Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Urgent Need for Assistance for Christians in Iraq

Below is extracts from a speech by His Grace Bishop Mar Meelis Zaia’s recent speech at the NSW Ecumenical Council-act for peace Iraq seminar (together with the NSWEC briefing paper for this years’s Refugee & Migrant Sunday)
Extracts from the speech by His Grace Bishop Mar Meelis Zaia

Australia’s role in Iraq’s growing Refuge Crisis held at Sydney University

No one has been untouched by grief either by personal loss or to see their country torn apart by violence. I believe that all Iraq desire peace and stability for their loved ones and lament the current situation.

You may have heard that there are minority groups in Iraq – the Yezides, Mandaean and Christians, who because of their small numbers have tended not to be mentioned in the media. As such, the extent of their plight in the current Iraqis situation is not fully revealed. Although I will focus on Assyrians from the Assyrian Church of the East, what I will mention applies equally to our brothers and sisters in the Chaldean Church and Syrian Orthodox Church, who have suffered a similar experience since 2003.

Brief overview of the Assyrians History
The Assyrians are indigenous to the lands between the two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. Descending from the ancient Akkadians, the Assyrians had formed a city-state by 2,000 BC which eventually grew into an empire that ruled for 1400 years, and came to an end in 612 BC. During this period, our ancestors were sophisticated pioneers in the fields of science, literature and law, and government administration.

When the Assyrians embraced Christianity in the first century AD, our Church infused new life into our nation. Through the Church of the East, we embarked on missions that spread the teaching of Christ peacefully to India and China. We established the University of Nisibis in the fourth century AD that became a centre of intellectual development in the Middle East. But with the rise of Islam, persecution of Christians increased, and by the end of the 15th century, had dwindled in number and many Assyrians were driven to the harsh mountains of Southern Turkey to survive.

From the late 1800s until the end of World War One, around two thirds of our nation was massacred in acts of genocide, conducted by the Ottoman Turks and Kurdish insurgents - who wanted to eradicate our Christian presence, and free our lands from any future claims. In 1933, a year after Iraq became independent, another massacre in the town of Semelli occurred, where over 3,000 Assyrians were brutally murdered by the Iraqi army. Such prejudice against Assyrians has continued throughout the decades.

Assyrian persecution today
Like their ancestors, today’s Assyrians value education and many of these refugees have obtained university qualifications and worked in various professions. Their departure has contributed to a brain-drain in Iraq, which can only make it harder for that country to rebuild itself. Those that have stayed to assist international agencies that are trying to help rebuild Iraq, have become the target of extremist groups. They are constantly sent threatening letters instructing them to desist from their work for Westerners, their homes are bombed and their family members are stalked and murdered.

Many of our churches have been bombed. Threatening fatwas have been issues against our communities. Christian families have received instructions to send their daughters to local mosques to marry Muslim men or face violent retribution. By 2003, Assyrians, including Chaldeans and Syriacs, were estimated to be around 3% of the Iraqi population. However, today they represent up to 40% of the refugee population living outside of Iraq. We are looking at figures of up to 500,000 Christians living in camps. The population of Canberra is only around 330,000.

The work of the Assyrian Church and the need for additional Assistance
The Assyrian Church has, through its relief program, spent tens of thousands of dollars assisting Assyrians who have been internally displaced and refugees living in camps in other Middle Eastern countries. These funds are at present modest, but add to the constant financial support provided by Assyrians in the West to their families in the Middle East. Often when refugees arrive in Australia, one of their first objectives is to financially assist their family members (such as elderly parents) who have remained behind.

To give you an example of how this affects our people, when an Assyrian refugee woman arrived in Australia, she quickly found a job as a process worker to send money to her orphaned niece in Syria. This woman had breast cancer, but had decided not to stop work for over eight months while the cancer developed, because her niece had no one else to support her. The support provided by our newly arrived refugees to their families in the Middle East is quite a burden and adds to their stress in Australia.

Currently the need for assistance far exceeds the capacity of our Assyrian Church to provide support to our refugees in the Middle East. The impact is across all aspects of life as issues such as education, health, affordable housing and food become exasperated.

International agencies can best assist Assyrian refugees by working with the Assyrian Church and its aid body ACERO (Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organisation).

Solutions for Assyrian Christians at risk
The UN program for refugees has three components: Firstly, the resettlement of refugees (for example to Western countries); Secondly, the relocation of refugees in countries of asylum and Thirdly, to repatriate refugees to their country of origin. With regards to resettlement, only 1% of the applications for visas are approved. Even when visas have been granted, family members are torn apart and sent to different locations around the world.

One 22 year old refugee woman remarked that “My family has become the united nations.” When asked what she meant by that statement, she replied that her family was living together as refugees in Syria, but now her father and brother live in Germany, her older brother lives in Sweden, her mother and younger sister have been granted migration to Canada, and she is here in Australia all on her own. This story is repeated in the tens of thousands, tearing family bonds across the globe. Because they lack the financial means, we have learned from experience that many Assyrian families will not be reunited again.

The resettlement program must increase the number of visa applications and places like Australia can do a lot more, and reap the benefit of increasing their intake of Assyrian Christians. The resettlement program can also work to ensure that family members are allowed to migrate together, to assist their settlement in their newly adopted country.

The Assyrian community has a lot to offer Australia. The Assyrian community in Australia is about 40 years old and predominantly made of refugees who migrated over the years. Yet this small community has, through its own resources, established sporting and cultural clubs; built cathedrals and established parishes in Sydney and Melbourne; it has members who are in local councils and politics. The Assyrian Church has also built a private primary school and is starting the building of a private High School.

The Second component of the UN program, to relocate refugees in the country of asylum, is simply not an option. Refugees cannot integrate and live freely in those societies. Their status is often acknowledged as “Guests of the country”, and they are constantly at risk of being returned to Iraq when their temporary permits run out. Assyrian refugees are Christians living in Islamic countries, and as a result their status is even more vulnerable. Also, these host countries simply do not have the infrastructure to sustain the large number of refugees.

Repatriation is a viable option -only if Assyrians are allowed to govern themselves. Much like the Kurds were given a safe haven and later established the Kurdish Regional Government, Assyrians must be afforded the same right to self-determination;

Call for Assistance
We need people to assist us in organising the campaign to raise public interest, to establish contacts with the media and to lobby the Australian government. And any one who applies his or herself to this worthy cause will make a difference. I would encourage you to contact our Assyrian Church to obtain more information and link up with our efforts. Thank you for taking the time to listen to the Assyrians case and may God bless you in all your good work done for humanity.

Helpful links for contact -


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