CHICAGO — Can a genocide happen twice to the same people in 100 years? Just ask the Assyrians of the Middle East.
In the late 1910s and early 1920s, U.S. readers opened their newspapers to read of the Ottoman Empire’s systematic extermination of these ancient Christians in their homelands, which stretched from modern-day Turkey across the northern swathes of modern-day Syria, Iraq and Iran.
Today, few U.S. readers even realize the Assyrians still exist. But this ancient Christian and biblical people of the Middle East faces the prospect that the second genocide started by the Islamic State group (ISIS) — combined with assimilation in the West — will finish their religious and ethnic extermination set in motion nearly 100 years ago.
More than 150,000 Assyrian Christians — many of whom are part of the Chaldean Catholic and Syriac Catholic Churches — were driven from their homes in Mosul by ISIS in June 2014, to seek refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. In neighboring Syria, thousands of Assyrians in villages along the Khabur River, a Euphrates tributary in the northeast, are fighting for their survival, caught on one side between ISIS and on the other side by Kurdish YPG separatists.
In this interview with the Register, Juliana Taimoorazy, founder and president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council and a fellow at the Philos Project, speaks about her work as a Catholic and Assyrian descendent of genocide survivors in trying to save her Assyrian people from extermination by ISIS and create secure homeland on the ancestral Nineveh Plain. For both the Church and the world, what is at stake is the survival of the living witnesses to the Bible’s ancient history and the Church’s apostolic age, when the Assyrians received the Gospel directly from St. Thomas and literally took it as far as China, the known ends of the earth.
Juliana, can you tell us about your own experience of religious persecution as a Catholic Assyrian in Iran and why you had to leave and seek asylum in the United States?
I was born in Tehran, where my parents were living. Then, in 1979, the Iranian Revolution erupted and changed our lives completely. My siblings, who were much older than me, really had a good life in Iran under the shah. Minorities were respected then; we had religious freedom — but then, when it came to me [after the revolution], I was mocked for my Catholic faith. I was told repeatedly that I would burn in hell for my Catholic name. I was thrown out of class quite a few times, because I would defend the Trinity. And they would try to convert me to Islam by reciting the Shahada, the [conversion] verse in the Quran, and I would refuse to do that. Eventually, my father decided that he had to smuggle me out.
Later, as a U.S. citizen, you founded the Iraqi Christian Relief Council at the encouragement of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago to advocate on behalf of Christians in Iraq, who are also ethnic Assyrians. What pushed you to start this apostolate?
It was 2006, when I was watching Fox News, and I saw two churches being bombed simultaneously in Baghdad. Although this had been going on since 2004, this was the first time I’d seen it with my own eyes: seeing a 20-second clip of my Assyrian people drenched in blood in the Baghdad streets, carrying their kids out of church. … But then it went away, and no other station — that I saw — covered it. And I was wondering, “Why do we not care about all this hurt or devastation?”
So, what we do [at ICR Council] is we travel throughout the United States and around the globe, because a lot of people are taking interest in this cause, and we educate them about who the Christians in Iraq are. We tell people that we’re the children of Nineveh — the children of the same [biblical] empire — and we raise funds for food, shelter and medicine for the Iraqi Christians who are displaced in the whole region.
Many people do not know today that Assyrian Christians have experienced genocide at least twice in 100 years in their native lands: the first by the Ottoman Turks in 1914 and again by ISIS in 2014. Did the first genocide also affect your family in Iran?
I did a quick genealogy, and I was able to trace my roots to Urmia, although we Assyrians know that we all came from northern modern-day Iraq. I found out, for the last 200 years, my family had been living in Urmia [Iran], where it used to be populated with many Assyrians — Urmia is known as the cradle of culture, knowledge and education for the Assyrians of the Middle East. My great-grandfather, who is American-educated, had a big property there.
By 1914, when the genocide began at the hands of Turks and Kurds, he housed 2,000 Assyrians on his property. Many contracted disease, and he died along with them, because he was taking care of 2,000 people. My great-grandmother, his wife, was kidnapped, along with her two sisters, by the Kurds, and we never heard from them again, suspecting that they were killed. Because of World War I and the genocide, the remaining members of my family on both sides walked on foot to Russia. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was 12 years old, and he remembered that parents were forced to leave their young kids and infants along the way because they couldn’t carry them. So they would take the older ones and leave behind the younger ones, and the majority died. He could hear the sobs of those mothers who had to make these hard choices until the day he died.
During 1933 to ’37, when Stalin started arresting foreign nationals, the majority of the men on both sides of my family were arrested and sent to gulag camps, where are the majority of them died. But the women were sent back to Iran, and that’s how I ended up being born in Iran.
What big projects is the Iraqi Christian Relief Council working on to support Assyrian Christians in the Middle East?
We’re working on three major projects: One is providing housing for these people who have been displaced. We’re working on a cancer project, because there are a lot of people who are suffering from cancer — we don’t know why, but cancer has erupted among the refugees … and then education projects, where we’re speaking with folks from the West to sponsor children’s education.
