Opinion Editorial
Assyrians in Iraq Should Go for Self-Determination
By Yeghig Tashjian

An Assyrian family from Baghdede who fled to Ankawa, Iraq.
(AINA) -- As World War I broke out, the Turkish government implemented the plan to destroy the Christian communities within its empire. Around 2 million (1,500,000 Armenians, 750,000 Assyrians and 500,000 Pontic Greeks) were massacred and others deported from their ancestral lands. Churches were burned, some were converted into mosques, memories were uprooted, and lands confiscated. Some Christian villages rebelled against the Ottoman Empire's advance, some succeeded and others did not, but always with arms in their hands. Today, as history repeats itself, what can the Assyrian Christians of Iraq learn from their century old history, and how can they prevent this catastrophe?

Local, Regional and International Silence

In my interview with David William Lazar, the chairman of the American Mesopotamian Organization, regarding the fall of Mosul, he stated that the Maliki government was partly to blame because of the sectarian policies that have marginalized the Iraqi Sunni Arab minority, the Kurds and the Iraqi army for refusing to fight ISIS, and the West for not preventing the flow of money from the Arab Gulf states to terrorist groups. For the first time in history, the Christians of Mosul had to evacuate their city, as the Arab world, Arab League and rebel Iraqi Baathists sat by and watched it happen. Nineveh, the ancient capital of the Assyrians was emptied of its indigenous people. Moreover, David W. Lazar stated that the Assyrian Diaspora, and specifically the Assyrian Aid Society of America, already started to mobilize and raise funds for local NGOs to help the refugees.

The United Nation Security Council UNSC has condemned the persecution of minorities in Iraq. Meanwhile, France declared it is ready to provide asylum for Iraqi Christian refugees. However, it has become clear that the international community will not provide aid unless the Iraqi Christians mobilize an army and take action.

Organizing Delf-Defense Units

Under authoritarian rule, and the lack of a strong Christian political force, the church has taken on the religious, social and sometimes political role. A similarity can be drawn both between the Armenian and the Assyrian churches. During the Ottoman era both churches were pessimistic and against revolutionary movements within their communities. Within the Armenian community, the shift occurred only after the conference of Berlin in 1878, when Father Khrimian, the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, later Catholicos of all Armenians, delivered his famous speech titled "The Paper Ladle," urging the Armenian nation to rely on itself to defend its land, and fight against oppression. He gave the following speech in the church:

Dear Armenian people, could I have dipped my paper ladle in the harissa [porridge]? It would have become wet and stayed there. There, where guns talk and swords make noise, what significance do appeals and petitions have? But alas, all I had was a paper petition, which got wet in the harissa and we returned empty-handed.

And so, dear and blessed Armenians, when you return to the Fatherland, to your relatives and friends, take weapons, take weapons and again weapons. People, above all, place the hope of your liberation on yourself. Use your brain and your fist! Man must work for himself in order to be saved.

After a decade Armenians, realizing that diplomacy failed, took up arms and with a high price independence was declared at the end of WWI. The Christians of Iraq should stop waiting for the international community to take action and follow in the footsteps of the Armenians by taking up arms, and fighting for their land.

Recently, many voices were raised within the Christian community in Iraq to organize volunteer units. Already videos are showing some Assyrians and Armenians are armed. David Lazar believes that Christians and Yazidis should also arm themselves. Lazar stated:

The Federal government in Baghdad is not able to protect its citizens and the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] will only protect its own areas as it have stated openly, regardless of what happens to the rest of Iraq. The immediate reaction of the Kurdish militias when ISIS and Baathist took over Mosul was to immediately occupy what they refer to as "Disputed territories," which are mainly Kirkuk and the Nineveh Plain. Of course now the KRG claims that it is defending the Christians of the Nineveh Plain, because if they were not there ISIS would have occupied the area and expelled the Christians, Yazidis and Shabaks from there.

Meanwhile, the Christian block within the Iraqi Parliament suggested that the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) start training the Christians to defend their villages and repel future attacks by ISIS. Already the Assyrian Democratic Movement started to recruit volunteers in Iraq and organize self defense units. In this task, both the church and Christian political parties in Iraq should participate. It is imperative that they start working together and to unify their efforts to fight ISIS and demand the formation of autonomous administrative region in the Nineveh Plain, where Assyrians would be able to preserve their culture and have security forces.

The Establishment of Iraq's Nineveh Plain as an Autonomous Region

Article 125 of the Iraqi Constitution states:

This Constitution shall guarantee the administrative, political, cultural, and educational rights of the various nationalities, such as Turkomen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and all other constituents, and this shall be regulated by law.

The Nineveh Plain, which is rich in agricultural lands and petroleum fields, brought economic competition between Kurds and Sunni Arab tribes in Mosul. This caused Assyrians to become targets of violence. Thus, without the Nineveh Plain autonomous administration, the indigenous Assyrian presence in its ancient homeland may be endangered. On January 21, 2014 the Iraqi government declared that the Nineveh Plain would become a new province, which would serve as a safe haven for Assyrians. Yet David W. Lazar argued that the Christians are not asking for political rights as Christians, instead they want to be recognized as an ethnic minority that is indigenous to Northern Iraq. He stated: "Although our Christian identity is also extremely important, our national identity comes first and often we endure discrimination because of our Assyrian ethnic identity rather than our Christian faith. A good example was during Saddam's period. The Baathists tolerated Christians as long as people referred to themselves as Arab or Iraqi Christians. However, we were oppressed as Assyrians because we were not allowed to teach our language, give our children Assyrian names and definitely not allowed to form political parties or ask for any type of autonomous rule in our ancestral lands." Lazar also claimed that Christians want to be part of Iraq, because they believe in a united, democratic and Federal Iraq with a strong Federal capital in Baghdad. This is referred to as Centripetal Federalism, where there is a strong Federal government and weaker provincial or regional governments. The KRG, on the other hand, prefers the opposite, Centrifugal Federalism, which means stronger provincial or regional governments and a weaker federal government.

Many would assume that the Arab world is disintegrating into small states and this is part of foreign conspiracy. Some say this is a Western-Zionist plan to divide the Arabs and divert their attention from the Palestinian cause, others may argue it's an Iranian plot to weaken the Sunnis. In reality the political mistakes of Arab leaders, with the inability of their governments to protect their ethnic and religious minorities, pushed the non-Arabs to distance themselves from the Arab reality. Unfortunately, multiculturalism is failing in the Arab World. The pogroms against the Iraqi Jews in Baghdad are still fresh in the memories of people. Today, Iraq is devoid of Jews. Hopefully, the Christians will not face a similar and tragic ending. The idea of introducing decentralization and federalism should not be alarming to the Arabs, it can actually solve many socioeconomic, cultural and political problems.

Yeghig Tashjian is a Lebanese Armenian. He holds BA in Political Science from Haigazian University and is a research assistant at the Armenian Diaspora Research Center at Haigazian University, where he conducts research on minority rights and Middle Eastern conflicts.


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