“The Christians are Leaving” by Salim Abraham

Assyrians, the indigenous people of the Middle East, leave home

On a sizzling summer afternoon in 1974, my mother was trailing behind me, running hastily home to escape one of the stone battles that raged between neighbourhoods in Syria’s northeastern city of Qamishli.

Once we crossed the sand bridge that separated the Assyrian quarter from the rest of the city, we were out of the slingshots’ range.

This one was the last battle youngsters from the Assyrian quarter fought against Khanika, a neighboring Kurdish quarter, as the government soon tightened its policing of neighbourhoods.

The weapons in the battle were giant slingshots (called stone canons) and ghee can lids; the ammunition was stones. It was like a real war with trenches dug along the frontlines of the fighting neighbourhoods.

At the time, I was seven years old. I didn't understand what was going on; why such wars broke out. The only thing my mother told me was: "It's a fight between us and the Kurds."

I don’t remember the logic behind those fights and how they were planned or started. But I do recall that the Assyrian quarter was vibrant and buzzing with life and robust youngsters ready to defend it and shut it off to intruders.

See who the people in this photo are, here

“It was the most active period of my life,” recalls Ashour Ileya, 47, an Assyrian plumber who lives in the Assyrian quarter. “It was like we were doing something big, like defending our community.”

Then, more than 400 Assyrian Christian families lived in the neighbourhood’s mud houses, which sprawl into the eastern part of the city. Now, only 30 Assyrian families live there and only two churches are still standing.

Almost all Ileya’s friends and most of his relatives have left for the U.S and Europe. He is waiting for his American visa to be issued as well.

The overall population of Qamishli was around 90,000 in the mid 1970s, according to official statistics. Assyrians were estimated to represent more than half the city’s population. Today, Christian Assyrians represent slightly more than 20% of the city’s 300,000 people.

The country’s Assyrians are concentrated in the al-Jazeera region, about 400 miles northeast of Damascus. The region, the largest among Syria’s 14 provinces, includes Hasaka, al-Malikeya and Qamishli. They also exist in Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Iran in varying numbers.

The Assyrians once dominated the Middle East. In the seventh century B.C, their empire stretched from today’s Iraq through southern Turkey to the Mediterranean. They were among the first converts to Christianity and are divided into several churches, including the Catholic Chaldean, the Syriac Orthodox and Catholic and the Church of the East.

The Christian exodus from the Middle East came to light after the news of Iraqi Assyrians escaping the violence in their war-torn country following Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003 made it onto the international news agenda. Almost half their population fled Iraq, leaving behind only around 700,000.

But the Arab leaders remained silent to their plight. The most recent Arab summit in Damascus, in March 2008, took no notice of their dilemma. The final communiqué did not make any mention of the plight of either the Assyrians or the Arab Christians despite growing evidence that their very existence in the Middle East is targeted.

In Lebanon, once a majority Christian country, Christians represent only 34% of its population of four million people, according to the World Christian Database. The database, which bases its work on church estimates, says Arab Christians’ percentage in the Palestinian territories has also dropped from 5.3% in 1970 to 2.5% of 3.7 million Palestinians today.

In Jordan, a country of 5.4 million people, the Christian population dropped from 5% in 1970s to about 3% now, according to a U.S State Department report. But, in Egypt, the number of Copts – Egyptian Christians – range from 5.6 million, according to Egyptian government estimates, to 11 million people, according to Coptic Church estimates. Nonetheless, they complain of discrimination in the most populated Arab country of 80 million people. One example of this is that the government still restricts the building of churches in Egypt.

The Christian flight from Syria occurred in part for economic reasons. In the mid-1980s, the U.S and the European nations imposed crippling 12-year-long economic sanctions on the country after a British court accused Syrian officials of being involved in an attempt to plant a bomb aboard an Israeli El Al plane. Syrians stood in long lines in front of government-run retail stores to get bread, vegetables, fruits and even napkins and grease. At the time, the Assyrian quarter was changing face. The stream of water that used to flow from Jagjag, the river which splits Qamishli into two parts, ran permanently dry. And the neighbourhood’s Assyrian population was dwindling, too. It was losing a few families to the West each year, where they hoped to find a more prosperous life. Many of them were selling their homes to pay smugglers to get them out of the country. Yet, the neighbourhood still kept its livelihood, with about 250 families living there and a football team named after Faris al-Khouri, the only Christian prime minister in Syria’s history who held the post for one year until October 1945.

