By: Ghassan Hanna
This is a modified and revised version of the
article published in al-Muntada magazine in October 1998.
(re-posted Oct. 3, 1999).
Iraq, that compromises most of historical Beth Nahrain, is a country that’s made of four major ethnic groups and a lesser number of smaller ones. They are in accordance to their size, Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians/Chaldeans, and Turkmans. There are also Armenians and fewer Persians. The Arabs have been ruling Iraq intermittently since it fell to the Arab invasion and occupation during the rise of Islam at the end of the seventh century. When the modern state of Iraq was formed in 1921, the British who drew the borders (and actually created the state itself) continued the policies of the Ottomans before them. They too, gave the power to rule this new state to the Sunni Muslims Arabs, since the Arabs constituted the majority of the population of the three Ottoman provinces (Mosel, Baghdad, and Basra) that made up the current day state of Iraq. With a country encompassing several ethnic groups and many more religious sects and differing religions, problems were bound to happen. Unfortunately, this Sunni Arab elite neither had the correct vision nor an “all Iraqi” patriotic sense of sharing the land and power with the different ethnic and religious groups that made up the new Iraq. Acts and laws were instituted that gave differential treatment for the Arabs over other ethnic groups. History books were rewritten to teach the new generation of Iraqis that the history of Iraq actually starts with the Arab Muslim invasion and everything else before it is “..like bringing a Mummy from death..” as Satea’ al-Hussary, the father of Arab nationalism in Iraq stated.
Needless to say, these chauvinistic and racist policies of successive Arab governments resulted in several uprisings by the Kurds who were always aided by a strong participation of the Assyrians/Chaldeans of northern Iraq. With the coming of the Baath government to power, those racist policies did not essentially change. The policy of repressing the Kurdish national aspirations did not change fundamentally, actually it was magnified in scope and more ruthlessly applied, however, their dealings with our Assyrian/Chaldean people took a sharp turn. History books were changed and rewritten. Hammurabi, Assur Banipal, Nubuchadnesser ethnic origins were struck by the censors’ pen and magically changed to that of an Arabic blood and ancestry. Iraq’s native peoples are suddenly called Arabs. Iraqi census authorities no longer recognize the existence of an Assyrian/Chaldean ethnicity. Actually, they were even forced to register as either Arabs (in the areas with Arab majority) or Kurdish in northern Iraq. Laws that were enacted, mainly for propaganda purposes, like the Decree for Cultural Rights of Syriac Speaking People, quickly saw themselves collecting dust at the shelves of security offices. In addition to that, a major campaign was unleashed to prey on the religious differences between the followers of the Chaldean Church and those of the Assyrian Eastern Church, by which the former was targeted extensively for a thorough and complete Arabisation. Unfortunately, that campaign saw significant success among followers of the Chaldean Church. This Baathist success can not be attributed mainly to its own mechanisms as much as to its ability to take advantage of several factors that existed (and still exist) on the Chaldean front. Some of those factors can be stated as:
1. A generally weak nationalistic
feelings among the followers of the Chaldean Church which can be attributed,
among others, to the policies of the church itself. Some of the reasons are:
a) The Catholic Chaldean
Church in its theological wars for many centuries tried hard to “alienate”
or “protect” its
followers from the “impure” and even “heretical” religious practices of their ethnic brothers and sisters in the
Assyrian Church had an unintended side effect. That is, the Chaldeans of today look with deep suspicion,
religiously and otherwise, towards their brethren in the Assyrian Church of the East (same is true from
"Nestorians" towards Chaldeans). Coupled with the name of "Chaldeans” popularized by the Catholic Church
in 1552 in reference to its Mesopotamian Catholic followers . The Catholic Church's confusion stemed from the
fact that our people used both Assyrian and Chaldean to refer to themselves, however, the Catholic Church
solidified the division between the two names when it exclusively used and encouraged Chaldean to refer to its
Mesopotamian subjects leaving Assyrian for the British to popularize when it applied it to those "Nesotrians"
who stayed with their original mother church). That name was interpreted by some of its followers as meaning
“descendants of the Chaldeans of antiquity only” and hence, not connected with the Assyrians. While such
argument does not stand any logical examination nor has any historical support, it’s a reality that concerned
parties admit to its strong presence. The Chaldeans of antiquity lived in southern Iraq and mostly among the
marshes bordering Iran, while today’s followers of the Chaldean Church are descendants of historical Assyria, in
northern Iraq. Actually, mainly from villages surrounding Nineveh, capital of old Assyria. It’s ludicrous to claim
that the Chaldeans of antiquity left their ancestral homelands in southern Iraq and marched to the Assyrian villages
in the north and ethnically cleansed all its inhabitants. It's also silly to claim pure blood connection to any one of our
Forefathers. Add to it, centuries of emotional animosity towards their brethren, the followers of the Assyrian
Church of the East who go by the name Assyrian and who originally were referred to as “Nestorians” (By the
same token, many of the followers of the Assyrian Church have just as much suspicion and religious animoisty
towards their Chaldean and Syriac brothers. Hence, why it's so hard for many of them accepting the results of US
Census 2000 new category). In any case, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Babylonians, Akkadians, Amorites, Aramaeans,
and Sumerians are tribes of the same nation, and we Chaldeans/Assyrians/Syriacs are descendants of those tribes
and fighting over which of our Fathers' names is more appropriate for us is ludicrous. All the names are beautiful.
