Category Archives: Assyrians

The Book of Revelation Unfolds in Iraq

They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads. – Revelation 9:4

Mark of GodIraq’s first Christian-only brigade of regular forces graduated this week, and will now join the fight to retake the community’s towns and villages from ISIS.

In a great post, Palestinian Christian Walid Shoebat has noted that many of the 600 members of the force have painted the mark of God, a cross, on their foreheads.

Some 100,000 Assyrian Christians fled their homes in the Nineveh Plains, in north-east Iraq, when ISIS invaded last August. It was said to be one of the worst disasters to hit what is one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.

The new brigade, named the Tiger Guards, is comprised entirely of volunteers and will fight under the government of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.

Football Fans Recall Assyrian Genocide in Beautiful Tribute

Football fans have many ways to express tributes during a game, but I have never heard of one that lasts this long.

At a derby game in Sweden between two Stockholm teams, Syrianska and Assyriska, supporters maintained silence for a full 19 minutes and 15 seconds at the start of the match, to remember the 1915 Ottoman Empire genocide, Seyfo, against the Assyrians.

Syrianska Football Club has a fan base among Syriac Aramean people, while Assyriska was founded by Assyrian migrants.

I read about the tribute on the Facebook page of Nuri Kino, who has made a documentary film about Assyriska.

In response to my query, he messaged me: “It was at the beginning of the game; of course there were many moments when we wanted to scream … But everyone was silent. Amazing. Beautiful and powerful.”

I agree. Very touching.

Fighting for Religious Freedom, Fighting to Awaken the Church

The 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative is a new organization fighting for religious freedom. According to its website:

The rise of ISIS, the declining freedom of speech and communication globally, and the sheer number of religious prisoners around the world pose a critical threat to all of humanity. 21st Century Wilberforce wants to awaken the church to these atrocities and stir Christians and other religious groups to action. 

Recently I interviewed Elyse Bauer Anderson, Senior Advisor and Director of Special Projects with the organization.

Conditions seem to be worsening for Christians in Iraq and – particularly – Syria. Is this your impression too, or are there some glimmers of hope?

The situation facing Christians in Iraq and Syria is bleak. Increasingly the global community is starting to recognize that what is taking place is in fact genocide and that it threatens to extinguish ancient faith communities from the lands they’ve inhabited since antiquity.

In war-torn Syria the Assyrian Christian community suffered a devastating blow with the recent large-scale kidnappings. In Iraq, the Christian community is increasingly hopeless in the face of prolonged displacement – they are nomads in their own country. We were told that 12 Christian families leave a day. Few can envision a future for themselves or for their families.

But in the midst of the suffering there are glimmers of hope. When we were in northern Iraq we met a young Iraqi priest who implored our delegation, “Help me to stay.” There are courageous men and women who are persevering in the midst of incredible suffering and hardship and in many cases ministering to and among their people. Their faith is unwavering. They have not allowed their circumstances to dictate what they believe. It is an inspiration.

Your organization is quite new. Were you formed specifically to help Mideast Christians, or are you active in other regions? 

Given the crisis facing Christians and other ancient faith communities living in the shadow of the Islamic State, we chose Iraq for our inaugural trip. That said, our focus will be global in nature. Persecution of people of faith is epidemic around the world. From China, to Iran, from Sudan to Pakistan, Christians and other religious minorities are experiencing all manner of hostility, discrimination and abuse.

Your website says you are a “do tank,” not a think tank. What have you been doing so far? What do you hope to do?

We are still in the embryonic stage as an organization, but as we mature we intend to engage in a number of different spheres including advocacy, both at home and abroad, and education, to include training and equipping religious leaders in countries where religious freedom violations routinely occur.  A third area of focus will involve prioritizing access to circumvention technology in closed or restricted societies like China and Iran. Some of these initiatives are already beginning to take shape. 21Wilberforce just participated in a training conference for nearly 1,200 Chinese house church pastors and lay leaders in Taiwan. In the face of massive crackdowns in China against people of faith, the church is vibrant and growing there. In fact, the church in the West could arguably stand to learn much from our persecuted brothers and sisters in China, Iraq and around the world – 21Wilberforce hopes to help forge that connection in tangible ways.

Could Western governments be doing more to help besieged Assyrians?

