Plea for Assyrian Christians and Iraqi minorities

As world attention focuses on the struggle to achieve a balance of constitutional interests between Kurds, Sunnis and Shias in Iraq, a human rights group is campaigning to draw fresh attention to the serious plight of Assyrian Christians and other minority groups.

In a letter to the Guardian newspaper in the UK yesterday, Glyn Ford, Labour Euro-MP for South West England, joined former Tribune editor Mark Seddon and Andy Darmoo, head of Save the Assyrians, to ask why no proper attention has been given to minorities who make up 6 per cent of the Iraqi population.

"In particular, what of the Assyrian Christians?", they write. "Prevented from voting in the elections, in recent months many have had their land occupied and stolen, their churches firebombed and their families attacked. Isn't it time that the international community began championing the rights of Assyrians and other minorities before it is too late?"

Until the invasion of Iraq in 2003 there were estimated to be around one million Christians in Iraq. They include the country's original inhabitants, but are wrongly portrayed by militant Islamists as American infiltrators.

Some recent estimates say that between 60,000 and 80,000 Chaldo-Assyrian Christians have fled the country since the fall of Baghdad.

Church bombings in Assyrian neighbourhoods of Baghdad and Mosul in August and October 2004, mortar attacks, raids against Christian homes, and forced conversions have also contributed to the unease of a community that has increasingly felt itself under siege.

At least one militant organisation, The Islamic Mujahideen, has in the recent past demanded that all Mandaeans (another minority group) convert to Islam, leave the country, or be killed.

"Christian women are harassed, have acid thrown into their faces, are kidnapped and raped," says one civil rights activist. "They seek some safety behind the Muslim hajib.”

During Saddam Hussein's wars against the Kurds, hundreds of Assyrian villages were destroyed. Their inhabitants were rendered homeless and scattered as refugees in large cities or in neighbouring countries. Dozens of ancient churches, some dating to the early centuries of Christianity, were bombed and turned into rubble.

The teaching of the Syriac language was also prohibited and Assyrians were forced to give their children Arabic names in a way that undermined their identity. Those who wished to hold governmental jobs had to sign ethnicity correction papers which declared them Arabs.

The fall of Saddam, which it was hoped would bring justice to Iraq, has instead unleashed religious violence onto Christians and minority communities in Iraq, in the wake of an increasingly bloody insurgency against occupation.