Persecuted Christians in the Middle East

Juliana Taimoorazy in front of an image of the Arabic letter "N" with which the Islamic State marked Assyrian Christian homes
Juliana Taimoorazy stands in front of an image of the Arabic letter “N” with which the Islamic State marked Assyrian Christian homes. Photo credit: Phil Glaser

In 2003, there were 1.5 million Assyrian Christians in Iraq. There are barely 200,000 now.

“Iraq used to be a beautiful mosaic of Assyrian Christians, Yazdis, Muslims, Jews, Mandaeism [followers of John the Baptist] – we want to bring that back. I’ve dedicated my life to bringing that back,” said Juliana Taimoorazy, founder and president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council and the senior fellow of the Philos Project. She spoke April 18 at Tompkins County Public Library’s Borg Warner Room, in an event sponsored by the Ithaca Coalition for Unity and Cooperation in the Middle East (ICUCME).

The Assyrians (also known as Syriacs and Chaldeans) are the indigenous people in Iraq. Neither Arab, Kurd, nor Syrian, the Aramaic-speaking people have lived in the Nineveh area continuously for 6,700 years: they’re descended from the Ninevites in the biblical story of Jonah. The ancient community was converted to Christianity by Saint Thomas the Apostle almost 2,000 years ago.

According to Taimoorazy, there are only 3.5 million Assyrians left in the world. “Religious persecution and harassment in the Middle East, Arabization, Kurdification, coupled with assimilation, means that in 100 years our community will disappear,” she said.

When the Islamic State took the Iraqi city of Mosul, they systematically set about destroying the Christian community and its churches. Tens of thousands of Christians fled; no more than 15 families have returned since ISIS was driven out of the city.

“Christians are afraid to live in Mosul again, because their neighbors turned them in to ISIS and their houses were marked with the Arabic alphabet letter ‘N’ for Nazarene,” said Taimoorazy. “The Assyrian women were violated in front of their families, the fathers were executed. People were crucified in public. Women were sold as sex slaves – they traded them as young as 3 years old for a pack of cigarettes.”

But as bad as it has been, the persecution of the Assyrian Christian community did not begin with ISIS, Taimoorazy said. The Ottoman Empire killed two out of three Assyrians and destroyed numerous churches. Eight people in Taimoorazy’s own family were killed by the Kurds and the Ottomans.

At age 16, Taimoorazy’s parents smuggled her out of her native Iran at great expense and risk to seek religious asylum in Germany. Eventually she came to the U.S. as a refugee. She obtained a Master’s degree from Northeastern Illinois University and is now a Senior Fellow of the Philos Project, Since founding the Iraqi Christian Relief Council (ICRC), she has worked tirelessly on behalf of the Assyrian community.

“A week ago I was in Iraq and we distributed food to 1,000 families,” she said. “We support them with clean water, food, with whatever they tell us they need.” She described the wretched conditions of the refugees – in one camp, 1,200 people lived in shipping containers, with only 8 toilets and 4 showers and 2 sinks for the entire camp.

“There is so much to do: it’s Ground Zero,” said Taimoorazy. “It’s like after a hurricane. So much needs rebuilding.”

ICRC distributes emergency humanitarian relief, including food, shelter and medicine, and advocates on behalf of Assyrian Christians in Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. One of the projects Taimoorazy described is “Operation Return to Nineveh,” a campaign to help Assyrian refugees return to their homes. Another is the Nineveh Center for Education and Reconciliation, a center that will offer help with everything from job creation to psychological healing to youth activities. In addition, Taimoorazy is looking for partners to re-create a library in Beghdedeh (Qaraqosh), since the Islamic State targeted libraries and books as well as churches for destruction.

In her introduction, ICUCME chair Linda Glaser lauded Taimoorazy’s dedication and hard work. She noted that the April 18 talk was being held on the 70th anniversary of the creation of Israel, which triggered a massive redistribution of populations in the Middle East. “Somewhere between 500,000 and 700,000 Arabs left or fled what became Israel; they are now known as Palestinians,” said Glaser. “At the same time, 800,000 Jews were forced to leave Arab countries throughout the Middle East. Ancient Jewish communities in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere essentially disappeared, forced to abandon their homes and property, just like the ancient Assyrian Christian community has been forced to do because of persecution.”

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