The Assyrian Christians of Iraq and Syria are facing an existential threat in the Middle East not only since the recent formation of ISIS, but in fact since the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003.
The fall of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath regime, as a result of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, resulted in a power vacuum, most of which was filled by rival Islamist groups. Al-Qaeda of Iraq, ISIS’s predecessor, carried out many atrocities against non-Sunni Muslim people and was responsible for the bombing of the Shi’ite Al-Askari mosque in 2006. The destruction of one of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest shrines was the catalyst of the Iraq civil war. The Assyrians, who were not involved in the civil war, were systematically targeted by both Shi’ite militias and Sunni militants.
Fast-forward to today and we continue to see the killings of Christians by ISIS, including the 21 Egyptian Coptics in Libya. Such atrocities have prompted the question, most recently asked by CNN, of whether Christians — whose roots are traced to the region — can survive or have a future within Middle Eastern society.
As an Assyrian Christian from Iraq, I am certain they will survive, and they must, if anything, for the sake of the region’s survival. Though predominantly Muslim, pluralism is key to the future stability and success of the Middle East. Assyrians, now a small group of 300,000 today, down from 1.4 million in 2003, have long been part of that pluralism. Their protection is essential.
Assyrians (including Chaldeans and Syriacs) are the indigenous people of Mesopotamia — modern-day Iraq, Syria and South-eastern Turkey. Claiming descent from the ancient Summerians, Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians of Mesopotamia, the Assyrians were known for sculpting the most grand and awe-inspiring pieces of art honouring their ancient deities. A walk through ancient Mesopotamian cities, one would view great lammasu (or winged bull) sculptures guarding palace doors and city gates. Unfortunately, ISIS has recently destroyed the few remaining original lammaus left in Iraq, destroying a piece of human history with them.
Modern Assyrians continue to use lammasus as the symbol of their ancient roots in Mesopotamia. Frequently, I hear Assyrians refer to themselves, their organizations or groups as the lammasu — the guardian of all Assyrians.
But I have recently thought of a new symbol for the Assyrians, something much smaller, but just as symbolic.
For me, Assyrians of today are like canaries in the coal mines.
During the Industrial Revolution, caged canaries were brought down into coal mines as a primitive form of methane and carbon monoxide detectors. As long as the miners heard the singing of the bird, they knew that the methane and carbon monoxide levels are suitable to continue their work. However, once the canary stopped singing and was found dead, the miners would immediately evacuate the mine or face death by poisoning.
It is through the canary’s existence that the mine and its ecosystem continued to function and even prosper.
As long as the Assyrian Christians remain in the Middle East, the songs of the canary will be heard in the coal mine. As long as their hymns are sung in their churches, their Aramaic language is spoken and taught, their flags and symbols held high in their homeland of Mesopotamia, then the songs of the canaries will forever ring loud and clear.
Unfortunately, reality is far from this ideal. Assyrians, the people who, thousands of years ago, are said to have brought the world civilization are threatened with extinction by the most uncivilized of forces.
During ISIS’ Mosul takeover last June, Christians, who have celebrated mass for 1,600 years, were cleansed from that ancient city. Two months later during ISIS’ August Nineveh Plain offensive, another 100,000 Assyrians were ethnically cleansed from their ancient villages, which continue to be under the firm control of ISIS militants. Last week in Hassakah, Syria, ISIS launched another offensive against the Assyrian population, this time along the Khabur River, taking over 10 of the 35 villages and capturing an estimated 260 hostages.
Assyrians are not the only people facing persecution from ISIS; the group has relentlessly killed Shi’ites, Kurds and even their own Sunni members. However Assyrians, as well as other minorities in the region such as the Yazidis, are facing a threat of death as an entire people in the Middle East. There is a legitimate fear expressed by Assyrians and Yazidis that their ancient people will cease to exist in their ancestral and indigenous land.
Minorities in Iraq and Syria have recently taken matters into their own hands and are now forming militias to defend their existence. Assyrians in Iraq have formed three main militias, the largest of which, Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), recently completed the first round of training for 500 of its members and is waiting for funding to train remaining 3000 registered soldiers. In Syria, the Syriac Military Council (MFS) has allied with the leading military force in the Hassakah province, Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), which together, have recently taken two strategic towns in Syria and are now attempting to reclaim the Assyrian villages lost last week along the Khabur River.
If the canary dies — if Assyrians are forever cleansed from their ancestral home — perhaps only then will the Middle East finally realize the important position Assyrians had in the pluralism of the region.
It is only after the Assyrians no longer live in Mesopotamia that their neighbours will miss the songs of the canary in the Middle East.