian church.
Before the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi Christian population, which includes Chaldeans (who broke from the Church of the East) and Assyrians, numbered some one and half million. By and large, Saddam’s Ba’athist Government didn’t discriminate against the country’s minorities; in fact Iraq’s veteran Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz was the most visible of the country’s Christians. Today barely 400,000 remain, with church leaders claiming that organized ethnic cleansing is taking place, while the rest of the World sits idly by. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Iraq’s Christians have in the past been accused of collaborating with Britain and America, and while both Sunni and Shiite political leaders say they want Iraq’s Christians to remain, some church leaders are urging their remaining flock to abandon Iraq before it is too late and they are massacred.
If al-Qaida has its way this ancient culture and people will soon be no more. In recent days a spate of grenade and bomb attacks have left two more Christians killed in Baghdad and eighteen injured, as motorcyclists drove down streets targeting Christian homes. Back in October, suicide bombers attacked the Church of Our Salvation in Baghdad, killing 58 worshippers, before – and this was unreported at the time - grotesquely blowing themselves up, along with a child hostage, at the altar. Following that attack, al-Qaida issued a statement saying that; "Christians are a legitimate target."
Several years ago, I helped set up ‘Save the Assyrians’, a campaign aimed at putting pressure on the Iraqi Government to protect that country’s minorities. The campaign enlisted all party support in Britain and was instrumental in persuading the European Parliament to work with the Iraqi authorities to enshrine the rights of Iraq’s Christian minorities in the Constitution. Arguably Britain has a special responsibility towards the Assyrians, as during the British mandate in the early years of the last century, Assyrians helped the British to police Iraq. Thousands were massacred in 1932 as the new Iraqi army turned on them for "collaborating."
Now Iraq’s remaining Christians are pressurizing for an autonomous Christian province in their ancient Ninevah Plains homeland in Northern Iraq. Their case may not be helped by any overt pressure that my come from Britain and America for obvious reasons. But it certainly would be if a variety of bodies from the United Nations, to the European Union and Commonwealth, were to add their not inconsiderable weight. To an extent, the door is already half open. President Talabani of Iraq told France 24 TV in November that he had “no objection to a Christian province in Iraq.”
However, one leading member of the exiled Assyrian community in Britain, who prefers to remain anonymous, believes that the Iraqi authorities are playing lip service to protecting the country’s minorities. “They keep talking, but nothing happens”. He also believes that many of the attacks against Christians “are pre-meditated, and that few attempts are made to apprehend attackers”. Underpinning all of this is a widespread view amongst the Iraqi Christian diaspora that the Iraqi Government is simply allowing what some now see as an inevitable and unstoppable exodus of one of the World’s most ancient civilizations.
This may suit al-Qaida who must surely have judged that a continuing campaign of terror could mean that Iraq’s remaining Christians will have largely fled within a decade. The terrible irony of course being that the fate of Iraq’s ancient Christian communities may have been settled at the time that the avowedly Christian leaders of Britain and America decided to topple Saddam Hussein.
This article also appears in the Independent On Sunday.