Assyrian Christian born and raised in Iran, Juliana Taimoorazy is founder and president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council. Under her direction, ICRC raises awareness about persecution of the church and Christians and resettles Assyrian refugees in the United States. She was smuggled out of Iran in 1989 and since that time has mentored young women who, like herself, arrived in the US to avoid religious persecution.
Taimoorazy, a 2014-2015 Philos Fellow, spoke with The Media Line’s Felice Friedson at the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Nashville, Tennessee, in advance of International Women’s Day.
TML: Juliana, begin briefly with your background and your plight. You had family members that were persecuted. What drove you to create this relief organization?
Juliana: My goodness. Thank you, Felice, for this opportunity. This story is something that is embedded in my DNA. My plight, the Assyrian – Christian plight, is really 14 centuries old under Islam. Prior to that was our persecution under [the] Persians, but fast forward to my own family within the last 120 years. My family has given eight martyrs in the name of Christ through different actions. My great uncle was cut to pieces and sent to his wife in a rice bag. His son was shot to death. My own great-grandmother was kidnapped and raped and killed by the Kurds along with two other sisters. Many of your readers know of the Armenian genocide, but a lot of people don’t know that two-thirds of the Assyrian nation was also massacred, including my own family. So this is something that is embedded in my DNA -- not only my DNA, but [in the DNA of] every Assyrian who lives on the face of this earth. This is something that is deeply rooted in their hearts, but some take action and others just want to bury it and not deal with it; especially those who are assimilating in the West. Our culture, our heritage, our linkages are going away very quickly because people just want to walk away and put everything behind them.
For me, I come from a family of activists and as long as I’ve known myself I’ve been an advocate for the Assyrian cause in general, but since 2003, 2004, I’ve been lamenting the fact that the West has remained silent on the cause of the Christians of Iraq. Finally, after meeting Cardinal Francis George, I asked him what the Vatican is doing to help the persecuted Church in Iraq. He said, “Why don’t you come in for a meeting?” I went in for a meeting with the Justice and Peace Archdiocese Office of Chicago and they encouraged me to start this Ministry. We’ve travelled throughout the world. We’ve ministered in different synagogues and in different churches. I talk about the importance of maintaining Christianity in the Middle East as an ally for Israel. I talk about the importance of keeping the Assyrians in their ancestral homeland to slow down the melting of our culture, of our nationality.
TML: The numbers of Christians that have been assassinated or raped or persecuted is staggering. It’s changed at a rapid pace even in the last year. Why?
Juliana: The numbers unfortunately are very high, although we don’t know the exact number. We know dozens of priests have been killed after receiving a “bloody bullet” in Iraq after 2003, which said, “You will either convert to Islam or you will die.” Dozens have been killed. Our Archbishop of Mosul was actually punctured through his nose with acid. The two churches of the Eastern bishops were kidnapped by Islamic State (ISIS) and they were held for two years before we finally realized about two months ago that they were killed.
Women have been kidnapped and are being sold today into sex slavery. Seven of my own colleague’s family members were kidnapped by ISIS in Syria. The majority has been released, but two women are still being held by ISIS. Children have been kidnapped and held for ransom. In fact, there was a woman whose child was kidnapped back in 2007 and an Al-Qa’ida affiliate sent word that they want to give the child back, so the mother and the father went [to retrieve him]. The Middle Easterners, who are traditionally known as gracious hosts, cooked an elaborate meal for the parents after which the Al-Qa’ida representative told them, “You just ate your child.” They had broiled the child and served the body of the child on top of the rice platter. Yet, not only Christians of the world have remained silent, but just humanity, the world community as well. Where are the women’s organizations? Where are the child advocacy organizations? These women are being sold into slavery and these kids are being kidnapped and held against their will and the world is silent.
TML: Juliana, you recently met with parliamentarians to discuss the creation of a Christian province in Iraq. Do you think the world will really assist in creating such a safe haven?
Juliana: Well, the Assyrians ancestral homeland is an identical plain. It was my first time going back to the homeland, as I was born in Iran. Going to Iraq, seeing the plains and these beautiful, rolling hills [was breathtaking]. We just arrived back three days ago from Iraq and yes, we met with members of both the Kurdistan and Baghdad parliaments. It is important to know that a minimum plain has approval in both the Kurdish Regional Government’s and the Baghdad constitutions. There is a mandate that says the Nineveh plain can be slated for all minorities, not only Christians, but we don’t have the backing for them to implement this. And the only answer for having Christians live safely among other minorities in Iraq, is to have the Nineveh plain, but unless it is protected by international forces, by our own Christian minority military members, people are not going to go back. People are not going to go back to their homes unless there is economic development. It is a long process, a very important process and the Philos Project which I work for, and my own ministry, are seeking support from different world powers to see that these people need a self-autonomous, self-administered area that they can live in and freely practice their religion and they can prosper economically there.
