The Current Situation of the Indigenous Assyrians of Iraq

6/14/2005 4:58:02 PM

UN Commission on Human Rights
Sub-Commission on the Promotion
and Protection of Human Rights
Working Group on Minorities
11th Session
May 30th - June 3rd 2005

Palais d’Nations Geneve, Switzerland

Thank you Mr. Chairperson

Honourable delegates, ladies and gentlemen; my name is Shamiran Mako, I am honoured today to have been granted this opportunity to partake in the 11th session of the Working Group on Minorities. My objective is to draw your attention to the current human rights situation of a relatively small ethno-religious minority in Iraq, the indigenous Assyrians . Although their history traces them to one of the oldest people of the modern day Middle East, they have been, and continue to be systematically deprived of their basic human rights and ethnic survival in the region.

Since its independence from the British Mandate in 1932, the government of Iraq has failed to implement a democratic and pluralistic constitution and government, one that endorses, protects and secures the rights of its indigenous and ethno-religious minorities in the country. Grotesque human rights violations against the country’s minorities continue to be experienced by non-Arab minorities, the Assyrians being a prime example.

In 1933, the Assyrians residing in northern Iraq, primarily in the district of Semele underwent a series of massacres and attacks. In one week, as many as 6000 innocent Assyrian civilians residing in the region lost their lives at the hands of the Iraqi army under King Faisal I (1921-33). This period in Iraq’s history must serve as the basis for necessitating and implementing appropriate state-policies that adhere to human rights and secure minority rights in the newly democratic Iraq.

The Assyrians of Iraq under various governments, and particularly under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein possessed little, if any rights securing and safeguarding their status as both an ethno-religious and indigenous minority, although Iraq was one of the 18 ratifying countries to the 1957 ILO’s Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention No. 107.

During much of the 1970s and 1980s, a process known as ‘Arabization’ threatened the survival and existence of many Iraqi ethnic and religious groups. Implemented by the Ba’ath regime under Saddam Hussein, Arabization policies served one fundamental purpose, to deliberately cleanse Iraq of its mosaic cultural and ethnic diversity. Assyrians under this period were prohibited from teaching their ancient language, Aramaic and were forced to identify themselves as being ethnically Arab or Kurd in the national census for over three decades. All Assyrian movements, whether cultural or political in nature, were quelled and their members punished, often by death. The late 1970s marked a sinister period for the Assyrians of Iraq. As many as 220 Assyrian towns and villages in the northern region were uprooted and destroyed, their inhabitants forced to abandon the ancestral homes they had known for centuries and were forced to live in heavily concentrated Arab-Muslim areas. Churches and monasteries dating as far back as the first century AD were looted and destroyed; survivors along with the ruins are the only testimonies to this appalling period.

In 1988, Assyrians also became victims during the Anfal campaign. Figures vary mainly due to the fact that many Assyrian victims have erroneously been identified as being ethnically Kurdish or Kurdish Christian. It is imperative to state that Anfal was not a campaign that exclusively targeted the Kurds of Iraq; on the contrary, it was a systematic scheme aimed at targeting individuals or groups of people, mainly belonging to an ethnic minority, who were perceived to have been “conspiring” against the regime or collaborating with Iran. While Saddam persecuted the Kurds, as well as the Shiias, it was only the Assyrians that were targeted for a complete annihilation of their existence as an ethnic-minority through cultural genocide.

The vast exodus of refugees fleeing to nearby Turkey during the Gulf War in 1991 resulted in the establishment of “Operation Provide Comfort” launched by the allied forces to ensure a safe haven through an “air exclusion zone” which prohibited Iraqi aircrafts from flying north of the 36th parallel. During the “no fly zone” Kurdish political parties enjoyed unprecedented autonomy in administering their political affairs; however, the treatment of Assyrians under their control illustrates a pattern of systematic human rights violations that should be examined closely to better understand their current situation. During much of the 1990s and onward, Assyrians under the Kurdish controlled areas have been disenfranchised in relation to their Kurdish neighbours, political crimes such as assassinations of Assyrian political leaders hinders appropriate representation within the “Kurdistan” Parliament in areas under Kurdish control. Such examples include:

  • Francis Yusuf Shabo, an Assyrian and an active member of Assyrian Democratic Movement who became a member of parliament after May 1992. He was responsible for resolving complaints filed by Assyrian Christians regarding illegally confiscated Assyrian lands by Kurdish settlers in the Bahdinan district. He was shot dead on his way home in Duhok on May 31st 1993 by armed assailants, no suspects have been apprehended and charged with his death, although the suspect is known within the KDP circle and continues to live in Duhok.
  • Lazar Mikho Hanna, an Assyrian who was a member of the ICP’s Central Committee for Iraqi Kurdistan Region and was a member of a three-person committee responsible for the Iraqi Kurdistan Front’s financial affairs. He was also shot dead on June 14th 1993 near his home in Duhok, again no suspects have been apprehended and charged with his death.
  • Lazar Mati and his son, Havel Lazar were deliberately killed while held in custody at the KDP controlled Asayish Prison in Shaqlawa, no investigation was carried out regarding the killings and no suspects were apprehended.

Illegal confiscation of Assyrian lands in northern Iraq under the Kurdish Regional Government continues to be one of the most challenging issues confronting the largest ethno-religious minority residing in Iraqi “Kurdistan.” Many Assyrians, who fled the country due to the ongoing terror against Christians of Iraq, have lost their lands to illegal Kurdish settlers. A flagrant example being the resolution promulgated by the Kurdish Parliament in Arbil in October of 2002 entitled “General Conditions for the Ownership of Illegally Obtained Lands” specifically deals with formal transfers of illegally appropriated Assyrian lands to Kurdish squatters who have inhabited Assyrian towns prior to and until January 1st 2000. The Kurdish Regional Government has yet to implement appropriate measures in guaranteeing Assyrian refugees the right of return to their ancestral homelands.

