Strangers in their own homelands in Iraq, Syria and Turkey, they are scattered in diasporas from Australia and Europe to the U.S. and Canada.
They are the Assyrians/Chaldeans/ Syriacs of the Middle East, and were among the world’s first people to convert to Christianity.
Descendants of an ancient warrior race that lived in Mesopotamia (now called the Middle East) and controlled a series of mighty empires, they embraced the teachings of Jesus long before most of Europe became Christian, and before the Crusades pitted European Christians against the Arab conquerors of the Holy lands.
Today, the very survival of Assyrians/Chaldeans/Syriacs as a distinct ethno-cultural and religious group is in question, and their language, Aramaic— the mother tongue of Jesus and his disciples— is in danger of becoming extinct within the next 50 years.
Their history during the last 100 years is like a horror movie unfolding one brutal sequence after another.
A genocidal campaign called the Seyfo (the Sword) conducted by Ottoman troops during the dying days of their Empire saw the mass slaughter of 275,000 Assyrians, according to David Gaunt, professor of history in Sodertorn University College, Stockholm and author of Massacres, Resistance, Protectors: Muslim-Christian Relations in Eastern Anatolia during World War I.
The nightmare did not end there.
The Canadian Council for Refugees noted that 3,000 of them fled Iraq in 1998, due to the war and continuing persecution, and were living temporarily in Jordan and Turkey, where they were subjected to further mistreatment.
Fast forward to 2014, when ISIS extremists invaded their ancestral homeland, the Plains of Nineveh in Northern Iraq and unleashed their reign of terror. All over again, these Christians were forced to suffer agonies of imprisonment, torment, and torture.
They witnessed their loved ones being massacred, their churches desecrated, and torched, and their ancient monuments destroyed. Their homelands became the killing fields of the Middle East.
On the fateful day in June 2014 when Mosul fell to ISIS, an estimated 500,000 civilians fled the city in a panic-stricken exodus, among them 200,000 Christians and 200,000 Yazidis, another minority religious group targeted by ISIS.
The fear that this ancient Christian community is perilously close to extinction is based on their dwindling numbers in their homeland, the heartland of Christianity itself.
Christians in the Middle East now comprise just three to four percent of the population, down from 20 per cent a century ago, with much of that reduction occurring in the last 15 years.
“There are more Assyrians/Chaldeans/Syriacs in the diaspora now than in the homeland,” said Lark Yousif, President of the Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac Student Union of Canada, a youth organization based in Eastern Ontario. He added that having no homeland of their own would endanger the language and culture even more.
A major military campaign led by Iraqi and Kurdish forces and assisted by U.S.-led coalition warplanes and military advisers, culminated in the liberation of Mosul on July 10, 2017. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi jubilantly announced the defeat of Isis, and the Western media reverberated with sounds of victory. Spontaneous celebrations erupted in Mosul and surrounding communities.
But it was a bitter-sweet victory for Assyrians/Chaldeans/Syriacs who are still in dire straits.
Returning to their beloved homeland, which cuts across parts of Iraq, Syria and Turkey, is not an option for most because the security situation there is still fragile.
Most houses, shops and churches have been razed, and the territory is heavily mined with explosive devices strategically placed by ISIS to cause maximum damage.
In February this year, Human Rights Watch reported that land mines had killed and injured hundreds of civilians, including over 150 children, in ISIS’ former capital, Raqqa, after the terrorist organization was forced to leave the city in October 2017.
“We're mainly conducting mine risk education in Syria right now, and will be until the security situation improves,” said Louise Vaughan, Media Relations Officer of Halo Trust, the international NGO engaged in humanitarian de-mining in post-conflict countries around the world.
Yet Canada —the champion of human rights and internationally acclaimed as an open society that welcomes the oppressed and the dispossessed from all corners of the earth— has been curiously blind to the plight of these people, who are being expelled from their home countries because of their religion and ethnicity.
The Liberal government of Justin Trudeau, having pledged to bring 25,000 Syrian (not to be confused with Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac) refugees to Canada by 2015, found itself struggling to fulfill that commitment.
Recently Prime Minister Trudeau promised that the Canadian government will formally apologize for turning away the Spirit of St. Louis, a ship loaded with Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in 1939.
Yet Canada’s indifference to the plight of Middle Eastern minorities today is in some ways, a stark reminder of “None is too many,” the reply attributed to an anonymous immigration official in 1939 when asked how many Jews would be received in Canada.
A motion introduced in parliament by then interim Leader of the Opposition Conservative Party Rona Ambrose in June 2016 to declare ISIS atrocities against Christians, Yazidis and other Middle Eastern minorities a genocide was defeated 166-139, with the Prime Minister and most Liberal MPs voting against it.
“This is a low point for the Liberal party and it is a dark spot on Canada's record as a defender of human rights," Ambrose said at the time.
The dark spots have continued to increase in the years that followed.
The refugee policy implemented by the federal government is tilted in favour of Syrians of the majority Sunni Muslim religion. Assyrians/Chaldeans/Syriacs (who could be from Iraq, Turkey or Syria) as well as Yazidis and Shia Muslims, and all other non-Syrians fall low on the priority list for re-settlement in Canada.
“Canada's refugee system works through the UNHCR (UN High Commission for Refugees)”, said Kyle Matthews, Executive Director of the Montreal Institute for Human Rights and Genocide Studies, a think-tank at Concordia University. Most refugees to Canada are referred by the UN agency, he added.
Many Christians don’t register with the UNHCR and are afraid to live in Muslim-dominated refugee camps for fear of being attacked. Consequently, they are excluded from the services and support provided by the UN system, which is also a gateway for resettlement to other safe countries.
“Conditions in UN refugee camps are a nightmare for Christians,” said Rosemary Georges, past president of the Assyrian Chaldean Syriac Student Union of Canada.
The recent announcement by the Canadian government that returned ISIS fighters will be prosecuted only if it can be proven that they took part in atrocities was experienced as a slap in the face for those who fled the terror group, and who now live in Canada.
“I’m afraid to talk about my experiences because ISIS fighters may be walking free in the streets of our cities,” said an Iraqi Christian taxi driver in Ottawa who insisted on remaining anonymous.
The silence on Parliament Hill regarding these victims of ISIS is as puzzling as it is deafening. What could be the reason for this culture of political correctness that prevails there? A fear of being labelled Islamophobic? A perception that Middle Eastern people are not ‘real’ Christians but are all Muslims? A lack of understanding in a secular society, of people who would die for their faith?
If this silence and indifference continue, some day in the future, another Prime Minister of Canada will have to stand up in the House of Commons and apologize to Assyrians/Chaldeans/Syriacs and other Middle Eastern minorities.
Only by then, there might be no Christians left in the lands where Jesus once walked.
Convivium means living together. We welcome your voice to the conversation. Do you know someone who would enjoy this article? Send it to them now. Do you have a response to something we've published? Let us know!