What now for the Assyrians?

What now for the Assyrians?
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‘After all, who remembers the Assyrians?’

In fact Hitler's notorious quote, when contemplating a genocide of the Jews, referenced not the Assyrians, but the Armenians. Yet an estimated two-thirds of the Assyrian population died in the great Ottoman genocide of 1915 together with Armenians and Greeks. This fact is barely known, let alone remembered.

The latest chapter in a tragic history of massacre, forced migration and persecution is ending with the liberation of areas of northern Iraq from the brutal Islamists of Daesh (ISIS). The Assyrians are one of the oldest of indigenous Middle Eastern peoples, having lived in the region for over 6,700 years. As a Christian dhimmi minority they have suffered discrimination at the hands of Muslims for 14 centuries. The routing of Daesh, however, presents the Assyrian population with a unique opportunity to assert control of their ancestral territory, the Nineveh plain.

Some 150,000 Assyrians remain from an Iraqi Christian population of a million-and-a-half: most have fled to the West. Daesh burnt their churches, razed their homes and shrines, executed their priests, raped their women and took a number into slavery. There are gruesome tales of Daesh inviting Assyrians and Yazidis to dinner to celebrate the return of kidnapped children after they have paid a ransom, only to be told at the end of the meal, that they had eaten their own children.

Juliana Taimoorazy is an Assyrian activist working for the Philos Project, a humanitarian organisation which has helped house, feed and care for displaced Christians. They have had to step in to do the work of UNHCR, which gives preference to Muslim refugees. Taimoorazy fears that unless Assyrians act quickly, her people will become extinct.

The Philos Project fundraises in the US to resettle returning refugees, but has run up against a common refrain among potential donors: “Assyria is dead”, they say.

" What?", retorts Taimoorazy," are you dead? Are your children dead?"

In the vacuum left behind by Daesh, the Kurds have moved in, despite being forced by Iraqi government forces and militias to withdraw from Mosul, the biblical Nineveh. The voices of Assyrian nationalists are barely heard. Taimoorazy would like to see an autonomous Assyrian region in the Nineveh plain. The Kurds have included this region, where Assyrians have been the majority population, as part of Kurdistan; according to Taimoorazy, Kurds have no claim. She continues to support the Iraqi federal government and has little enthusiasm for an independent Kurdistan - there is no love lost with the Kurds, who were complicit in the slaughter of Assyrians 100 years ago. Taimoorazy thinks the Kurdish referendum on independence ill-timed and ill-advised.

Zionism offers Assyrian nationalists a model for achieving self-determination, but there are no high profile figures willing to raise the banner. Where is the Assyrian Theodor Herzl? The five Assyrian representatives in the Iraqi parliament are supine, the lone Armenian-Assyrian US Congresswoman has achieved nothing, and there are only two people lobbying for the Assyrians in Washington DC, as opposed to 100 lobbyists working on behalf of the Kurds.

Yet, as the Kurdish experience has shown, it is not enough to have overwhelming popular support for independence when no country in the world except Israel is ready to recognise the new state.

The estimated three-and-a-half million members of the Assyrian diaspora already face an uphill struggle to preserve their culture and Aramaic language and resist assimilation into the West. That struggle should probably take precedence over any calls for independence, or even autonomy.

The Assyrians cannot attract Western support as they are strategically insignificant. A small people with no great resources, they have little to offer. Will history finally bury this ancient people ?

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