Absolutely. The humanitarian needs are great and more could be done to assist both the internally displaced populations and the refugees throughout the region, to include healthcare and education. But these are mere Band-Aids. Until the Islamic State is ultimately defeated and destroyed there will be no future for Christians in these lands. The Kurdish peshmerga forces are imperfect but they are on the front lines of the battle and they have been willing to take on ISIS from the beginning, notably in areas they consider Kurdish lands. To date, Washington has insisted on sending military aid through Baghdad. As a result, the peshmerga are fighting with outdated and outmoded weaponry. This is a diplomatic calculation more than it is a strategic military decision – and one that could be easily overturned.

Is military force an answer? Could we in the West be doing something to help Christians build their own defense forces?

Congress has been debating the Authorization of Use of Military Force against the Islamic State. This is a much-needed and long overdue discussion. Military force must be on the table. In the interim, the administration already has the authority to aid what is known as the Nineveh Protective Unit, which is effectively a defensive national guard unit. The Christians, Yezidis and other religious minorities were abandoned and left defenseless in the face of the Islamic State’s murderous onslaught last summer. These units are an important first step in these vulnerable communities being able to defend themselves moving forward.

What else can Western Christians, and others, do to help suffering Assyrians?

Of course we in the West can pray for our brothers and sister in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. This is but one way of standing in solidarity with the suffering church. But there is more. We can learn their stories, and we can be their advocates. We can raise these issues with our elected officials, both in Congress and the White House. As legislation and policy comes to the fore which impacts these imperiled communities we can make our voices known so that it is clear that there is in fact a domestic constituency on matters of international religious freedom.

Among the first requests should be to urge the president to fill the vacant post of Special Envoy for Religious Minorities in the Middle East. President Obama signed the bipartisan legislation that created this post into law last August, thereby making it the law of the land. While an envoy alone does not hold the key to this complex crisis, having a senior person at the State Department focused exclusively on advocating for these communities and developing policy options aimed at guaranteeing their survival, and ultimately flourishing, is a critical first step.

Elyse, thank you very much.

Movie Exposes Horror of War on Christians

As a child growing up in Syria, Sargon Saadi loved making home movies with his brother and cousins. It led eventually to his decision to travel to the US to study filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago – famous for its arts and media programs – and then to move to the heart of the movie world, Los Angeles, where he has worked as a cinematographer on many films.

But something happened while he was living in the US. His beloved Syria – the jewel of the Middle East, as he describes it – descended into civil war. Worse, parts of the country were then overrun by the terrorists known as Islamic State. Christians and other minorities became a particular target.

Sargon is himself an Assyrian Christian. He knew he had to do something to help his people. He decided to make a movie.

“Assyrians are the descendants of the great Mesopotamian civilization of 7,000 years,” he told me. “They still speak the Aramaic language that Jesus Christ once spoke. They are the last indigenous people of the region.

“As an Assyrian myself, ever since I was a child I wondered what I would have done if I were alive in 1915 when the Ottoman Empire committed genocide against us. That genocide, which the Assyrians now call ‘Seyfo,’ is hardly recognized or even talked about in schools or in the media.

“Now, 100 years later, the Assyrian Christians are facing yet another genocide and this time in Iraq by the terrorist organization Islamic State. I could not stay idle, and that’s why I made the film. I wanted to let the world know.”

Last September he and two producer friends flew to Iraq and spent eight days documenting the crisis. The resulting movie, “The Last Plight,” though just 10 minutes long, is a powerful portrayal of the victims – Christians and other minorities – and their suffering.

Released only at the end of last year, it is already causing a stir. It has been translated into six languages and shown on four television channels. It was screened at the European Parliament and won an award from the Vimeo video-sharing platform. It is expected to be shown this year at film festivals in several countries.

Meanwhile Sargon is finishing another movie, “Qamishli: Peace At War,” a documentary about the survival of the Assyrian Christian community in Syria during the civil war. It focuses on his hometown Qamishli, and will have its premiere in May at the Mardin Film Festival in Turkey.

I asked him what Christians in the West could do to help his cause. He recommended two websites. A Demand For Action provides information on the crisis. Assyrian Aid Society takes donations and uses them to help the most needy.

“It all starts with us being informed about world atrocities,” said Sargon. “With knowledge we can destroy ignorance, and with love we can conquer hate.”

“The Last Plight” can be viewed online. 

Award-Winning Movie Shows Plight of Assyrian Christians

Sargon Saadi is a Syrian-born cinematographer, now living in Los Angeles. His short movie “The Last Plight,” released late last year, is a heart-wrenching portrayal of the plight of Assyrian Christians and other minorities in the face of the ISIS onslaught. He kindly agreed to answer some questions. (You can view “The Last Plight” online.)

