Assyrians, the Indigenous People of the Middle East, Leave Home

7/7/2008 11:22:00 PM

On a sizzling summer afternoon in 1974, my mother was trailing behind me, running hastily home to escape one of the stone battles that raged between neighbourhoods in Syria’s northeastern city of Qamishli.

Once we crossed the sand bridge that separated the Assyrian quarter from the rest of the city, we were out of the slingshots’ range. This one was the last battle youngsters from the Assyrian quarter fought against Khanika, a neighboring Kurdish quarter, as the government soon tightened its policing of neighborhoods.

The weapons in the battle were giant slingshots (called stone canons) and ghee can lids; the ammunition was stones. It was like a real war with trenches dug along the frontlines of the fighting neighbourhoods. At the time, I was seven years old. I didn't understand what was going on; why such wars broke out. The only thing my mother told me was: "It's a fight between us and the Kurds."

I don’t remember the logic behind those fights and how they were planned or started. But I do recall that the Assyrian quarter was vibrant and buzzing with life and robust youngsters ready to defend it and shut it off to intruders.

"It was the most active period of my life," recalls Ashour Ileya, 47, an Assyrian plumber who lives in the Assyrian quarter. "It was like we were doing something big, like defending our community."

Then, more than 400 Assyrian Christian families lived in the neighbourhood’s mud houses, which sprawl into the eastern part of the city. Now, only 30 Assyrian families live there and only two churches are still standing.

Almost all Ileya’s friends and most of his relatives have left for the U.S and Europe. He is waiting for his American visa to be issued as well. The overall population of Qamishli was around 90,000 in the mid 1970s, according to official statistics. Assyrians were estimated to represent more than half the city’s population. Today, Christian Assyrians represent slightly more than 20% of the city’s 300,000 people.

Christians represented 13-15% of Syria’s seven million people in the mid 1970s. Today they represent less than 10%, or about 1.7 million people, according to a U.S State Department report.

The country’s Assyrians are concentrated in the al-Jazeera region, about 400 miles northeast of Damascus. The region, the largest among Syria’s 14 provinces, includes Hasaka, al-Malikeya and Qamishli. They also exist in Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Iran in varying numbers. The Assyrians once dominated the Middle East. In the seventh century B.C, their empire stretched from today’s Iraq through southern Turkey to the Mediterranean. They were among the first converts to Christianity and are divided into several churches, including the Catholic Chaldean, the Syriac Orthodox and Catholic and the Church of the East.

The Christian exodus from the Middle East came to light after the news of Iraqi Assyrians escaping the violence in their war-torn country following Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003 made it onto the international news agenda. Almost half their population fled Iraq, leaving behind only around 700,000.

But the Arab leaders remained silent to their plight. The most recent Arab summit in Damascus, in March 2008, took no notice of their dilemma. The final communiqué did not make any mention of the plight of either the Assyrians or the Arab Christians despite growing evidence that their very existence in the Middle East is targeted.

In Lebanon, once a majority Christian country, Christians represent only 34% of its population of four million people, according to the World Christian Database. The database, which bases its work on church estimates, says Arab Christians’ percentage in the Palestinian territories has also dropped from 5.3% in 1970 to 2.5% of 3.7 million Palestinians today.

In Jordan, a country of 5.4 million people, the Christian population dropped from 5% in 1970s to about 3% now, according to a U.S State Department report. But, in Egypt, the number of Copts - Egyptian Christians - range from 5.6 million, according to Egyptian government estimates, to 11 million people, according to Coptic Church estimates. Nonetheless, they complain of discrimination in the most populated Arab country of 80 million people. One example of this is that the government still restricts the building of churches in Egypt.

The Christian flight from Syria occurred in part for economic reasons. In the mid-1980s, the U.S and the European nations imposed crippling 12-year-long economic sanctions on the country after a British court accused Syrian officials of being involved in an attempt to plant a bomb aboard an Israeli El Al plane. Syrians stood in long lines in front of government-run retail stores to get bread, vegetables, fruits and even napkins and grease. At the time, the Assyrian quarter was changing face. The stream of water that used to flow from Jagjag, the river which splits Qamishli into two parts, ran permanently dry. And the neighbourhood’s Assyrian population was dwindling, too. It was losing a few families to the West each year, where they hoped to find a more prosperous life. Many of them were selling their homes to pay smugglers to get them out of the country. Yet, the neighbourhood still kept its livelihood, with about 250 families living there and a football team named after Faris al-Khouri, the only Christian prime minister in Syria’s history who held the post for one year until October 1945.

But gloomier days for the Assyrians of Syria were yet to unravel. In October 1986, 22 members of the Assyrian Democratic Organisation - founded in 1957 in Qamishli to promote Assyrian rights in Syria - were arrested for opposing the government’s official policy of Arabization. They were released after six months in detention.

The clampdown prompted many more Assyrians to leave the country. A former ADO official, wishing to remain anonymous and now living in Canada, who was detained during the crackdown on his party’s leadership, said: "The impact was immense on us. We were tortured physically and psychologically. I was a pioneer against our people’s immigration from the country. The detention experience has turned me into immigration promoter."

An agricultural engineer, he owned a vast farm with hundreds of trees, apple, apricot and vine, in a village thriving on the banks of Khabour River, several miles northwest of Hasaka city. He blagged his way out of the country only months after he was released in 1987.

Had he stayed, he would have been turned into an informant for the security apparatus, the Mukhabarat, he said.

In Syria, freedom of worship is maintained and Syriac, the language of Assyrians believed to have been spoken by Jesus Christ, is allowed to be taught in church schools. Yet, the government does not recognize their ethnic identity as Assyrians. It refers to them only as Christian Arabs.

The Assyrians exodus from the entire Middle East also has psychological reasons deeply rooted in history. Their communities in the Middle East have been oppressed by rulers in both the distant and recent past.

In 1914, the Ottomans slaughtered about 1.5 million Armenians, 750,000 Assyrians and 350,000 Pontiac Greeks and drove hundreds of thousands of Christians out of their homelands. The religious and ethnic tensions in the predominantly Muslim region continued for decades.

In 1933, the massacre of 3,000 Assyrians at the hands of the then-Iraqi government in Simile, a small Assyrian town near Mosul, prompted the displacement of about 34,000. Colonel Bakker Sedqi, a Kurd, led the campaign.

Survivors of those massacres helped build Qamishli and Hasaka in 1925 and about 36 villages, purely ethnic Assyrian, along the Khabour River, in 1936.

As I grew older, I learned that those stone battles witnessed as a seven-year-old, between the Assyrian quarter and Khanika, were a reflection of old grudges. Assyrians have suffered throughout history at the hands of Kurds, as well as Turks, Iranians and, sometimes, Arabs.

But the construction of Qamishli marked the end of their suffering. It became a safe heaven for them and a place to maintain their culture and way of life.

However, government policies of Arabization and discrimination against ethnic minorities, including Kurds, as well as economic crises are pushing these minorities - especially Assyrians - to abandon their homes they built brick by brick.

Looking at the four-story building rising above his home with new inhabitants, Ileya, the plumber, wondered why his community has dwindled so quickly.

"Nothing is left for us," Ileya has said over a glass of beer in his home in the Assyrian quarter, "not even those stones we fought with."