Juliana Taimoorazy, an Assyrian Christian and founder of the humanitarian organization, Iraqi Christian Relief Council, was hosted by Cliff Smith, director of the Middle East Forum's Washington Project, at a November 7th Middle East Forum Webinar (video). The two discussed Taimoorazy's advocacy on behalf of persecuted Christians of the Middle East, particularly in Iraq.
Taimoorazy said the Christians of Iraq comprise Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Syriacs who lived in their ancestral homeland in portions of Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria since the fall of Nineveh, as described in the Old Testament, in 612 B.C. She said that "ever since then, we have lived [at] the mercy of our overlords" and are now a disappearing minority in the Middle East. Taimoorazy explained that "red martyrdom" represents those Christians who have been killed for their faith, while "white martyrdom" refers to those Christians who face continued harassment and persecution. Taimoorazy said that in 1910, there were 13.6 percent Christians in the region, but she believes that by 2025, there will be less than 3 percent remaining in Iraq, which she refers to as the "cradle of Christianity."
In the late 1800s, the Ottoman Empire persecuted and displaced established Iraqi communities of minorities such as the Armenians and Greeks, as well as Assyrians. Taimoorazy said that following the post-Iraq invasion by the U.S. in 2003, the Assyrian community in Iraq experienced huge losses and, in order to save their lives, they sought asylum in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. Their homes and lands were then taken over by Arab and Kurdish Muslims, she said, adding that grievances brought to the Kurdistan Regional Government regarding this are ignored.
In 2003, Taimoorazy said that there were "one and a half million Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac Christians in Iraq ... today we have about 80,000 people left." For the remaining Christians, the rise of ISIS in Iraq "changed the entire equation" for the worse. The ISIS attack against them in 2004 "really put the nail in the coffin," Taimoorazy said. Branding the Christian homes with the "Arabic letter 'n'" to signal they were occupied by a "Nazarene," ISIS went on to brutalize the Christian families with torture, rape, and death, while obliterating historical monuments attesting to the Assyrians' heritage in the Nineveh Plain.
Taimoorazy is unable to extend her relief work to the Christians in Syria and Iran due to U.S. sanctions against both countries. She said that Iran's persecution of Christians is particularly "substantial" against "apostates" (those who leave Islam). Syrian Christians are "split" between those opposed to the Assad regime and those who fear that he would be replaced by far worse. Taimoorazy's grievance against the Kurds for appropriating Assyrian land is compounded by an oppression she terms "Kurdification," in which the Kurds engage in historical revisionism by replacing Assyrian history and symbols with Kurdish ones, thereby precluding the transmission of the Assyrian heritage to the next generation.
As the number of Assyrian Christians is small, their plight is largely ignored by the media. They have no control over the crude oil and natural gas in the Nineveh Plain, which relegates them to a "dispensable" priority for U.S. policymakers. Although Evangelicals and Catholics in the U.S. care about the fate of biblical Nineveh and its besieged Assyrian Christians, they have urged the latter to relocate to the religious freedom of the West. Taimoorazy said that as a people, Assyrian Christians feel an attachment to a region where their roots go back two millennia. They fear that relocating to the West will cause them to assimilate to Western culture and lose not only their ethnic identity, but also their ancient Aramaic language.
Taimoorazy said that Muslim organizations in the West pay lip service to their prophet's (Muhammad) directive to protect "people of the book" but fall far short of their pronouncements of brotherhood. The Iranian uprising currently underway is a cause she believes that Middle East Christians need to unite behind because the Iranian people are protesting the ayatollah's form of Islam which exports terror globally and "really destroyed Iran." In light of the Abraham Accords, she hopes there will be more positive changes. However, when approached by a Shiite sheikh from Najaf who implored her to urge Assyrian Christians to remain in Iraq, she argued that there little is done to "help us feel at home because we're not guests here; we are children of this land."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.