New Iraq constitution must protect Christians

8/24/2005 6:19:39 AM

The fate of millions of Iraqis hangs in the balance as politicians appear poised to introduce a new constitution for the country.

This constitution represents freedom for the Iraqi people from more than 30 years of oppression and injustice under the Ba'ath Party and marks the birth of a new society based on equality.

The constitution is not merely words on paper. Rather, its application is what will truly define it and will make Iraq a free and democratic country, a rarity in the Middle East.

Its success will be measured not in the amount of time it takes to finish, not in the number of votes it receives, and not in the successful party who adopts its principles, but in its application.

It is when the human rights of an individual, regardless of religion or ethnic background, are protected by this constitution that we can declare it successful and democratic.

It is when an Assyrian (also known as Chaldean or Syriac) woman living in her homeland in northern Iraq is free to wear a Christian cross around her neck and knows that she has just as much right to life as the Shiite woman who wears the Islamic veil.

For it is the Assyrians, the indigenous Christian people of Iraq, who most need this constitution to be successful.

It is they who have been butchered, not only under Saddam Hussein's rule, but also by the Ottoman Empire of Turkey and the Kurds for generations, simply because of their separate religious and ethnic identity.

It is they who, to this day, are singled out and treated as less than human; when their churches are destroyed, their women forced to wear the Islamic veil, their villages uprooted and their businesses targeted by extremists.

Amnesty International has noted many of these injustices, which also include assassinations of political leaders and the slaying of nuns and priests. This constitution will not only be necessary to secure the basic human rights of the Assyrians but is essential for their survival in the country.

As the indigenous people of Iraq, we have suffered from the forced Arabization drives of Saddam's regime. Further back in time, our people were killed alongside the Armenians and Greeks during the 1915-1918 genocide by the Turkish and Kurdish forces of the Ottoman Empire, the first recorded genocide of the 20th century.

Close to 750,000 Assyrians, or two-thirds of our population at that time, were slaughtered in what is internationally recognized as the Armenian genocide.

Yet again, more than 3,000 villagers were massacred in 1933 in Simile, north of Iraq by the Iraqi army. Attacks targeting our people are still being carried out today.

Between August and October of 2004, more than nine churches were bombed in two separate incidents. Many parishioners were killed and others injured during these terrorist attacks.

Because of these attacks and constant threats, rapes and abductions, more than 40,000 Assyrian Christians have fled Iraq for Syria.

It is now obvious why this is such a crucial time for the Assyrians of Iraq.

Will the constitution acknowledge people who suffered under the former Iraqi regime, other than the Kurds and Shiites? Will it guarantee seats for our people in the National Assembly and give us appropriate representation?

Will it ensure that we no longer remain a voiceless community that has been forcibly kept as an under-represented part of the Iraqi population?

Given the magnitude of the brutality against Assyrians, it is crucial that our rights to practise our religion and teach our Syriac language be guaranteed. It is also necessary that the Assyrians secure an administrative region in Iraq as stated in the Transitional Administrative Law, Article 53(D). This law guarantees the administrative, cultural and political rights of our people and other minority groups in Iraq.

Assyrians now stand at the crossroads. We do not want history to repeat itself. We need to remind ourselves that although it is the majority that rules in a democracy the voices of the minority cannot be ignored.