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The world is consumed by fears that Iraq is degenerating into a civil war between Shi'ites, Sunnis, and Kurds. But in this looming war of all against all, it is Iraq's small community of Assyrian Christians that is at risk of annihilation.
Iraq's Christian communities are among the world's most ancient, practicing their faith in Mesopotamia almost since the time of Jesus. The Assyrian Apostolic Church, for instance, traces its foundation back to 34 C.E. and St. Peter. Likewise, the Assyrian Church of the East dates to 33 C.E. and St. Thomas. The Aramaic that many of Iraq's Christians still speak is the language of those apostles - and of Christ.
When tolerated by their Muslim rulers, Assyrian Christians contributed much to the societies in which they lived. Their scholars helped usher in the Golden Age of the Arab world by translating important works into Arabic from Greek and Syriac.
But in recent times, toleration has scarcely existed. In the Armenian Genocide of 1914-1918, 750,000 Assyrians - roughly two-thirds of their number at the time - were massacred by the Ottoman Turks with the help of the Kurds.
Under the Iraqi Hashemite monarchy, the Assyrians faced persecution for co-operating with the British during the First World War. Many fled to the West, among them the Church's Patriarch. During Saddam's wars with the Kurds, hundreds of Assyrian villages were destroyed, their inhabitants rendered homeless, and dozens of ancient churches were bombed. The teaching of the Syriac language was prohibited and Assyrians were forced to give their children Arabic names in an effort to undermine their Christian identity. Those who wished to hold government jobs had to declare Arab ethnicity.
In 1987, the Iraqi census listed 1.4 million Christians. Today, only about 600,000 to 800,000 remain in the country, most on the Nineveh plain. As many as 60,000, and perhaps even more, have fled since the beginning of the insurgency that followed the United States-led invasion in 2003. Their exodus accelerated in August 2004, after the start of the terrorist bombing campaign against Christian churches by Islamists who accuse them of collaboration with the allies by virtue of their faith.
A RECENT UN report states that religious minorities in Iraq "have become the regular victims of discrimination, harassment, and, at times, persecution, with incidents ranging from intimidation to murder," and that "members of the Christian minority appear to be particularly targeted."
Indeed, there are widespread reports of Christians fleeing the country as a result of threats being made to their women for not adhering to strict Islamic dress codes. Christian women are said to have had acid thrown in their faces. Some have been killed for wearing jeans or not wearing the veil.
This type of violence is particularly acute in the area around Mosul. High-ranking clergy there claim that priests in Iraq can no longer wear their clerical robes in public for fear of being attacked by Islamists. Last January, coordinated car-bomb attacks were carried out on six churches in Baghdad and Kirkuk; on another occasion, six churches were simultaneously bombed in Baghdad and Mosul. Over the past two years, 27 Assyrian churches have reportedly been attacked for the sole reason that they were Christian places of worship.
These attacks go beyond targeting physical manifestations of the faith. Christian-owned small businesses, particularly those selling alcohol, have been attacked, and many shopkeepers murdered. The director of the Iraqi Museum, Donny George, a respected Assyrian, says that he was forced to flee Iraq to Syria in fear of his life, and that Islamic fundamentalists obstructed all of his work that was not focused on Islamic artifacts.
Assyrian leaders also complain of deliberate discrimination in the January 2005 elections. In some cases, they claim, ballot boxes did not arrive in Assyrian towns and villages, voting officials failed to show up, or ballot boxes were stolen. They also cite the intimidating presence of Kurdish militia and secret police near polling stations.
Recently, however, there are signs the Iraqi Kurdish authorities are being more protective of their Christian communities.
Sadly, the plight of Iraq's Christians is not an isolated one in the Middle East. In Iran, the population as a whole has nearly doubled since the 1979 revolution; but, under a hostile regime, the number of Christians in the country has fallen from roughly 300,000 to 100,000. In 1948, Christians accounted for roughly 20% of the population of what was then Palestine; since then, their numbers have roughly halved. In Egypt, emigration among Coptic Christians is disproportionately high; many convert to Islam under pressure, and over the past few years violence perpetrated against the Christian community has taken many lives.
The persecution of these ancient and unique Christian communities, in Iraq and in the Middle East as a whole, is deeply disturbing.
Last April, the European Parliament voted virtually unanimously for the Assyrians to be allowed to establish (on the basis of section 5 of the Iraqi Constitution) a federal region where they can be free from outside interference to practice their own way of life. It is high time now that the West paid more attention, and took forceful action to secure the future of Iraq's embattled Christians.
The writer is Vice-President of the Human Rights Subcommittee of the European Parliament and UK Conservative Foreign affairs Spokesman.