Christianity In The Middle East: On The Verge Of Extinction

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Russ Read Pentagon/Foreign Policy Reporter
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One million three hundred thousand Iraqi Christians have been displaced, murdered or taken prisoner since 2003. A centuries old civilization now faces permanent extinction while the rest of the world, including the U.S. government, looks on.

As Christians across the world begin to celebrate Christmas, the 300,000 remaining Christians displaced in Iraq and Syria are preparing for a harsh winter that will almost certainly dwindle their numbers further. Islamic State has been assaulting Christianity in the Middle East for well over a year and a half, and now the few remaining will be forced to brave the elements in the face of a genocide.

“Assyrian culture is melting,” says Juliana Taimoorazy, head of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, a group dedicated to aiding Christians being persecuted in the Middle East in an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation. Taimoorazy is making a desperate push to try and raise money to save Assyrian Christians in Iraq before winter settles in. “We want to buy caravans,” says Taimoorazy, referring to the camper-style vehicles that can serve as temporary shelters equipped with running water and electricity.

The Iraqi Christian minority, also known as Assyrian Christians, has a history in the Nineveh Plains region of Iraq going back 6,700 years. Assyrians were one of the first major groups in the region to convert to Christianity and are one of the last groups to speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.

Prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Assyrians numbered 1.6 million in Iraq. With the rise of al-Qaida in Iraq and the Iraqi insurgency, their numbers began to dwindle. In 2014, less than 500,000 remained. In just over a year since its rise, ISIS has slaughtered and displaced the Assyrian Christians with brutal efficiency, cutting their numbers nearly in half to 300,000.

“ISIS took 280 Assyrian hostages to Syria,” says Taimoorazy. Three of the hostages were executed on video in October. This represented the first time ISIS executed Christians on camera, yet Taimoorazy claims the incident went essentially ignored by Western media. ISIS is demanding $100,000 in ransom for each Christian, that’s $28 million to stave off extinction of one of the last remaining Christian groups in the Middle East. Many Assyrians in the diaspora have been successfully resettled in Europe and the United States, including Taimoorazy herself who fled from her native Iran in 1989, however they lack the financial capacity to save their friends and family from the hands of ISIS.

“They [ISIS] know we cannot come up with this kind of money, so they are hoping other groups and countries will come up with the money,” an Assyrian leader told Fox News when the hostages were first taken in April.

Even when the money is raised, the matters regarding ransom are extremely complicated. As a general policy, the United States does not engage directly in hostage negotiations. Assyrians therefore must utilize back-channel sources to secure their loved ones, which usually involves using Sunni Muslim warlords, charity workers and clergy still present in the region. Mar Gewargis III, the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church, is a particularly important figure speaking out on this issue.

There is of course a moral dilemma when Assyrians are forced to pay off ISIS to save their culture: the same ransom money used to save some inevitably fuels the ISIS war machine, allowing the terrorist group to potentially continue its eradication of Christianity in the region.

Assyrian Christianity is facing “a form of soft genocide” in addition to eradication, says Taimoorazy. Even the groups fighting ISIS, like the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi military, are loathe to aid the Christians. When the first ISIS onslaught hit the Nineveh Plains in the summer of 2014 “the U.S.-backed Iraqi army, wilted before the onslaught, with many soldiers reportedly abandoning their posts and stripping off their uniforms to avoid detection,” says an Al Jazeera report. Taimoorazy claims continued abuse of Christians results when the Kurdish Peshmerga and various Iraqi militias retake towns from ISIS.

Despite witnessing the eradication of Assyrians for over a year, Taimoorazy claims the United States has brought in few of them. She explains that before the ISIS uprising, 45-50 percent of Iraqi refugees coming into the U.S. were Christian, today that number is a remarkable 6 percent, with 89.6 percent of the remaining total being Muslim. When asked why there was such a dramatic drop, Taimoorazy pointed out that while the numbers under Bush were poor, the “[Obama] administration is not friendly to the Christian cause.”

Taimoorazy says those who are fortunate enough to be saved face difficult challenges when resettling. “Assyrian culture is melting,” she claims, due in large part to the poor resettlement policies of Western countries, including the United States. Most Assyrians coming to the United States are spread throughout the country, making it particularly difficult to retain traditional Assyrian customs and their ancient language. “[Assyrians are] assimilating to the Christian community in America,” explains Taimoorazy.

Taimoorazy sees the solution to the Assyrian problem as two-fold. In the short term, better settlement policies will be needed so that Assyrians in the diaspora can continue their traditions and culture abroad. In the long term, she sees the solution as a province dedicated to the Assyrian Christians somewhere in the Nineveh Plains. aimoorazy and her colleagues at the Philos Project see the goal of establishing an Assyrian homeland as a “repackaging of Zionism,” and they already have the support of notable Middle Eastern leader King Abdullah of Jordan. No matter what happens in the future, Taimoorazy makes it evidently clear that if current policy does not change, Christianity in the Middle East could soon be lost to history.

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