By Zina Rose Kiryakos, Chaldean-American Attorney &
Head of the Iraqi Christian Human Rights Council
Dated: July 1, 2017
When my Iraqi Chaldean family left Baghdad, Iraq, to escape oppression, I was one and a half years old. I had not returned to my ancestral homeland for decades, until my trip to Mesopotamia (Iraq) in May-June 2017. Why had it been so long since I had returned? Mostly because Iraq has been in a constant state of war and instability since the 1980s, from the Iraq-Iran War, to the Gulf War, to the devastating UN-imposed sanctions, also known as the “Oil-for-Food Program” (“you give us oil, we will give you food”), and finally, the 2003 invasion of the country by the United States and the United Kingdom. With each new turbulent phase, the country deteriorated more and more. After 2003, a new phase of sectarianism and terrorism gripped the country. A sectarianism and terrorism which targeted the country’s indigenous Iraqi Chaldean Christians, who make up the majority of Iraq’s Christians at over 3/4s of the demographics, as well as the other Iraqi Christians (Syriacs, Armenians, Assyrians, and Arab Christians).
Through all the turmoil, Chaldeans and other Iraqi Christians weathered the storms and provided Iraq with a high percentage of civil employees, doctors, engineers, and scientists. The 2003 invasion of Iraq and the Genocide it brought upon the Iraqi Christians of the country were quite different. With the disbandment of the Iraqi army and government, the indigenous Christians of the country were defenseless and prime targets of vicious Islamists. Prior to 2003, there were over 300 open churches in Iraq. Now, after the 14-year Iraqi Christian Genocide, less than 50 churches remain open in Iraq. The Iraqi Christian Genocide of the last 14 years is like nothing my community had experienced in modern times. Even with all the ups and downs of Iraq, in the last 40+ years, my Chaldean community was always a “part” of the fabric of Iraq. We are the indigenous people of Mesopotamia (Iraq), still speak the Chaldean Neo-Aramaic language of our ancestors, and were converted to Christianity in 37 A.D. by Saint Thomas the Apostle; making us one of the oldest Christian civilizations. The targeting of our culture and forcing us to leave our ancestral homeland astonished our entire global community. Where in 2003, there were between 1.5-1.8 million Iraqi Christians living in Iraq; we now have less than 300,000 living in Iraq and an estimated 100,000-150,000 Iraqi Christians forced to live as refugees in dire conditions in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon.
As Sanaa Ibrahim, a Syriac Christian from Iraq, recently told me over the past 14 years Iraqi Christians have been moved from one killing zone to the next and now the displaced Christians in Iraq fear being returned to another one or wonder where the next killing zone will be:
“Following 2003, most Iraqi Christians left Baghdad in fear of militias of different loyalties, they arrived to Mosul and its surrounding Christian villages. I remember one old man told me at that time, ‘they are bringing us to this – killing zone,’ following which Mosul Christians were displaced starting from 2007 to Nineveh Plain towns. Then all Christians were displaced again upon the ISIS occupation of the towns. Iraqi Christians are worried about returning back to their towns and homes in Mosul and the Nineveh Plains, because the future of this areas is not settled yet. They don’t want to go back to a killing zone.”
There is also a lot of sectarianism in Iraq, with various groups hating the other; the only thing the different groups agree on is their hatred of the Iraqi Christians, Yazidis and other smaller religious communities. Many Iraqis would point out to me that, generally, this sectarianism did not exist before 2003. They are not happy about the sectarianism and for many Iraqi Christians it seems as though the end of Christianity in Iraq is nearing its completion. Chaldeans and other Christians in Iraq feel forgotten; they see many Christians are leaving the country, but few are returning or visiting. Everywhere I went, Christians asked me about getting visas to the West, how they can leave, and what their options are if they leave. This included non-displaced Christians with homes, good jobs, and a comfortable living. The Iraqi indigenous communities are constantly forced to choose sides in Iraq’s sectarianism. Forcing them to choose sides and inflicting consequences upon them depending on which side they choose is a rampant occurrence in Iraq. Iraqi Christians are not afforded basic human rights throughout the country, and are oppressed and persecuted by the central and regional governments and the Muslim majority. An issue which needs a lot of work and advocacy to achieve more equality, freedom of religion, and human rights for Iraqi Christians, Yazidis and other religious communities.
