Juliana Taimoorazy is the founder and president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council and a senior fellow for the Philos Project. I have followed her heroic advocacy for persecuted minorities in the Middle East for some years, and highly encourage readers to visit www.victimsofisis.org to learn more about, or consider financially supporting, the good work she and her colleagues do.
No cause could be more worthy than intervening on behalf of a people targeted for genocide, and the plight of Assyrians today is compounded all the more by the not yet 100-year-old memory of the Great Genocide, in which the same people suffered along with Armenians and Greeks in the early 20th Century.
On Thursday, October 20th, I spoke with Taimoorazy by phone about the past, the present, and the future hopes of the Assyrian people. What follows is a transcript of some of her comments.
In Iraq today: Taking back their homeland
The liberation of Mosul is underway. It is not only Mosul that is being liberated; it is the entire area, all those other towns where minorities used to live, the ancestral homeland of Assyrian Christians, also known as Chaldean and Syriac Christians—their denominational names.
The people that would be returning after the liberation are people that were displaced by the Islamic State in 2014 and have been spread across the region and in many cases have migrated to the West.
According to the estimates that have come from Iraq to us, about 10,000 families from Erbil, and 4,500 families from Dohuk are returning immediately to their hometowns in the Nineveh plains.
The next wave of return will be those who are living in desperate conditions as refugees in Jordan and Turkey. There are 45,000 Iraqi Christians who have been displaced inside Turkey. They have been interviewed by the UNHCR, and then spread across the country into small Islamic villages where they have to hide their Christianity.
They live in slums where, if the slumlord finds out they are Christian, they are evicted, and in order for them to eat they have to hide their faith because they rely on Muslim charity organizations and mosques. These people will potentially also return to Iraq, back to their homeland.
In Jordan, where I have been quite a few times within the last few years, Christians live in really terrible situations, and in bad neighborhoods. Two or three families live together in a small apartment. Those in Jordan who don’t have any hope of going to the West, and those who are older in age, could potentially return as well.
The approximate number of people that we anticipate returning immediately is close to 160,000, but this does not include people who have lived in the diaspora in the West for a long time and whose lives are essentially rebuilt.
Common Western misconceptions and the importance of local desires and laws.
I have two job titles. I am the Founder and President of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, and I’m a senior fellow for the Philos Project. A lot of the advocacy that we’re doing for the Nineveh Plain is under the banner of the Philos Project.
We have renewed hope in our hearts because we now have good friends in Washington who understand us. There aren’t many, but one of those friends is Robert Nicholson of the Philos Project. He has taken time to come to my community here in the diaspora, he’s taken time to go to the Middle East, across the region, to understand what we’re looking for. He’s spoken to the laypeople, he’s spoken to the Church leadership, he’s spoken to the Christian politicians in the Middle East.
His vision is to engage Americans with the matters of the Middle East in a positive way, and he also believes that in order for us to have a stable Middle East, we have to preserve Christianity there. He always says “Christianity is not a Western religion; it’s a Middle Eastern religion.” And to him and to me, Iraq seems to be the second Holy Land, because of all of the Biblical activity that happened in what’s now modern day Iraq—what used to be Mesopotamia.
A lot of Catholics in the West believe that this is an American-led effort, and it is not. We are just supporting what the minorities on the ground want. It is extremely important for the Catholic world to know that these individuals are not just Christians. They are not Arab Christians, and not Iraqi by ethnicity—their ethnicity is Assyrian. Denominationally they’re Catholic or they’re Orthodox, etcetera. But their tie to the land is immense, because it is their ancestral homeland.
Our history is 6700 years old. We are the Ninevites, the same Ninevites that Jonah came and preached to thousands of years ago. And until today we have maintained our nationality. We as Iraqi Christians are asking for a province to be created for us. A lot of Catholic bishops and laypeople try to spin this, giving the impression that this is an American-led effort and, again, it is not.
In 2005 the Iraqi Constitution, Article 125 stated that the minorities of Iraq have a right to their own province. In 2010 President Jalal Talabani called for a province for Christians. In January of 2014, right before ISIS attacked, the Iraqi Council of Ministers called for a province to be created for minorities. The people, the minorities, including Yazidis, want the province. Assyrian Christians want the province.
But the circumstances have always failed us. We’ve never had enough support from the West, and we’ve never had the calmness for us to really advocate and lobby for this to come to fruition. We’ve always been forced to be reactionary, because we’ve always come under persecution, attacks and massacres. We’ve always had to try to stay alive, just physically.
Now is really the last opportunity we have to create this province, by appealing to the West to support what already exists on the ground, both in desire and in law.
It is also incredibly important for the Christians to be armed to protect their own kind. In 2014 the Iraqi government, the Iraqi military and the Peshmerga failed us gravely in not protecting the vulnerable minorities. The Kurdish Regional Government, the Peshmerga, actually took our weapons away about two weeks before ISIS attacked. So we didn’t have any weapons to protect ourselves. A lot of our women were kidnapped, a lot of our kids were executed, a lot of our men were executed, because we couldn’t defend ourselves.
So now that we’re working on liberating these areas from ISIS, if we don’t protect ourselves, we do not trust the Kurds and we do not trust the Iraqi government to protect us. That’s why we are appealing to the West to help us to be equipped to defend our own when the time comes if, God forbid, there’s another attack.