But gloomier days for the Assyrians of Syria were yet to unravel. In October 1986, 22 members of the Assyrian Democratic Organisation – founded in 1957 in Qamishli to promote Assyrian rights in Syria – were arrested for opposing the government’s official policy of Arabisation. They were released after six months in detention.

The clampdown prompted many more Assyrians to leave the country. A former ADO official, wishing to remain anonymous and now living in Canada, who was detained during the crackdown on his party’s leadership, said: “The impact was immense on us. We were tortured physically and psychologically. I was a pioneer against our people’s immigration from the country. The detention experience has turned me into immigration promoter.”

An agricultural engineer, he owned a vast farm with hundreds of trees, apple, apricot and vine, in a village thriving on the banks of Khabour River, several miles northwest of Hasaka city. He blagged his way out of the country only months after he was released in 1987.

Had he stayed, he would have been turned into an informant for the security apparatus, the Mukhabarat, he said.

In Syria, freedom of worship is maintained and Syriac, the language of Assyrians believed to have been spoken by Jesus Christ, is allowed to be taught in church schools. Yet, the government does not recognize their ethnic identity as Assyrians. It refers to them only as Christian Arabs.

The Assyrians exodus from the entire Middle East also has psychological reasons deeply rooted in history. Their communities in the Middle East have been oppressed by rulers in both the distant and recent past.

In 1914, the Ottomans slaughtered about 1.5 million Armenians, 750,000 Assyrians and 350,000 Pontiac Greeks and drove hundreds of thousands of Christians out of their homelands. The religious and ethnic tensions in the predominantly Muslim region continued for decades.

In 1933, the massacre of 3,000 Assyrians at the hands of the then-Iraqi government in Simile, a small Assyrian town near Mosul, prompted the displacement of about 34,000. Colonel Bakker Sedqi, a Kurd, led the campaign.

Survivors of those massacres helped build Qamishli and Hasaka in 1925 and about 36 villages, purely ethnic Assyrian, along the Khabour River, in 1936.

As I grew older, I learned that those stone battles witnessed as a seven-year-old, between the Assyrian quarter and Khanika, were a reflection of old grudges. Assyrians have suffered throughout history at the hands of Kurds, as well as Turks, Iranians and, sometimes, Arabs.

But the construction of Qamishli marked the end of their suffering. It became a safe heaven for them and a place to maintain their culture and way of life.

However, government policies of Arabisation and discrimination against ethnic minorities, including Kurds, as well as economic crises are pushing these minorities – especially Assyrians – to abandon their homes they built brick by brick.

Looking at the four-story building rising above his home with new inhabitants, Ileya, the plumber, wondered why his community has dwindled so quickly.

“Nothing is left for us,” Ileya has said over a glass of beer in his home in the Assyrian quarter, “not even those stones we fought with.”  

Comments (121)


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101. Karim said:

it’s my choice and the chocie of so many other Syrians, you can;t deny it.

Offended ,you are right and people like you are seen in all the brutal dictatorships.The problem is when these dictatorships end …the same kind of people curse the former ruler.

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July 17th, 2008, 8:29 pm

 

102. Karim said:

Alex,it’s possible…anyway he seems to be cultivated.
Now he promised that 2009 ,will be the year of the national reconciliation and political reforms ,according to his past i’m pessimistic… Dalila,Kilo,Sarem,Seif,the Bunnis are in urgent need to be freed and many others,they must not wait 2009.
If Alex ,one of those was your father ,how would you have interpreted bashar asking them to apologize ….this is a shame ..he should stop keep repeating such non senses and bad excuses.

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July 17th, 2008, 10:21 pm

 

103. Majhoool said:

Karim,

I had many friends buying their way to success in Syrian Universities. The price to be paid was anything from lard to olive oil, to 100$.