In addition, Assyrian towns and villages under the jurisdiction of the Kurdish Regional Government are marginalized in comparison to Kurdish towns and villages regarding funding for infrastructure rebuilding. Below are just a couple of examples:

  • $335,000US were to be allotted for purchasing 20 electric generators in the Assyrian towns of Bakhdeda, Baritleh and Karimlish. However, only 9 have been installed in Bakhdeda, 3 in Karmlesh and 3 in Bartillah, totalling a mere $125,000 US out of the original budget of $335,000
  • $2,680,000 US were to be spent on helping Assyrian families to return to their homes in Fishkhabur (a district located in northern Iraq, bordering Syria), instead the funds have been used to compensate Kurdish families for their earlier exile from the region, over 250 families were paid $10,000 each.

It is also crucial to indicate that the KRG under the control of the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (the two main ruling parties in the Kurdish controlled areas) have become hegemonic in their administration of political, civil and economic affairs in northern Iraq. The Council for Assyrian Research and Development, a grassroots organization based in Toronto, Canada has had various reports from Assyrians residing in the region, whose identities have been withheld for fears of reprisals, that the KDP has made it mandatory to sign a waiver indicating political support for the party in exchange for employment or even receiving pensions.

Lastly, the 2003 war brought an end to the despotic Ba’ath regime and instilled new hope for the Assyrians of Iraq in attaining appropriate rights as an indigenous and ethno-religious minority. On the contrary, relentless attacks on churches, assassination of Assyrian Christians, murder of Assyrian civilians, mortar attacks on their homes and forced conversions to Islam by Islamic terrorists pose a serious threat to the future survival of this group of people in their homeland. It is estimated that as many as 90 Assyrians have been assassinated by insurgents over the past two years; the number continues to rise on a weekly basis. In addition, it is estimated that as many as 40,000 Assyrian Christians fled Iraq between the months of September to November to neighbouring Syria resulting from systematic and targeted violence in heavily populated Assyrian areas. In addition, during the January 30th elections, as many as 60,000 Assyrians were prevented from casting their votes by KDP militia in the Nineveh Governorate which houses the largest Assyrian community in Iraq. This flagrant exclusion of Assyrians in the newly “democratic” Iraq serves to illustrate that they lack adequate representation in the Iraqi government, largely sustaining their voicelessness in Iraqi affairs. It also serves to illustrate that even in heavily populated Assyrian regions, such as the Nineveh Plains, Assyrians are prevented from electing an appropriate representative for their constituencies who would best represent their needs by safeguarding their rights. The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI), the Coalition powers and the Iraqi government did not take the appropriate measure to amend the situation and guarantee a successful election for all segments of the Iraqi population.

Ladies and gentlemen, the ultimate outcome indicator of the blatant discrimination, disenfranchisement and deliberate violence directed at Iraq’s largest Christian and indigenous population, the Assyrians are the refugees that have fled the country since the toppling of Saddam Hussein. It is imperative to ask; if Assyrian rights were secured as both an ethno-religious and indigenous minority in the newly “democratic” Iraq, would there be such a large outflow of Assyrian refugees from the country? Would they also constitute the largest Iraqi Diaspora in the world? Taking the present facts presented into consideration, a comprehensive analysis ought to be conducted to further understand the continuous repression of the Assyrian Christians in Iraq. The analysis must to be formulated to include the following recommendations:

  • An Assyrian Administrative Region within a federalist system, which would serve to safeguard the rights of Assyrians of Iraq by protecting their cultural, linguistic and religious rights while remaining an integral part of the country.
  • The Iraqi government must institute an independent commission which would handle claims and disputes filed by minorities residing within the Kurdish controlled areas of northern Iraq to better safeguard their basic human rights.
  • The present Iraqi government must work diligently to ensure that Assyrians are granted appropriate representation as both an ethno-religious and indigenous minority in the upcoming Iraqi national census.
  • The government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government must ensure that appropriate and equal funding is directed for the infrastructure rebuilding of Assyrian towns and villages and heavily populated Assyrian areas such as the Nineveh Plains.

For without these safeguards, the Assyrian community of Iraq will cease to exist.

Thank You,

Shamiran Mako
Assyrian Academic Society
8324 N. Lincoln Avenue
Skokie, IL 60076
Tel: 847-982-5800

  1. The Assyrians are remnants of the people of ancient Mesopotamia, succeeding the Sumero-Akkadian and the Babylonian as one continuous civilization. They are among the first nations who accepted Christianity. Most belong to one of these four churches; the Chaldean Uniate, the Syrian Orthodox Church, The Syrian Catholic Church, and the Assyrian Church of the East. Due to ethnic political conflicts in the Middle East, they are better known by these ecclesiastical designations. The Assyrians use classical Syriac (a development of Aramaic) in their liturgies while the majority of them speak and write a modern dialect of this language. They constitute the third largest ethnic group in Iraq with their communities in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, Russia, and Armenia.

    Agnes Korbani, The Political Dictionary of the Modern Middle East (Maryland: University Press, 1995), 26.

  2. Burchard Brentjes, The Armenians, Assyrians &Kurds: Three Nations, One Fate? (Campbell, CA: Rishi Publications, 1997) 64-65.