All the names are great and glorious.
b. The other reason behind
the “Chaldeans” weak nationalistic feelings, is the over zealous Catholic
mission of the Chaldean Church which stressed out the “religious” belonging of its followers over their “ethnic”
one. Hence, when the Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, Mar Rofael BeDaweed was asked about the ethnic
background of his church followers, his answer was “We are neither Chaldeans nor Assyrians. We are
Christians!” Saying that Mar BeDaweed still stressed out the fact that “..we are one people and one blood
despite the different names”. In a world that’s undergoing a storm of national awakenings of oppressed ethnic
groups coupled with the needs of celebrating one’s ethnic heritage, the Chaldean Church calls to “Christianhood
seems to resonate with that of the Communist’s calls to “Internationalism”. This, of course, is adding more
confusion to the “ethnic” belonging of its followers. But then, hasn’t the Church message and agenda always
been fighting for Christianity? Unfortunately, while the Church’s religious agenda has always been very clear,
it’s the followers’ interpretation that is being considered here.
2. The second reason
behind the Baathist success of its “Arabisation scheme” is the lack of
any political movement
on the “Chaldean” side. While many followers of the Chaldean Church were (and still are) very active in many
Iraqi political parties (Communists, Baathists, and even Kurdish) there’s still an astonishing vacuum of a
nationalist movement among those followers. There’s no political movement that fights for our people’s rights in
Iraq. Actually, we see “Chaldeans” willing to fight for Kurdish, Arabic, and every other ethnic groups’ rights in
the world, but shy away from fighting for their own people’s rights. Actually, some even attack any nationalist
who fights for our own national rights and accuses them of either “selling themselves to the Assyrian side” or
calls them simply “a bunch of extremists”.
While the reasons behind such absence
of “Chaldean” political movements are deep rooted in the “ethnic
confusion” of the followers of the Chaldean Church, there are still other factors to consider:
a) The Chaldean Church
in its religious zeal to “limit the exposure” or “contain” its followers
from the unaccepted
views of “the other side”, have (and still do) exercise a strict control over all cultural and civil activities of its
followers. This gave the impression that the church will hinder and discourage any activity that does not give it a
complete or at least a supervisory control over it. In other words, the followers lacked “independent initiatives”,
and since politics is not an area that the Church prefers entering into, hence “Chaldean” political activities were
generally discouraged. Add to that the possibility of loss of full control over its followers to such movements.
Saying that, lately, there has been a movement within the Chaldean Church to recognize and encourage the need for
such a political entity especially with the Iraqi government new political emphasis on an ultra Arab natioalism
mixed with an over zealous Islamic tone. Iraqi media currently uses more Islamic verses than any other time
during the last 80 years of modern Iraq. Now, whether the Iraqi rulers believe in Islam is another matter.
However, by such emphasis they are inadvertently encouragiung the Islamic movment and tendencies in the Iraqi
society. Judging by "how Islam is being used or has been used" by the different governments against
"non-Muslims", our people should expect nothing good from such religious trend.
b) The massacre of Semel in
1933 seems to have an advert impact on the followers of the Chaldean Church.
similar consequences befell the “Chaldeans” who tried to further distance themselves from the victims of those
massacres, the Assyrian followers of the Church of the East. However, their sense of need for political action to
improve the lot of their people did not prevent them from joining Iraq’s political movement. They reckoned that
fighting under “an all Iraqi” political movement will not expose their people to massacres of the scale of Semel
with the perpetrators hailed as “national heroes” by the government and its media.
