Assyrian priest fears for survival of Christianity in the Middle East
Pope Francis will offer a Mass next month to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. For one priest in Iraq, at least, that genocide is not a thing of the past.
The Ottoman Empire in 1915 went after not only Armenian Christians but Assyrians as well. A priest of the Assyrian Church of the East, Archimandrite Emanuel Youkhana, is quick to point out its relevance to what’s happening today.
Speaking about Christians living in villages along the Khabur River in northeastern Syria, who were forced from their homes recently by the advancing forces of the Islamic State group and who anxiously await news of more than 250 of their relatives and neighbors who are being held by ISIS, Father Youkhana says, “Their grandfathers survived the Christian genocide of 1915…. The survivors fled to Dohuk, which became part of the new state of Iraq. A year after Iraq became a member of the League of Nations, in 1932, on August 6 and 7, 1933, a new massacre and the first genocide in the new Iraq took place in Semele, near Duhok, against Christian Assyrians.”
Ironically, August 6 and 7 of 2014 saw the Islamic State group take control of Christian areas of northern Iraq, and Father Youkhana’s organization, the Christian Aid Program in Northern Iraq, has been helping to meet the needs of thousands of people taking refuge in and around Erbil.
Now, after 100 years, the grandsons of the Ottoman-era Assyrians are trying to survive a new massacre, Father Youkhana says.
“Three massacres for the same people in one century,” said the priest. “Enough of this open ended persecution.”
He points out that the current onslaught is accompanied by the destruction of Assyrian historical artifacts in places like Mosul, Hatra and Nimrud.
“If our history is being destroyed and our historical sites are demolished, and our present is being targeted and we are being massacred, can we have a future?” he asks. “Is there any future if there is no past and no present?”
Father Youkhana spoke by phone Thursday about the Khabur River valley captives, the ideology behind ISIS, and what the international community must do to help the Christian community survive in its historic Middle Eastern homeland.
Could you review what happened to the Christian hostages from the Khabur River area? How were they abducted? What is the latest?
On February 23, IS managed to advance and take over the southern part of the Khabur River, the Assyrian region where we have 35 villages. Half of them are on the southern part of the Khabur, half on the northern part. So they advanced to the southern part and were able to control all the villages there, but because of the river, thank God, they were unable to advance to the northern part. They were able to advance only to two of the villages because the level of the water helped them in that region—Tel Jezira and Tel Gouran. Villages in the northern parts were saved from the attacks, but of course people were scared, so the whole region of Khabur fled—some 1,200 families. Now they are displaced: around 1000 are in the city of Hassakah, and another 200 in Qamishli.
As to the hostages, according to the early figures we had we’re speaking about 51 families. But then we learned there were hostages from other villages, so in total there were around 287 captives.
Thank God one week later—last week—19 were released and then another four the next day. So 23 were released, and around 250 are still captives.
We have had long decades of peaceful coexistence in the region of Khabur, as a Church, as a community. We’ve lived in peace and good relations with all our neighbors, whether Arabs or Sunnis or Kurds, so we invest on this long history of peaceful coexistence, that there will be hopefully a peaceful release of the captives. There are women and children