TML: Juliana, you have said there are certain UN refugee camps which don’t allow Christians but where Syrians who are of Muslim background are able to get help.
Juliana: We visited Al-Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. In December, there were about 80,000 Sunni Muslims there, but Christians are afraid of living next to Muslims. This refugee camp has a mosque. They have clerics there. Women are all covered. Men and women are separated on many occasions. Girls attend girls’ schools and boys attend boys’ schools. There is no way Christians would prosper there. Therefore, they find apartments on the cheap side of Amman or Beirut. Because they are not in these refugee camps, a lot of the aid that is sent by Christians abroad thinking that this aid is getting to them, is not. Christian kids, the majority of them, are not being educated because they are afraid of going to Muslim schools. It’s only $1,500 - $2,000 a year to put a Christian child through school in Jordan in a private school, but there are a lot of people dying of diseases because they cannot afford medication for heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
That is the situation not in only in Jordan, but also in Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. A lot of people think Christians live in refugee camps, but they don’t.
TML: You are trying to find safe havens for Christians in the United States. Many you have assisted are now located in Michigan.
Juliana: The rate of Christians coming to the West is very low; I think the last group of people that we helped in the United States was about nine months ago. The majority of those who come are Muslims so when they arrive here we don’t get involved with providing them with safe shelters, for example, directly, but we do help them with the down payment or security deposit on their apartments. If they cannot afford two or three months’ rent, we’ll help them with that. We help them with purchasing food, etc. We help them connect with really good schools. If their kids need funding with their schools, we provide that. That is something that we not only do in Michigan, but in Chicago, Massachusetts, Arizona and California. Our focus right now, at least the majority of it, is in the region because they are completely devastated.
TML: There are Muslims that have hid Christians to try to save them from ISIS, no different than in World War 2 when Jews were hidden by Christians. Are you aware of this going on?
Juliana: Initially when Isis had attacked, yes, I remember there was the case of a Kurdish family that housed a couple that had just given birth to a baby in the Irbil area. Because ISIS was advancing, other Muslim – Kurdish neighbors actually kicked them out. [Afterwards] they lived in a park for about a month with a one-month-old until they found another shelter. What is important to know is that although the world is really siding with the Kurds -- fighting for Kurdish rights and fighting to arm them -- the Kurds inflict a lot of prejudice on the Christians who live in their region. There is not one Christian judge in Kurdistan. You will not find any book that talks about Assyrian history. It’s all Kurdish history forced down the throats of the Christian students. A Kurdish leader who killed our patriarch in 1918 is hailed as a hero in these books and this is forced down the throat of our students so there is a lot of mental manipulation. Yes, they are not really killing Christians per se, but they are not really protecting them as they should. There are prejudices against them and there is mental abuse that goes on all the time inflicted by the Kurds.
TML: Do you feel that the voice of Assyrians currently living in the United States is loud enough?
Juliana: We are not being heard. I, myself, for the last eight years have gone to Washington along with other partners and we only get lip service. In fact, a couple of members of Congress have told me, “You’re people are dispensable people.” Can you believe this, Felice? They say “You need to figure out a way of becoming indispensable for us to really pay attention. You don’t have a strategic value to us politically. You aren’t large in numbers so why should we come to your aide?” The fact is Nineveh plain, for which we are seeking help, is very rich in oil and natural gas and all we need as the Assyrian national homeland is for this to be given back -- not only to us Christians but also to whoever wants to come and live there to practice their faith openly. We encourage that and we really need the United States to look at this whole situation differently without looking at us as “dispensable people.”
TML: What drives you, Juliana?
Juliana: The love of my nation and for Christ Himself. God is “Number One” for me. Number two is my nation.
TML: At what age did you come to the United States?
Juliana: I was smuggled out of Iran in 1989 and I arrived in the United States when I was 17. I made sure not to lose my language. I made sure not to lose my heritage. It breaks my heart when I see my younger Assyrians not speaking the sacred Aramaic language. It really hurts me and this is why Nineveh plain is so strategically important for preventing my nation from melting away and not to be destroyed completely. The scholars will tell you if we are not helped, if we are not congregated into one location as a community, within the next 100 years, through persecution and through assimilation, we will just be artifacts in a museum.