The sons of Mukhabarat heads, used to succeed by taking exams in the privacy of their homes and simply hand out the paper to the professor. They even used to brag about it. No one dared to fail them.

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July 17th, 2008, 10:25 pm

 

104. Alex said:

Karim,

I also have hopes for some clearly perceptible reforms in 2009 … nothing revolutionary though… and the extent of those reforms WILL still depend on outside forces making peace with Syria (including the Saudis and Americans).

I said before that I understand why they put Kilo and Seif and Dalila in jail but I am sure there were other ways to convey the same message. It is sad and disappointing that they are still in jail.

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July 17th, 2008, 10:38 pm

 

105. Alex said:

AIG

I have been releasing your comments the past few days … but it seems you don’t understand … again today you are out of control (in many ways)

I deleted some of your messages in the moderation folder, I edited some others (removing your old propaganda tactics) and I released the parts where you are remotely making sense and not being excessively aggressive.

And it is 4 comments per day until you learn to stop calling everyone here a supporter of child murderous while you claim that you never support the killing of a child.

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July 17th, 2008, 10:46 pm

 

106. offended said:

Karim.
Khaseet, these people you’re talking about are the followers of Khaddam and the likes. I may have many gripes with the regime but would defend it against any foreign intervention (if that what you’re hoping for). Not everyone plays the dirty game of flipping sides at convenience.

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July 17th, 2008, 10:51 pm

 

107. Karim said:

Offended :these people you’re talking about are the followers of Khaddam and the likes

Ha
Khaddam was their best friend and before hafez asad coup against salah jadid so what about the opportunists in majless el cha3b ?It’s a friendship of an half century between Khaddam and Hafez.
believe me that when the road will turn they will be the first to spat on them.
Offended ,about the foreign intervention ….it was hafez with his soviet made weapons and the international cover who bombed a whole syrian city on the head of its AMININ inhabitants ,such level of hatred even the worse zionist can not do it.And after the bombing ,they did the great sin with the disarmed children and women…and be sure that it’s not people like Rami and Maher who will fight against the foreigner invaders …they have already forged western passports and western ID s.They even oblige their wives to give birth in the west …Offended i think that you know the reason behind this.

Alex bey ,Bashar should stop his false excuses …Syria is in very urgent need of true and effective reforms and can not wait any more.And he should accept the idea that these reforms are in contradiction with his minority family rule.

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July 18th, 2008, 9:13 am

 

108. Karim said:

Majhool ,very sad.they perverted Syria at all levels.

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July 18th, 2008, 9:48 am

 

109. Karim said:

Alex:I said before that I UNDESRTAND why they put Kilo and Seif and Dalila

Alex ,if they put your father,brother ,mother or sister in prison,you would have understood this injustice against you and Syria ?

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July 18th, 2008, 11:00 am

 

110. offended said:

Karim,
If we are to have a constructive discussion here (and not a mutes’ exchange), then you’ve got to listen and please answer my questions with the same clarity and honesty that I am answering yours:

Do you, or do you not, support a foregin intervention to cause a regime change in Syria?

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July 18th, 2008, 2:10 pm

 

111. Mazen said:

Alex,

I hope the boxes have not been closed yet. You have my vote. Now you have four for sure.

What’s your next move?

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July 18th, 2008, 2:16 pm

 

112. Karim said:

Do you, or do you not, support a foregin intervention to cause a regime change in Syria?

Offended i’m not against the idea,foreign support,at least logistical support,this is needed but how?

Israel is against regime change in Syria ,the arab regimes even if they hate each others ,they know that if an arab country falls ,we will have the domino effect and the democracy wave will reach their countries so this support will not come from them.

Now ,don’t ask me to forecast the future ….how the syrian regime will end ,Only Allah Knows .

