Washington DC -- In the second of a two part series of important hearings on the refugee situation in Iraq held by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, one panelist caused a major controversy.
Dr. Judith Yaphe a Fellow at the National Defense University characterized The Assyrian Genocide as `due to their support of the British Army - not as a result of their ethnic, religious identity.`
During that period of time it is estimated that nearly two thirds of the indigenous Assyrian Christian community in Iraq was killed in a bloodbath that has gone down in history as the Assyrian Genocide.
It is an area of extreme sensitivity, along with the similar Genocide against Armenians which is denied by Turkey and other countries to this day.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom was created by the US Government in 1998 to monitor Religious Freedom throughout the world.
The panel, the first of which in July had concentrated on Assyrian Christian, Yezidi, Manichean and other Minorities was divided into two parts.
The first, testimony on intra-muslim conflict.
The second concentrated on the refugee situation in neighboring countries including representatives from the Assistant Secretary of State in charge of refugee issues, Ellen Saurerbrey and representatives from both the UN and the International Organization for Migration.
While it was not the main topic, as it had been covered in the previous hearing, various panelists brought out figures for the total number of registered refugees.
Figures ranged from a low of 20% of all refugees from Iraq as being Assyrian Christians to a high of 62% by another panelist, illustrating the large percentage of the total refugee population which is Assyrian Christian, the indigenous people of Iraq.
Many experts have expressed alarm at the emphasis on refugees from Iraq as seriously undermining the future of the struggling country by encouraging the most educated and needed to leave the country.
In particular the Assyrian Christians as one of the Middle East's last major indigenous Christian Communities instead of being encouraged to leave the country should be helped to stay, according to Assyrianchristians.com and other groups.
One expert said `Overemphasizing the refugee issue is very dangerous. Instead of encouraging people to leave, plans and ideas so they can remain in the country is key. The temptation of a US, European or other country visa can be overwhelming and leads generally to exaggeration of ones circumstances in order to qualify for a visa.`
Of particular interest was a suggestion put forth one of the Commissioners of the USCIRF, Imam Talal Y. Eid, founder and director of Religious Affairs at the Islamic Institute of Boston.
His suggestion, was to set up an area for the minorities within Iraq so they would not be a problem for neighboring countries.
Eid, originally from Lebanon said `I do not understand why we are discussing refugees in neighboring countries. Iraq is a large and a wealthy country. The solution is for there to be an area in Iraq reserved for these minorities so they can stay within Iraq.`
Eid`s proposal made at the hearing, reflects the view of the Assyrian Christian Community worldwide who have officially at the invitation of the Iraqi Government applied for one province in their homeland under the Iraqi Constitution.`
Experts, see this, echoing Eid`s proposal as the only long term solution to the refugee problem in Iraq.
Prime Minister Maliki, at an earlier meeting stated `The Assyrians are the original people of Iraq. Whatever they need to remain in Iraq we will do.`
The Iraqi Prime Minister and his office have put on the table an offer to make payments to Assyrian Christians and other Iraqis living in Neighboring countries based on the monthly stipend, payment for resettlement of any Iraqi returning to Iraq and a Province under the Constitution for the Assyrian Christians, the first step being a Security Zone in their homeland in Assyria in Northern Iraq.
The hearing further delved into the history of the conflict and Senator Arlan Spector, who along with Representative Frank Wolf initiated the original legislation forming the USCIRF expressed his strong support for the ongoing efforts to assist those suffering in Iraq.
He was followed by Senator Gordon Smith initiator with Senator Ted Kennedy of further legislation to help Iraqi refugees, both extending credibility and support to the Commission.
For the Assyrian Christians, though calling the Assyrian Holocaust a political rather than a religious genocide is akin to trying to explain away the Jewish Holocaust and has caused outrage in the community of nearly six million worldwide, nearly 10% of the population according to the Iraqi Government in prewar Iraq.
The irony of the program which hardly mentioned the Assyrian Christians who by all measure form the majority of the refugee population was that no particular support was expressed for them by panelists or commission members, some who left even before questioning began.
The one person supporting their goal - a homeland - was the moslem Imam from Lebanon.