TORONTO (CCN) — With anywhere between 240 and 350 Assyrian Christians kidnapped by ISIS as it swept up Syria’s Al Khabour River in late February — quickly taking the villages of Tal Shamiran, Tal Tawil, Al Hourmiz and more villages surrounding the town of Tal Tamer — Assyrian-Canadians are living a bad dream and a recurring one.
“The helplessness is pretty rampant in our community right now, across the globe,” Aneki Nissan, spokesperson for the Centre for Canadian Assyrian Relations told The Catholic Register.
“This situation is very sad,” said Mar Emmanuel Yosip, archbishop of the Assyrian Church of the East in Canada. “What we can see is that people are executed, plundered and looted. I mean, it’s a very hard reality.”
The U.S.-led bombing mission against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has intensified attacks in the Hasaka region, but that gives Mar Emanuel little comfort knowing that Assyrians are caught between ISIS and the Turkish-based air fleet. It makes them as likely to see their villages flattened by aerial bombardment as by ISIS’s marauding troops.
Drawing from sources across the region, Michel Constantin, Beirut-based director of operations for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, reports that 900 families have fled their villages, with 700 now in Hasaka City and another 200 in Qamishli, the second largest city in the governorate. The CNEWA responded immediately with $36,000 (U.S.) to provide food packages to be distributed by the Assyrian Society just across the border in Dhoc, Iraq.
These new refugees are the grandchildren of survivors of the Simele massacre of 1933. Almost as soon as Iraq gained a seat at the League of Nations it unleashed a brutal assault on Assyrians in northern Iraq. The Assyrians had been armed and supported by British Mandate forces and promised self-determination right up to 1932.
The killing spree of 1933 included rapes, beheadings and bayonet attacks on children and pregnant women in 63 villages. It inspired the League of Nations to make a first attempt at defining genocide as a crime under international law. By 1953 Assyrians who were feeling unsafe in Iraq had moved across the border into French-controlled Syria to establish new villages in Hasaka governorate — the villages now being cleared by ISIS.
The 1933 massacre was partly fallout from earlier ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Young Turks in 1914-1915 and then another 1924 massacre ordered by Turkey’s founding secularist president Ataturk.
“Some historians, they call our church the martyred church,” said Mar Emmanuel.
This time the Assyrian diaspora feels it’s witnessing a final chapter — the obliteration of their ancient indigenous tribal culture in the Middle East, and the withering of one of the oldest expressions of Christianity on the planet.
“We’re very ill equipped. We’re peaceful Christian people. We don’t have an army. Whatever arms we have is very minimal. Whatever military experience our soldiers have is even less than that,” said Aneki Nissan. “We’re just not equipped to defend ourselves.”
On Feb. 22, the small and poorly armed Syriac Military Council chalked up a minor victory in its efforts to protect its people from ISIS. They launched an attack against the ISIS frontline in Tal Hamis and went on to liberate 22 villages from ISIS control, according to Constantin. ISIS counterattacked on Feb. 23 and simply rolled through the region taking village after village.
Constantin has reports of civilian casualties and church burnings in the villages of Til Hirmis, Til Shamiram, Qabre Shamiye and Til Khebish.
A week into the crisis, it’s hard to tell whether the displacement of Assyrians from Hasaka villages is permanent or temporary, said CNEWA of Canada executive director Carl Hetu. ISIS has released 19 of its Christian prisoners, a few old men and women according to the New York Times.
“The fact is that people are not going back to their homes right now,” Hetu said. “They are leaving their homes and are not about to go back there.”
Judging by past ISIS forays into Christian territory, there may not be much to return to, said Hetu.
“What we observe is a high level of destruction of everything that doesn’t fit their ideology. It’s clear they want to reshape it (the religious and cultural landscape of the region). They want to erase whatever is not part of what they think should be.”
University of Toronto Syriac studies professor Amir Harrak was already fearful of the culture and history being lost before he watched a Feb. 25 video posted to the Internet by ISIS showing the group smashing statues and artifacts in the Mosul Cultural Museum — artifacts that date back to the pre-Christian Assyrian and Akkadian civilizations.
“They smashed everything, because Muhammad said so. That is what they say,” said Harrak. “If they were to get into the Royal Ontario Museum they would destroy it to the ground. It’s awful. It’s awful.”
Assyrians in Syria and Iraq want only one thing — a way out, said Nissan.
“They want more done in the sense of getting people out of there,” he said. “They have nothing to go back to. Their churches are burned down. Their homes are burned down. They have no food. Appeals are being done here, but it seems like you’re shouting to deaf ears, really.”
Canada is not doing enough to get Assyrians out of the region quickly, Nissan said. His family has had members head for Sweden after months of frustration trying to reunite with family in Canada.
“Europe is opening doors a lot faster,” he said.
The problem runs deeper than whether or not the Christian villages can be rebuilt. It’s whether the region is willing to live with a Christian minority.
“This isn’t going to stop,” said Nissan. “It’s systematic. It’s an ongoing genocide against the Christians since 1915. It’s just continuous. Right now, I think this is a really, really hard blow that we just took.”
Assyrian, Chaldean, Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic bishops are fearful of one more exodus.
“They can’t force people to stay. Everyone is free. But again, it’s the existence of the church,” said Mar Emmanuel. “So the message is to remain.”
The archbishop sees new faces in his congregation every week as he celebrates divine liturgy at Assyrian churches in Toronto, Hamilton, London and Windsor. No bishop could be sadder to see his congregation grow.
“The church doesn’t publicly support migration from Iraq and Syria, but those who leave the church tries to support,” he said.
There are 1,800 Assyrian families in the Greater Toronto Area who are attached to the Cathedral Church of St. Mary near Pearson International Airport. Mar Emmanuel estimates a total of about 4,000 Assyrian Church of the East Families in Canada — all but 200 of them in Ontario.
On the one hand, life in the West lifts the fear Assyrians have lived with for so long.
“We could practise more freely our religion, but in a way our destiny is uncertain because of losing many aspects of our culture,” Mar Emmanuel said.
The whole Christian world needs to know what it is losing. The Syriac language of both Assyrian liturgy and daily life evolved from the language of Jesus. It is sometimes called Eastern Aramaic. The Assyrian Christians are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, with roots in the first century. They were the only Christians to flourish in the Sasanian Empire. Assyrians boast apostolic succession.
Since 1994 the Assyrians and the Catholics have agreed that they share the same understanding of Christ as fully divine and fully human, sweeping away a theological misunderstanding that had stood since the fifth century.
“The things that unite us are much more than the things (that divide), which are mostly cultural,” said Mar Emmanuel.