Displaced Assyrians, who fled from the villages around Tel Tamr, Syria, gather March 9 outside the Assyrian Church in Hassakeh as they wait for news about abductees remaining in Islamic State hands. CNS photo/Rodi Said, Reuters

Protected zone for minorities sought in Iraq, Syria

By  Dale Gavlak, Catholic News Service
  • April 8, 2015

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."

Ishak, a prominent Syrian Christian political leader, 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 UN 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 favour of the protected area at a UN 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 Fr. 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.

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.

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?" 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 Centre 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 centre said in a report published in March.

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