My people are dying

Assyrian

I was in the newsroom watching tv coverage earlier this month of the suicide bombing at a Coptic church in Egypt.  It saddened me, but also I was  inspired to write about similar killings of the Assyrians and Chaldeans in Iraq.  Thank you to all who sent me emails and who commented on the Daily News site. Here is my column (Daily News, Jan. 2011) .

I am watching my people die.

On television, in photographs, I see images of hastily built wooden coffins resting upon the shoulders of the anguished. They carry their fathers and mothers, sons and daughters and other relatives to burial grounds where the earth is now crowded with the murdered.

Along with those funerals comes the realization that soon, we may no longer exist.

I am Assyrian-American. For those of us born here, there was a certain comfort knowing that distant relatives still lived on our ancestral lands in Northern Iraq. They are our last link to the original homeland, since there no longer exists a formal country known as Assyria.

Once, before the Internet and when I was a teenager, I asked a Burbank librarian if there were any books about contemporary Assyrians.

Assyrians don’t exist anymore, she said.

“But I’m here,” I told her. She did not hear me.

That was one of the reasons why I became a reporter. No one knew who or what I was. Very few wrote about my people in newspapers or magazines, and if they did, it was a very big deal. Those articles, worn and torn by many eager readers, really got around to places where Assyrians had built churches and communities: from Chicago to Detroit, Modesto to the San Fernando Valley.

Now, there are new articles being e-mailed, but for reasons few of us want to read.

On Oct. 31, nearly 60 Assyrians, Chaldeans and other Christians were killed by extremists while worshipping in a church in Iraq. A string of attacks targeting homes and families have continued on.

Even after what happened on Sept.11, 2001, I can’t imagine a church massacre such as that happening in the United States.

But it happened in Baghdad, where sectarian violence persists.

While the attacks are condemned by Muslim and Christian alike, little has been done by any government to punish the perpetrators.

Assyrians are the indigenous people of Mesopotamia, presently Iraq, where the last and largest concentration of Aramaic-speaking people in the world have lived for thousands of years. They also were one of the first ethnic groups to adopt Christianity in the first century A.D.

But since the start of the Iraq War in 2003, extremists have chiseled away at the true meaning of peace and coexistence by threatening Assyrians in retaliation: Convert to Islam, leave, or die, they say.

There were stories of beheadings, rape, and killings. In 2008, more than 15,000 Christians were driven out of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. These killings, this war, is not only about two religious groups.

It is about an ancient people and language, already in a precarious state, that will soon be extinguished. It also is about a dramatic shift in the historical landscape of the Middle East. But the issue barely has been reported. No one with the power to do something is listening and for that, killings continue and will go on.

On New Year’s Day, more than 20 people were killed inside a Coptic Christian Church in Egypt by a suicide bomber. President Barack Obama called the attack “outrageous.” It is outrageous, for deeper reasons than he and others may want to face.

Several times as a reporter, I have written about artwork inspired by crimes against humanity, and I learned much about how history repeats itself, especially if no one listens. Artist Kaloust Guedel, an Armenian-American, once told me that if the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians beginning in 1915 had been recognized for a genocide, then future atrocities such as the Holocaust, the Pol Pot massacres and those in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur could have been avoided.

One day in the near future, a child will tell a teacher or another adult that he or she is Assyrian. The response likely will be automatic: Assyrians don’t exist anymore.

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