Mideast groups seek protected zone for minorities in Iraq, Syria


Catholic News Service

AMMAN, Jordan —A call for an area to protect Christians and other religious minorities in Syria and Iraq is gathering pace even as April marks the centenary of the 1915 genocide of Armenian, Assyrian and Greek Christians.

“We have met with representatives of four of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — the United States, Britain, France and Russia — and submitted our request for a temporary protected area to be set up for Christians, Yezidis, and other minorities in Iraq and Syria,” said Bassam Ishak, president of the Syriac National Council in Syria.

“Our issue is how to protect these people,” said Ishak, a prominent Syrian Christian political leader. He said his council and other organizations concerned about the future of religious minorities caught in the crosshairs of volatile conflicts in the Middle East “want a U.N. resolution drafted and passed that will provide for their protection.”

“We are asking for a temporary protected zone. This is different and separate from resolving the Syrian or Iraq question,” Ishak told Catholic News Service. “People are taking the call very seriously.”

“Representatives of 60 countries spoke in favor of the protected area at a U.N. General Assembly meeting. But Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria aren’t for it,” Ishak said of the March 27 meeting.

Ishak’s own Assyrian forefathers were victims of the 1915 massacre of Syriac-speaking Christians that took place in Turkey. Forced into exile, they took up shelter near Hassakeh, in northeastern Syria.

“There have been three massacres on the same people in one century,” said Father Emanuel Youkhana, who heads the Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, CAPNI. The group provides practical aid to Syrian Christians displaced by the recent Islamic State attacks along the Khabur River.

“The grandfathers of these Assyrians survived the Christian genocide of 1915 under the Ottoman Turks, referred in our language as ‘Seyfo’ or sword,” he told CNS by telephone from Iraq.

“We lost one-third of our population in 1915. Around 700,000 Assyrians from different denominations, including the Church of the East, Chaldeans, Syriac Orthodox, and Syriac Catholics were massacred,” he said.

Some 1.5 million Armenians also were killed in the onslaught.

Those Assyrians who survived fled to the northern Iraqi town of Dohuk, a province of Mosul, which became part of the new state of Iraq and a member of the League of Nations in 1932.

Father Youkhana recounted that on Aug. 6 and 7, 1933, another “massacre and the first genocide in the new Iraq took place in Simele, near Dohuk, against Christian Assyrians.” Those who survived fled to the Khabur River region of northeastern Syria.

Fast forward some 80 years. Islamic State began its sweep of Christian towns along Iraq’s Ninevah Plain last Aug. 6. And during this past February, it attacked the Christian towns along the Khabur, setting off another flight of Christians escaping for their lives. Around the same time, the militant group destroyed priceless, historic Assyrian artifacts in Iraq.

Father Youkhana has urged the international community to stop this “open-ended persecution,” saying it had a moral obligation to do so.

“If our history is being destroyed and our historical sites demolished, our present is targeted and we have been massacred, can we have a future?” Father Youkhana asked.

Others are also expressing deep concern over the recent violent attacks against Christians in the Middle East and their diminishing numbers, saying more help by the international community is needed quickly.

“Some of the oldest Christian communities in the world are disappearing in the very lands where their faith was born and first took root,” noted the Washington-based Center for American Progress. “Christians have migrated from the region in increasing numbers, which is part of a longer-term exodus related to violence, persecution, and lack of economic opportunities stretching back decades,” the center said in a report published in March.

John Michael of the Assyrian Democratic Movement told Britain’s Catholic Herald that “the West is arming and supporting the central government in Iraq, the Kurdish peshmerga, the Shiite militias, but no one is supporting the Assyrian Christians.”

“The Assyrians are totally ignored and being left to their own devices with no means to defend themselves against the evil barbarians” of the Islamic State, he said in an article published Feb. 24. “How much longer will this persecuted minority have to suffer before those in positions of power act to protect them? Or should we all remain silent whilst a massacre unfolds in the ancestral lands of the Assyrian Christians?”