There is a lot of beauty to Mesopotamia (Iraq), even with the war and disasters. The land is host to delicious food, mountains, scenery, and an ancient Christian heritage belonging to one of the world’s oldest Christian civilizations. For me, it felt like a surreal homecoming, not only for myself but for the many members of my family who had left these lands decades before. This was especially true when I traveled up to the Dohuk region and visited some of the ancient churches in my family’s ancestral village, including one dating back to 325 A.D. or another church in the area which contains a memorial to and the grave of my great-uncle Chaldean Catholic Bishop Francis Dawood. Chaldean Bishop Dawood served as the Chaldean Catholic Bishop of Amadiya (which included the Dohuk region) from 1910-1939, including during the 1915 Ottoman Genocide against ancient Christians. I thought of my relatives walking and farming those lands, how they dealt with years of persecution, without much help from the outside, and at the same time how they must have enjoyed the simplicity of their lives in those northern Iraqi villages. The Chaldean town of Alqosh, Iraq, which is a town entirely inhabited by Chaldean Christians, is absolutely a gem. It is a beautifully maintained Chaldean Christian town with ancient treasures, such as the Saint Rabban Hormizd Monastery. The Chaldean town of Ankawa, Iraq, is also an amazing Iraqi Christian town. The entire town, as with Alqosh and our other Iraqi Christian towns, speaks Aramaic. Everywhere you go on the streets of Ankawa you can hear the residents speaking Chaldean Neo-Aramaic. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Moreover, these towns/areas hold our ancient churches and monasteries, and is the land of our martyrs and forefathers.
While there, I also visited the recently liberated Iraqi Christian towns in the Nineveh Plains, including the Syriac Christian towns of Qaraqosh and Bartella, as well as the Chaldean Christian towns of Tesqopa and Batnaya. All of the Christian towns in the Nineveh Plains are Chaldean or Syriac and overseen by the Chaldean Church or Syriac Churches. Batnaya is the most destroyed of them all. I witnessed burned-out ancient churches, some ranging from 800 years old to over a millennium. I saw burned-out homes, some of them in complete ruins. The town of Batnaya is the epitome of a war zone. The destruction and evil directed at my people is heart-wrenching and deflating. You walk into these areas and wonder why so much evil is directed at my peaceful, God-fearing indigenous Christian community. Genocide is the best and truest word to describe what has happened and continues to happen to Iraqi Christians.
Most of the displaced Christians I met asked for an internationally protected security zone in order for them to rebuild their towns and lives. In addition, they want the local forces who were securing the Nineveh Plains prior to 2014, to return to their duties and for all of the recently created (post-2014) militias to leave the area. Now that further light has been shed on the Iraqi Christian Genocide, it makes sense that international protection is needed to allow these Genocide victims to return to their towns and rebuild their lives with some security and stability. This is in turn pushes back against attempts by foreign powers and groups to control the Nineveh Plains and create demographic changes in the area. The displaced Iraqi Christians also want a zone in the Nineveh Plains where they can return to enjoying local self-governance. This ability to self-govern would be a relief from being trapped in the sectarianism of the majority groups, and will also allow them to save their ancient Chaldean and Syriac indigenous cultures.
As heartbreaking as it was to visit my indigenous community living through despair in displacement camps and walking through the utter destruction of the liberated Christian towns, it became even more clear how critical it is for the Iraqi Christian diaspora, Iraq and Western governments, and all people of good conscience to help the Iraqi Genocide victims recover and restore their lives and cultures.