Right now we have multiple Assyrian Christian militias. One of them that is the only officially recognized militia is called the Ninevah Plain Protection Unit, which is a part of the Iraqi military. They are assisted very little, but they are assisted by the Iraqi government, and they have been trained by the Americans. But we need more than that. We need a lot more for us to really have our own province.
American policy past and future: Potential effects of the U.S. presidential election on persecuted Christians
In order for us to have a stable Middle East, we need the Christian presence. When I spoke with a Shiite Sheikh from Najaf in Iraq he said, “We Shiites often wonder how much damage we have done to our country by persecuting Christians. We cannot afford losing you Christians, because you are our peacemakers. You are the ones that love, that teach us moderation, that teach us conflict resolution.” He said, “Iraq is like a flower, and Christianity is like the center of the flower.”
I cannot endorse one candidate or the other. But I’ll tell you I’m terribly disappointed that one of the candidates continuously talks about safe zones in Syria and nothing on Iraq. I’m disappointed that this candidate keeps on talking about arming the Kurds and she does not say anything about Christians.
Speaking as an American, what we need in the White House is a person who is Christian at heart, and American at heart, who is not apologetic to the terrorists, and who has a big vision for the Middle East.
For me, as a Middle Eastern Christian, it’s terrifying to hear that Assad should be attacked or Assad should be removed, because we see what happened when we removed Saddam Hussein. If we remove Assad, Christians will be slaughtered across the region even more because we don’t know what will fill the vacuum when Assad is removed.
Assad is a tyrant. Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, yes, I completely agree, and Saddam Hussein needed to be removed, but I don’t think we’re capable of replacing these tyrants and dictators with fair, good leaders. That’s where my fear comes from when it comes to the removal of Assad.
My grave concern is Turkey. Turkey now has its forces at Bashiqa in Iraq and in Syria. Division 16 in Iraq has surrounded the town where the Turkish forces are. For me, whose family was slaughtered during World War I, seeing what [Turkish President] Erdogan is doing to my people in Turkey, and him wanting Mosul and the entire region in Northern Iraq for Sunni Kurds, and Sunni Arabs and Sunni Turks—it worries me greatly.
And the American government still has Turkey as a part of NATO, and we still are not putting pressure on them to recognize the Armenian and Assyrian Great Genocide, and we are not putting more pressure on them to get out—they are illegally in Iraq. They have no business being there.
[The U.S.] for eight years has “led from behind,” and President Obama and American policy have gravely failed the Christians of the Middle East. So the next president has to really have a good understanding of the region and not be afraid of taking calculated risks. He has to be a Christian at heart.
The Donald Trump camp, and congress in general, requested that Robert Nicholson [the Executive Director of the Philos Project] write the language on the safe-haven for both platforms, the DNC and the RNC, what it should look like or what it is. The Trump camp and the RNC incorporated it into their 2016 Platform but the DNC did not.
What Taimoorazy and her colleagues are doing to help.
We work with the Assyrian Aid Society of Iraq, and we are also working with the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Sienna. The Sisters are themselves displaced from Qaraqosh. Within the next 60 days, if all goes well, people will start returning to their homes. They will need their immediate needs to be met: basic foods, medicine, mattresses, pillows, blankets, cooking gas—essentials that they will need as they return home.
Something important that I have to report is my gratitude to the Western Church, the Catholic Church that has answered the call to help. Although it’s been slow, I’m grateful to those who have answered the call. The help has sustained these individuals in refugee camps in Northern Iraq, and in small apartments in other countries.
The donors have kept them warm in the winter, have kept them cool in the summer, and these individuals that I have met when I was in Iraq this year, they were holding onto the hope of returning to their homeland. They lived with that hope.
Now they are going to return. They are going to return to homes that are destroyed. They are going to return to homes that are booby-trapped and have to be de-mined. They are going to return to churches that are burned, schools that are destroyed. A lot of wives have lost their husbands to execution. A lot of husbands will return without their wives because their wives have been sold into sex slavery. So the family is broken. A lot of children don’t have their friends, who have been spread across the region.
There is immense heartache waiting for these individuals when they return. So we must embrace these individuals with a Christian embrace, more than ever. Not only do we need to pray for them, but we need to support them too.
It was different when Catholics and others put food on Assyrian Christians’ tables as they suffered in refugee camps in Northern Iraq. Now the food that we place on their table is meant to bring families back together, to heal the community. They’re no longer in limbo, they’re no longer living outside. They’re going to be living in their destroyed home that they have to rebuild. They need us Christians even more than ever, to really come along their side. I hope you hear the sincerity, I don’ t know… Words fail me, I don’t know how else to explain to you…
For me, as president of an aid organization, transparency is number one. Because of my own background, being an Assyrian Catholic from the region, and because of my very well established contacts on the ground, the names of individuals that are being helped are always sent to me. How much money was given, the phone numbers of the individuals, and where these people are located. Very specific—the transparency is immense.
So when donors give, I can tell them exactly who received the aid, what it was for, how much it was, and we can get pictures and videos as well of the help that was sent. It’s amazing. It’s a lot of work, believe me, and it puts a lot of pressure on the NGO’s I support, but it works.
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Taimoorazy if there was anything she would like to add. “The call to action is prayer,” she immediately answered. And “for people to come along their side and financially help.”
Referring again to the return of displaced Christians to the Nineveh plains she added, “How much more beautiful would it be now for us to have them heal their wounds in their own home that they want to rebuild, and bring families back together again?”
For more information about the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, click here.
To learn more about the Philos Project, click here.