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Assyrian Americans call attention to slaughter of Iraqi Christians

Assyrian Americans held a protest outside the White House in Washington, D.C. to call attention to religious persecution of Iraqi Christians.
Assyrian Americans held a protest outside the White House in Washington, D.C. to call attention to religious persecution of Iraqi Christians.
John Lett

Members of a tight-knit American community are calling attention to the brutal persecution of Christians in their ethnic homeland of Iraq. “They're crucifying. They’re raping in broad daylight. They’re killing,” says Nahren Anweya, a young Assyrian American woman living in the suburbs of Detroit. “They’re beheading priests. They’re kidnapping nuns. They’re killing children during massacres of whole families.”

Assyrian Americans held a protest outside the White House in Washington, D.C. to call attention to ISIS’s alleged religious persecution of Iraqi Christians.
Assyrian Americans held a protest outside the White House in Washington, D.C. to call attention to ISIS’s alleged religious persecution of Iraqi Christians.
John Lett

Anweya, who has relatives throughout Iraq, joined 100 other Assyrian American protesters for a Christian rights rally at the White House in Washington, D.C. The group blames the persecution on an infamous terror organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, a powerful group of Muslim militants who’ve captured much of northern Iraq. According Anweya, ISIS’s swift advancement includes the eradication of the local Assyrian Christian minority. “They think they’re going to heaven if they kill Christians. They’re not afraid to die,” says Anweya. “They’re beheading Christians and hanging their heads on wires. Sometimes they play soccer with those heads.”

Assyrian Christians, who trace their indigenous Iraqi roots back to at least 2,500 BC, are extremely proud of their religious heritage. They’re known to publicly practice their faith, a tradition making them easy targets for Islamic extremists on the hunt. ISIS militants often publically pinpoint Christian households by leaving horseshoe-like markings on suspected homes. “They’re vulnerable. They need protection,” says Anweya. “They’re decreasing by the day. They’re the forgotten people.”

ISIS fighters, who are routinely seen around Iraq wearing masks and dark colored combat clothing, allegedly give trapped Assyrian Christians a sobering ultimatum: pay a fee for the continued right to practice Christianity, convert to Islam on the spot, quickly flee town or die violently. “This is disgusting,” says Anweya. “This is the worst terrorist group that has ever existed.”

Some reports estimate the Assyrian Christian population in Iraq at roughly 300,000. But those numbers may be dwindling rapidly as families flee the violence and the death toll climbs into the thousands. Father Antwan Latchen, a priest representing the Holy Apostolic Assyrian Church of the East, says body counts are hard to tabulate. “I don’t think anybody will be able to give you a statistic about how many people have been killed there,” says Father Latchen, a Chicago-based minister of a denomination with roots dating back to 1st century AD. “There are hundreds and thousands of graves that have been found. There are even people that have been cut in pieces.”

Anweya believes the U.S. government is morally obligated to intervene and stop the violence. She says failed American foreign policy in Iraq has ultimately empowered ISIS’s pro-Muslim religious rampage. “Under Saddam Hussein the churches were not being blown up, Christians were not being massacred and Christian families were not being shot in broad daylight,” says Anweya.

The Obama administration has sent at least 200 highly trained military advisors to the Persian Gulf to help Iraqi government forces fight back against ISIS. And in recent weeks, some powerful politicians in Washington, D.C. have publically condemned ISIS’s religious persecution. “I believe what is happening to the Christian community in Iraq is genocide. I also believe it is a crime against humanity,” says U.S. Rep Frank Wolfe (R-VA). “The West, particularly the church, needs to speak out.”

As Assyrian American protesters plea for stronger U.S. government intervention in Iraq, ISIS is continuing its dangerous rampage by destroying ancient Holy shrines and churches, some of which have stood for thousands of years. Additionally, Christians there appear to have little ability to defend themselves because ISIS is extremely organized, well funded and superbly armed. “They have advanced weaponry. That’s why they’re so strong,” says Anweya. “Our people don’t have tanks and large militias.”

Assyrian Christians in Iraq, who endured similar persecution by the Turkish in the early 1900s, are terrified about the prospect of Islamic extremists gaining more power in the Middle East. Assyrian Christians here in the U.S. vow to continue applying political pressure in Washington, and plan to warn other Americans about the rapid geopolitical rise of ISIS. “If this is allowed in Iraq, then I’m afraid it may eventually come to the United States,” says Anweya. “They’re so extreme. It’s out of control.”