The above main reasons resulted in having the largest group of our Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac nation practically locked out of political decision making, especially with other Iraqi political groups. Its lack of contribution to the rest of the Assyrian political movement weakened and limited its resources to fight for our people’s national rights. The lack of any “Chaldean” political movement is significantly felt on the Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac Street. The result is our people are still divided among different religious denominations; we still lack a united leadership. Add to that the lack of a clearly defined goal and a united commitment to fight for our God given rights in our ancestors’ land in Beth Nahrain. All this resulted in having our people’s cause either ignored or lightly considered not only by the Iraqi government but as well as some of its own opponents. The third largest ethnic group in Iraq, the Assyrian/Chaldeans, is not even recognized as an ethnic group by the Baathist government of Iraq nor by several “opposition” groups. We are either called “Christian minority”, “Syriac speaking people” or at best “Taifa” (a Sect in English)!!
Its high time that our Assyrian/Chaldean organizations meet and agree on a clearly defined united position that secure our national rights in our ancestors land Beth Nahrain. Only in a united and a realistic agenda can we rally our people to fight for their rights. As we well know, if we don’t fight for our rights, no one will give them to us on a golden plate, especially when many politically hostile groups surround us. Some of those demands should include:
1. Creating a
“Self-rule area” in northern Iraq for our Assyrian/Chaldean people that
include the areas inhabited
mostly by our people in Nineveh (Mosel), Arbel, and Nohadra (Dahouk).
2. The declaration
by the Iraqi government through a change in the constitution that recognizes
Assyrian/Chaldean nation as one that has an equal footing with its other neighbors, the Arabic, Kurdish, and
Turkman nations i.e. Assyrians/Chaldeans are a national minority and not a “religious” one.
3. The abolishment
by the Iraqi government of all laws and decrees that discriminate against
Assyrian/Chaldean people due to ethnic or religious background.
4. Our people should
have the right to learn and teach our Aramaic language in schools where
the majority of the
students are Assyrians/Chaldeans. We should also be allowed to publish newspapers, print books, broadcast
through radio and TV our own Aramaic-based entertainment and educational programs.
5. The Iraqi government
should stop "re-writing" history and "Arabising" it to fit the agenda of
the ultra Arab
nationalists. Abraham is not an Arab. Nabuchadnesser, Babylon, and Ur are not Arabs by any stretch or means.
Our people's history should not be stolen and given to those who feel inferior about their owns. Any future Iraqi
government should discard all the "Baathi" rewriting of history. Students should be taught their history according
to real truth and facts. Credit should be given to our nation's efforts in teaching the Arab Muslim conquerors of
Mesopotamia the arts of statehood, science, and the exposure to other nations' achievements.
6. The Iraqi government
should generate programs in which "re-education" of the general Muslim
public be made.
Decades of disrespectful attitudes towards Iraqi Christians and our Assyrian/Chaldean people should be
eliminated. Iraqi TV and radio should start to broadcast Christian masses every Sunday on equal footing with
the Muslim's Friday prayers.
7. All governmental
and military positions should be open for our people without any discrimination
or limits on
"how far in ranking a Chaldean/Assyrian should go". Decades of discrimination against our people which
resulted in the absence of a single "Ambassador" or ministerial position held by a Chaldean/Assyrian during the
last 80 years of the Iraqi state should be reversed.
The above are some of our rights that we should be able to rally our Assyrian/Chaldean people around and fight for. Unfortunately, one of the most troubling problems that stand against uniting our people, is the confusion of the dual usage of religious names as national ones as well. In other words, what name should we call ourselves: Assyrians, Chaldeans, or Syriacs? While I believe that all names are equally important, however, fighting over that should be the last thing we do. Especially when we all agree that we are one people racially, linguistically, culturally, historically, and religiously Christian, but with different denominations (the main reason behind the division of our nation). We should also bear in mind, that our division and inter fights are what’s helping the racist elements among the Kurds and Arabs marginalize our existence and rights in our ancestors’ lands.
Let us build our true Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac Higher National Council
that encompass members of all our people (Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Church
of the East) and let us empower it to fight for our rights. Without such
united agenda and an empowered group, we will not be able to influence
those whom we’re asking for our rights from. Racist and repressive groups
do not change their attitudes solely because the oppressed pray hard to
God. God, on the other hand, will not help those who do not want to help
themselves. Freedom was never given but always taken through the sacrifices
of those who seek it. Let us work hard to bring our Chaldean people into
the nationalist political movement. Let us all work together for our Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac
people. Our cause is just. Our agenda is realistic. I am sure we have the
will to fight for it.
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