Despite ISIS, Assyrians continue to fight for the right to exist

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As we come up on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, a similar genocide has erupted.  This time, mass media stepped up and told the story of how ISIS is attempting to wipe out Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs and other minorities from the Middle East.  But I’ve written about the topic so many times, I’ll simply let my latest story speak for itself.  From my story, Daily News, Feb. 26, 2015:

The woman who entered St. Mary’s Assyrian Church of the East on Thursday morning kissed the foot of a cross, then cried out a tearful plea.

“Please, God, please help the innocent,” she said in an ancient language inside the San Fernando Valley church. “Please save them.”

Her prayers reflect an ache that has settled into the hearts and minds of Assyrians far and wide since Monday, when the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, pillaged three dozen Assyrian Christian villages along the Khabur River in northeastern Syria. They burned down homes and churches, kidnapped more than 200 people, mostly women and children, and threatened to execute them if the Kurdish militias in the region do not release several ISIS militant prisoners.

It’s the latest Middle East crisis for Assyrians, who were among the first Christians in the world, said Cor-Bishop Father George Bet Rasho, who heads St. Mary’s Parish in Tarzana.

Bet Rasho said the kidnappings and the displacement of 3,000 people have prompted a worldwide call for Assyrian churches in California and across the nation to hold a special prayer vigil Friday night. His hope is that people of all faiths in the community will join them at 7:30 p.m. at St. Mary’s at 5955 Lindley Ave. in Tarzana to pray for the helpless.

“We’re praying that ISIS will not parade these women and children in cages and burn them,” he said, referring to the Jordanian pilot who was burned alive by ISIS earlier this month. “We’re hoping for a miracle.”

To say the Assyrians’ plight is dire is an understatement, Bet Rasho and others said. 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.

But after the start of the second Gulf War in 2003, an estimated half-million Assyrians fled to Syria because of a surge of Islamic extremist attacks against them and other Christian minorities. Then the Syrian civil war began, and the ranks of ISIS swelled.

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Since the takeover in June of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, ISIS has targeted the Christian population, whose faith has been present for almost 2,000 years. Assyrians were forced to flee again.

The U.S. State Department this week released a statement condemning the militants’ actions “in the strongest possible terms.”

U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, of Burbank, is the top Democrat of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He introduced a bill recently for use of military force against ISIS that would prohibit the use of American ground forces in a combat mission. Schiff said the White House is trying to determine how many people have been kidnapped, where they have been taken and ways to liberate them. There also are ongoing efforts to support the Christian and non-Christian groups fighting to protect the villages, Schiff said.

“People are not only being kidnapped, but women are being forced into slavery, men are murdered and churches are burned in an effort to eradicate their history,” he said Thursday.

“Every effort has to be made to protect these communities, to seek the safe return of those kidnapped, and to stop this evil that goes by the name of Islamic State,” Schiff said.

Schiff, who has sought U.S. recognition for the Armenian Genocide, said he can understand why Christians in the Middle East have drawn parallels to that event that began exactly a century ago this year. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians from the Ottoman Empire died from 1915-23 in what was called the first genocide of the 20th century. Though the Turkish government still denies it, Armenians say the killings involved the systematic cleansing of Christians, which included Assyrians and Pontic Greeks.

“It does harken back for both Armenians and Assyrians to terrible chapters in the past in efforts to exterminate them,” Schiff said. “I’ve been concerned about these communities ever since civil war began in Syria. We’re only seeing that trend continue and accelerate with the execution of the Coptic Christians, with the kidnapping of Assyrians, and the displacement of Armenians in Kessab.”

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Members of A Demand for Action, a group founded last year to raise awareness and create a safe haven in Iraq for indigenous people and minorities, said they will continue to press legislators to make sure some action is taken to avoid the deaths of those kidnapped.

“We are devastated, frightened and horrified,” said Nuri Kino, founder of the group. Kino said families of the abducted who call relatives’ cellphones in Syria hear the phrase “Allahu akbar,” or “God is Great. This is the Islamic State.”

“We will not rest before we have the help of the world leaders,” Kino said. “If ISIS increases its power it, will be the worst threat to the world since the Nazis. The president of the United States needs to speak out and save our victims. Our militias need more support. We and the Kurds together are the only ones who can save those areas. U.S. has to send airstrikes to give us assistance and boots on the ground.”

Meanwhile religious leaders such as Bet Rasho say they are often confronted by questions of faith, and by those who express anger and frustration in a world that seems to have forgotten them.

“Sometimes we don’t know the reasons for things,” Bet Rasho said. “But we do know there is a God who provides us with the air we breathe, that there is more good in the world than evil and that we can’t give up. When we give up hope, that is when we lose.”

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