The Assyrian SoulTuesday, September 6, 2016
Last summer, I came across a DVD called “Mass Held for Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, 2008,” of footage from a memorial service at which I spoke to the Assyrian diaspora in Chicago. My memory immediately rushed back to this simple man known to Assyrians (also called Chaldean and Syriac) for his care of Mosul’s disabled orphans and his selfless commitment to parishioners despite the many threats from Al-Qaeda in Iraq on his life.
Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho was kidnapped by gunmen in February 2008 because he refused to forsake his flock of 20,000 believers during what today seems like just the beginning of our most recent misfortune in Iraq. While in the darkness of his abductors’ trunk, he pulled out his cellphone and called his church, saying that the parishioners must never pay his ransom. He “believed that this money would not be paid for good works and would be used for killing and more evil actions.” Two weeks later, his body was found in a shallow grave near his beloved hometown of Mosul. Rahho knew that death was certain. In his will – published postmortem by the Assyrian press in Iraq – urged Iraq’s Christians to never avenge his eventual killing against their Muslim brothers.
To those outside the Assyrian community, he was just a headline occupying the news for a few days, to slowly fade into the collective memory of chaos and misery that defined the Iraq War. But for Assyrians, he was an embodiment of the best attributes of our people: dignity in the face of extreme hardship, forgiveness of even our enemies and commitment – no matter the depth of persecution – to our people and Christian faith.
As I listened to my speech on the memorial tape, I suddenly found myself shedding bitter tears in realization that seven years had passed since Rahho’s death. In that moment, I had to honestly examine whether Assyrians were better off in 2015 than in 2008. The answer was – sadly – no. As a matter of fact, our situation has worsened. Calamity had befallen us once again with an Islamic State-perpetrated genocide, now recognized by the United States government, and the mass depopulation of two-thirds of Iraq’s Christian population.
Though Assyrians can endlessly cite reasons outside our own community for our disappearance from our homeland – be it the rise of Islamic terrorism, the decline of secularism and pluralism across the Middle East, or the brutality of the Islamic State – we too must shoulder responsibility for our current dismal state of affairs. Most of us spend our time glorifying what the great Assyrian civilization once was, and lamenting what others have done to us. Some go as far as to call us a dead nation walking amongst other nations. This state of victimhood, to which we seem to be holding on for dear life, has kept Assyrians from designing a real strategy for the future in a present where we may vanish from the Middle East in the next 100 years. Overall, the population of Middle Easterners who are Christian has dropped from 14 percent in 1910 to 4 percent today.
At that exact moment, while in tears, a jolt of lightning went through my body. I could hear only one word over and over in my mind: revolution. One to wake the sleeping 4 million Assyrians scattered throughout the world away from our homeland living in comfort throughout the West. A revolution in which we would no longer be passive victims, but champions of our right to exist in our lands despite the dark forces clearing it of 2,000 years of Christianity. I had the realization that no oppressed people in the history of the world has gained equality by appealing to the morality of those who, either by their own hand or through duplicity, treated them as less than human. In this moment, watching footage memorializing the life of the fallen Rahho, I realized with every fiber of my being that we need our own self-governed land.
Since June 9, 2015 until today I have not stopped working, believing and breathing the dream that Assyrians will return one day to our own land – one in which we administer our own affairs, maintain our own security and practice our Christian faith freely, while preserving our history and culture that dates back 6,700 years. It is the dream of an Assyrian homeland in which we will not just survive, but thrive as a people reinvigorating our culture, ancient cultural sites and the native Aramaic language we still speak to this day. None of this can be done without the global Assyrian community’s banding together and demanding the self-governing territory promised by the Iraqi government in 2014.
The Kurds, one of several ethnic neighbors in Iraq, often lament their history of betrayal at the hands of faux allies, in their old expression, “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” For Assyrians, at this point, we lack even mountains. We have always known our enemies, but I often ask myself these days, who really are our “friends?” U.S. foreign policy toward Assyrians in Iraq has failed our community many times since 2003. Assyrians were once a thriving middle-class community of 1.6 million in Iraq before the U.S. invasion; now fewer than 200,000 of us remain. Even today, the Obama Administration has revealed no plans on what will be the fate of Iraq’s Assyrian community in the post-Mosul liberation. If Iraq’s history has shown anything since 2003, it is the disaster that a lack of U.S. policy on religious and ethnic minorities can wreak on communities. We also find few friends in the Middle East: looking to the north, Turkey continually allows the persecution of Christians post-coup, while the Arab-Kurd rivalries surrounding our homeland in disputed territories threaten either forced assimilation, or unreliable long-term security.
Through recent betrayals, we have learned that our security and governance cannot be placed in the hands of outside groups in Iraq. The only strategy for Assyrians to remain there is keeping Assyrian-run security forces in their own land. After the Iraqi army abandoned Mosul in June 2014, the Kurdish fighters abruptly withdrew, hours before ISIS attacked their villages. Assyrians and other religious minorities were left defenseless to the Islamic State slaughter and enslavement that followed.
Few might still remain skeptical to this idea of self-governance, but many others are flocking to the efforts of realizing this 2,400-year-old national dream. What I am talking about is not new. From era to era, there have been many who have also thought that there needs to be a transformation made to the feeling of helplessness and despair in which we find ourselves. Today, what I see to be different is that we have allies who have come to us and, unlike the British and others, have asked us, “What is it that the sons and daughters of your nation desire?” “What kind of future do you envision for yourselves?” and “Let us partake in this important matter of nation-building.”
One of the biggest revolutions in modern history that we can look to is the return of the Jewish nation to its ancient homeland. In his 1882 book “Auto Emancipation,” Leon Pinsker, a Jewish doctor and Zionist pioneer, explained that in the case of the Jewish people, “The misfortunes of the Jews are due – above all – to their lack of desire for national independence. And that this desire must be awakened and maintained in time if they do not wish to be subjected forever to disgraceful existence – in a word, we must prove that they must become a nation.” As Assyrians, we too must awaken to our need for self-governance as a means for survival in a hostile world. We must carve out a space for ourselves in which we can maintain our culture and freely practice our religion without fear of church massacres, beheadings or forced conversions.
Despite all of this, one thing I am certain of is the Assyrian soul, which lives on in our hearts. Whether we as members of the Assyrian community have hope for a homeland or not and whether or not we believe that we as a nation will rise again, we possess a gift called the “Assyrian Soul.” This is what the Jewish nation – which, for centuries, lived in bondage – possessed: a Jewish Soul; a Hebrew Spirit. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a Jewish newspaper editor who was responsible for the revival of the Hebrew language, wrote, “They [the Jews] survived calamities because they believed they were different than others, and that they had a distinct language – a distinct religion. Out of this Jewish spirit came the love of Israel, the faith in returning to Jerusalem, and the hope that all the scattered will gather again in their land.
We as Assyrians possess an undying spirit, the spirit of Sargon and Ashur, Ishtar and Shameeram. Whether we like it or not, we look to our men and women of cloth who were brutally murdered for their Assyrianism and for their Christianity, like Rahho. As one community, as one global Assyrian family, we can take appropriate steps laying the bricks one at a time to build a new home again. Instead of lamenting our sorrows, become empowered with the knowledge that – through centuries of looting, burning, destruction, murder and pillage – we survived. We survived it all for the Assyrian Soul and to once again gather.