The other thing is that, through the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, we have ways of connecting American donors and Catholic donors with people on the ground. So, for example, if say a family or a church in America wants to adopt a group of displaced people in northern Iraq and have a relationship with them, and help them financially so that they can be preserved where they are at, we can do that. If they want to sponsor a child’s education or adopt a daycare center that is very poor in northern Iraq or Jordan and Lebanon, we can do that. This way, the donors build a relationship with the persons they are helping.
What do you want people to know the most about the Assyrian Christians — many of whom are Chaldean Catholics — and the threats they face today?
I really want Americans and the world to know who we Assyrians are and what we have really given to the world. As Robert Nicholson, who is the executive director of the Philos Project, says, Christianity is really a Middle-Eastern religion, and a lot of people tend to miss that point. Jesus was not born in New York. This is a Middle-Eastern religion, and the Assyrian people took Christianity — after they converted to this faith, which they encountered from St. Thomas the Apostle himself — as the first missionaries, all the way to China and to India. We gave a lot to Christianity as Eastern Christians, and we served the world for many millennia as the Assyrian people. Our history is 6,700 years old: We established the first library in the world, along with other contributions we have made.
People tend to forget that we are here; we are a people that, unfortunately, is faced with ethnic cleansing and religious cleansing; we are assimilating into the West; and we are being extracted out of Iraq by force: not because we want to leave, but because we are forced to leave. We are really on the verge of extinction. I want my fellow Americans and Europeans to know who we are and help us preserve our culture, our language and our many ways.
What steps can be taken to support the Assyrian language, culture and people within their ancestral homeland?
It’s important for people to understand that these Iraqi Christians are not Arab Christians. They have an ethnicity that is attached to them, and that is Assyrian. So people need to call them Assyrian Christians, not just Iraqi Christians. When people understand this, that’s the first step to preserving our name and our culture.
The other thing to understand is that if activists and organizations actively extract people from Iraq, displacing them across the world, and don’t help them to preserve their identity or support them to stay in Iraq, then we’re adding to the assimilation in the West and erasing their culture. When [Assyrians] migrate to the West, we have to help them continue learning the language, living their traditions and having their liturgy. At Philos Project, we have developed methods of helping preserve these cultures in the West.
You’re a fellow at the Philos Project. What is that organization’s role in helping you save the Assyrian people in their homeland?
To preserve our people, the Philos Project is writing a very big document on the importance of the Nineveh Plain, the homeland of not only the Assyrians, but also of other minorities, such as Yazidis and Turkmen. We’re getting a lot of interest from different non-governmental organizations and people on [Capitol] Hill. The State Department and many members of Congress are waiting for this white paper that the Philos Project is in the process of completing. It really is extremely critical for us to have partners, who believe in preserving the Assyrian race and language and will come along our side to make this happen.
What impact would the genocide of the Assyrians and Middle-East Christians have on the entire Church?
If Middle-Eastern Christianity is wiped out, then I believe the Western Church would be as a house that is shaken and weak.
ISIS has destroyed so many lives, churches and monuments of the Assyrians. Do you believe that, after ISIS, it is possible to restore what has been lost?
Restoring the people is the most important thing right now, because brick-and-mortar [buildings] will come and go. But the Church is the people, not the buildings — we all know that — so restoring these people’s spirit and restoring these people’s lives is the most important thing. Then comes the rebuilding of the churches and heritage sites that have been destroyed. I don’t know how much we can repair the heritage sites that have been destroyed — honestly, churches have been torn down and rebuilt all the time, but, to me, it’s a little different when our lamassu, our winged bulls, have been completely destroyed, the very lamassu that had been prepared in the very hands of those Assyrians of 3,000 years ago.
But let me tell you a quick story: We know that the Tomb of Jonah was buried underneath an ancient church in Nineveh (today’s Mosul), and on top of that church was built a large mosque, because when the Muslims would attack, they would destroy the church and build a mosque over the property. In this case, quite a few centuries ago, the attackers did not completely destroy this ancient church; instead, they built a Shiite mosque, which covered the church building completely. When ISIS destroyed the Tomb of Jonah — that Shiite mosque — what we see today is the church tower for the first time in 1,000 years. This is a symbol of hope that the Church will live on.
However, if these people are not protected and helped, and if they are purposely extracted to be resettled in the West, who is going to rebuild those destroyed churches? Who’s going to go worship in those churches? We don’t want museums — we want thriving churches to be rebuilt again. Eastern Christianity is the bridge of understanding between the Christian West and the Islamic East.
As a final thought, Juliana: How has this whole experience of advocating for your people under genocide affected you and your faith personally?
I see miracles every single day through my ministry, the Iraqi Christian Relief Council. I’ve grown stronger in my Christian faith, as I just see what God can do in changing people’s lives, bringing communities and the faithful together. It is truly, truly amazing, and it has been a blessing. I’m humbled that the Lord has chosen me to carry this cross. Although it is a painful journey, seeing so much suffering and destruction, I cannot imagine living a different life. I’ve seen so much disease; I have seen so many tears that have been shed by men in my presence. It has been humbling, and at the same time, I’ve seen the glory of God in how they have not renounced Christ at the cost of their own lives and suffering.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.