The plight of indigenous Christians in the Middle East is a social justice issue that gets almost no media attention, and the situation is at its worst in Iraq.
The Christians in Iraq trace their spiritual lineage from the ancient Assyrian Christian community. The Assyrian people are the indigenous people of Mesopotamia, before it even was Iraq. All of that area was Mesopotamia and is the original homeland of the Assyrians. They date back to over 6,000 years and were always concentrated in that region. They claim to have direct links to Apostolic times and to be the first people to accept Christianity as a nation. They now speak modern Assyrian, which comes from the ancient Aramian, (which Jesus spoke), but they all learn Aramaic as a second language and use it in their liturgy.
In early May 2007 in a Christian suburb of Baghdad, a Sunni extremist group began broadcasting a fatwah over the loudspeakers of the neighbourhood mosque. They said that the Assyrian Christian community had to convert to Islam or leave, or die.
Their Muslim neighbours were to seize their property. The men were told they had to pay the gizya - the protection money Jews and Christians traditionally had to pay to their Muslim overlords - and families were told they could only stay if they married one of their daughters to a Muslim.
More than 300 Assyrian families fled, mostly to the north into the Kurdish region of Iraq where they are not welcome either. They are sleeping in cemeteries, they have no food, more than 30 of their churches have been bombed, and their children are being kidnapped and murdered.
Assyrian-American actor Rosie Malek-Yonan is an Assyrian-American who gave testimony before the US Congress in 2006 about the plight of Assyrian Christians in Iraq.
She says, that Christian women are being forced to wear the hijab, children are being kidnapped for ransom, priests are being beheaded, and dismembered. And all this has been going on since the beginning on the Iraq war, right under the noses of the occupying US forces!
According to Malek-Yonan, there were 1.4-million Christians in Iraq before the American invasion in 2003, and now there's between 600,000 and 800,000 left. The majority of the refugees that are now stranded in Syria and Jordan. They have nowhere to go, they have no shelter, they have no food, they're living in the streets in poverty.
Ironically things were much better for the Assyrian Christians under Saddam Hussein, although they thought it was bad then.
Malek-Yonan believes that the Kurds in Iraq have the goal of driving Assyrians out of the northern region so that they can take over that entire region. Now that the Kurds have become powerful because the US is assisting them, they get assistance and the Assyrians don't. The American troops in Baghdad are doing absolutely nothing.
Malek-Yonan says, “The bottom line is that the Assyrians in Iraq have to be protected, just like the Kurds were protected back in 1991. They were given a safe zone. We need an Assyrian safe zone. This has to be done, and it could only be done if the US decides to help them to do this, and the UN steps in.”
Want to make a difference with this issue?
Email the the Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, asking him to advocate for the establishment of a safe zone for Assyrian Christians through the channels of Australia's relationships with the US and other UN countries.
Stephen Smith is himself a Christian, a practising Catholic, who has strong social justice values. His email address is Stephen.Smith.MP@aph.gov.au .