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July 18th, 2008, 2:42 pm

 

113. offended said:

Karim,
You seem to me in a dire need for a crash course on inter-arab relations. Saudi and Egypt have been working very hard to destabilize Syria by any mean. Lebanese leaders, amongst which your role model Ahmad Fatfat is a joker, were calling for American invasion of syria. Now I am not saying that the fall of the regime in Syria, God forbids, is not going to cause ripples and trouble to everyone. But to suggest that the whole world is conspiring against the Syrian people in favor of the regime, is ludicrous and stupid. Who has given you the right to represent the Syrian people in asking for foreign intervention? couple of days ago you were lamenting how the iraqi women have been recruited to work as prostitutes in the brothels of the regime, while you forgot that it is the American invasion who made it impossible for these women to live safely inside iraq, or live with dignity outside it. Do you wish the same destiny for your 7areem?

You make me sick, I don’t wish to continue this discussion.

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July 18th, 2008, 5:02 pm

 

114. Naji said:

Really…!!!!

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July 18th, 2008, 5:56 pm

 

115. Alex said:

Karim,

I said “I understand” but I do not support.

And I have to ask you … why do you care about a Kilo in jail if you are willing to potentially witness an Iraq-like situation in Syria post a US invasion (or “outside intervention”)?

Mazen,

Thank you … four votes is a good start. The problem is that in the Middle East 51% won’t do … I need 99% at least to be elected.

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July 18th, 2008, 7:43 pm

 

116. Karim said:

Offended,we are not in better situation than the palestinians or the iraqis .Look at yourself ,you fear asadian regime more than the iraqis fear the americans and their puppets.
As for the fate of the syrian women under bashar regime.

She is the daughter of Akram Horani.

http://www.menassat.com/?q=ar/news-articles/3625-

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July 18th, 2008, 8:37 pm

 

117. Karim said:

And I have to ask you … why do you care about a Kilo in jail if you are willing to potentially witness an Iraq-like situation in Syria post a US invasion (or “outside intervention”)?

Alex …..they will never dare to invade Syria(or countries like Egypt,Algeria,Morroco and even Jordan) because they will not be able to play sunna/shia(do we have sadr,hakim or nasrallah in Syria ?)and the history of the syrian people is known when it comes to resist against the invaders.And don’t forget that we have boundaries with occupied Palestine and Bashar regime is the best neighbour available for them.Alex,i don’t fear the people of Hama,Aleppo ,Damascus …the problem is within some of these minorities who are not at ease among the other syrians,with their religion,their culture… ….and to be clear ,they are mostly found among the sectarians in the alawite community;and hafez and i think bashar too are part of them.The danger for Syria is more from those than from the outside.

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July 18th, 2008, 8:51 pm

 

118. offended said:

Good grief. The sectarian spewing foray has started. Plug your ears everyone.

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July 18th, 2008, 10:32 pm

 

119. Karim said:

Offended ,i call a spade a spade. ,i’m for Syria not a an alawite regime of paranoiac sectarians ,the essence of the power is in the hand of a minority in a minority.The regime in Syria is sectarian not me and it must be exposed as it is.Do u deny that because of your parent religion you are disadvantaged in many fields ?or it’s ok min ma akhad emi is my father ?

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July 18th, 2008, 11:44 pm

 

120. norman said:

By the way Alex, I , so far , found no objection to your rule , So you got 100% , And for that we are proud of you , Just remember us in your Kingdom.

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July 19th, 2008, 12:34 am

 

121. Gilgamesh and Nimrod Gabara said:

The Assyrians are the indigenous people of the entire region of Western part of Asia, whereby the Mediterranean sea falls to its west. Even the Maronite are 100 % Assyrians knowing that Mar-Maron, the ascetic monk who established the Maronite Church was originally from Western Assyria (South-East Turkey today), emigrated with his own followers to Mount Lebanon due to heathen persecution inflicted upon them earlier due to paganism of Roman empire. The last Assyrian Royal successor, Prince Assur-Uballit II (611-605), was in fact defeated by the invaders in what today called “Tur-Abden” Assyrian compound word which means (Mountain of Worshipers. His defenders were the local peasants whom fought the aggressive invaders with only their agricultural tools trying to repel the enemy, and defend their prince. That’s historic facts

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April 2nd, 2013, 8:27 pm

 

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