Tell me a little about yourself. How did you get into movie-making?

I was born and raised in Syria, a wonderful county, the jewel of the Middle East. But unfortunately, the claws of civil war have torn it apart.

My passion for filmmaking definitely comes from a young age when my older brother was making home videos with my cousins and me. My dad had a sensitive eye for photography as well, even though he never fully explored it.

When the opportunity presented itself for me to go to the United States in 2006, I decided I would follow my passion and study filmmaking. Five years later, I got my cinematography degree from Columbia College, Chicago. Ever since, I have been working as a freelance cinematographer on many films and documentaries.

What is the background to “The Last Plight”? 

To talk about the background, I must talk a little about who the Assyrians are. Assyrians are the descendants of the great Mesopotamian civilization of 7,000 years. They still speak the Aramaic language that Jesus Christ once spoke. They are the last indigenous people of the region.

As an Assyrian myself, ever since I was a child I wondered what I would have done if I were alive in 1915 when the Ottoman Empire committed genocide against us. That genocide, which the Assyrians now call “Seyfo,” is hardly recognized or even talked about in schools or in the media.

Now, 100 years later, the Assyrian Christians are facing yet another genocide and this time in Iraq by the terrorist organization ISIS (The Islamic State). I could not stay idle, and that’s why I made the film. I wanted to let the world know.

I got a call from two producer friends from California, Sargon Rouel and Suzan Younan, asking me to fly to Iraq with them and document this crisis. We all shared the same passion and the same goal. It was an emotional roller coaster for the three of us to witness that tragic plight every day.  We were in Iraq for eight days last September.

The ISIS invasion has caused the mass displacement of more than 600,000 people, minorities like the Assyrian Christians, Yezidis, Shabaks, Kakai, Turkmans and others. Now, eight months later, the majority of them are still without sufficient shelter or medical care. Unfortunately, the international response to this humanitarian crisis has been very slow and insufficient.

The Last Plight” has been making a significant impact in raising awareness globally. So far it has been translated into six major languages and screened on four television channels. In addition, it has been screened at the European Parliament, which was a major accomplishment for our mission. The film also got an award from the internationally renowned video-sharing platform Vimeo.  We are going to multiple film festivals this year and we are hoping for more exposure.

* Your website has a trailer for another movie, “Qamishli: Peace At War.” Could you tell me a little about this?

This is another passionate project of mine. It is a documentary about the survival of the Assyrian Christian community in Syria during the civil war. It focuses on the small city of Qamishli, which is my hometown.

Syria has been suffering from a brutal four-year civil war that seems to have no end. The Assyrian community is dwindling rapidly because of security concerns, threats and economic hardship. The massive migration of the Christian community is not only disastrous for its historical impact on the country but it also could have cultural and social consequences on the future of Syria as a moderate and modern country.

The film is less about politics and more about the way this minority group has been able to survive, socially and as humans, in the midst of war. I’m currently finalizing it, and it will be premiered in May at the Mardin Film Festival in Turkey.

* Please comment a little about the plight right now of Assyrians in Iraq and Syria. Are conditions getting worse?

The Civil War in Syria does not seem to be ending any time soon, but peace is showing a few faint signs of progress. I hope that the dust of war settles and the Syrian people can reclaim their lives again.

In Iraq the situation is much grimmer. The Assyrians are still facing a massive humanitarian crisis. All their ancestral lands in the Nineveh Plains have been taken from them by ISIS. None of it has been reclaimed yet.

The Assyrians have lost all trust in governments to help them, and they are now trying to take matters into their own hands. There are positive attempts to create Assyrian local forces to defend their own cities and homes. The emergence of NPU (Nineveh Protection Unit) is giving new hope for the Assyrian Christians that finally, one day, they can defend their own lands independently.

What can Christians in the West do to help your cause?

The Christians in the West can play a vital role in stopping this tragedy. Along with genuine prayers, a good place to start is to go to www.ADemandForAction.com to be informed and get involved. ADemandForAction is a grass-roots movement formed to raise awareness about the plight of all minorities in the Middle East as well as to lobby governments to make the right decisions. To aid the displaced people directly they can donate to www.AssyrianAid.org (Assyrian Aid Society).

It all starts with us being informed about world atrocities. With knowledge we can destroy ignorance, and with love we can conquer hate.

Sargon, thank you very much. Watch “The Last Plight” here.