In early September, Christian families in Ainkawa, Erbil’s Christian quarter, wept tears of joy and sorrow. Their joy was for two young men, Joachim Sliwa and Martin Baani, both in their twenties, who were being ordained as Catholic priests for the Chaldean Catholic Church. The ceremony was packed with a large crowd of 500 people at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Louis Raphaël I Sako, Patriarch of Babylon, Archbishop of Baghdad, performed the rite and said to the large crowd of families and believers that this is “a great sign of hope in a time of great crisis.” The crisis being not just ISIS, but the rapid disappearance of Christianity from Iraq since 2003.
Both young men are remarkable: Silwa, in his late twenties and married, returned from Germany to serve Christians in Iraq, while Baani, 26, fled his hometown of Karamles, southeast of Mosul, from ISIS in August 2014. Just this August, another three young priests from the Syriac Catholic diocese of Mosul were ordained at Mart Schmoni Church in Ainkawa, as well. All three men — Rony, Arteen and Emad — were met during their celebration with an emotional crowd reportedly whispering many “God bless you,” women cheering, and much candy thrown.
But the sorrow of Assyrians, even during joyous events such as these, lies at a deeper level: though Christianity still has a presence in Iraq, no one is sure what the future holds after years of brutal oppression, massacres, genocide, and depopulation. To understand why this re-growth through ordinations of new priests is important, one must look back to the twentieth century to a man who refused to remain silent on the massacre of Assyrians in both Iraq and Turkey, his role in World War II, and the fateful Simele Massacre of 1933.
In October 1933, a young Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish Polish legal scholar known for his academic research on the history of group-targeted violence, headed to Madrid to present a paper to the Legal Council of the League of Nations in a conference on international criminal law. Just two months before he had heard of a horrible massacre against Assyrian men, women, and children in northern Iraq, now known as the Simele Massacre.
Outside of the Assyrian community, Simele often falls on deaf ears to this day. In August 1933, the Iraqi military attacked 63 Assyrian villages in the Dohuk and Mosul districts of Iraq which led to the deaths of more than 3,000 men, women, and children. It is a massacre so horrific yet to this day still largely unknown outside the Assyrian and Iraqi communities: men executed in mass graves, Assyrian bodies put a lit with burning Bibles, pregnant women stabbed in their bellies, and babies bayoneted in the air. Families separated. Villages wiped out and repopulated with local Kurds. Violence not driven by religion, but by state.
Lemkin hoped his research would garner support to end a particular a sort of terrorism he called a “crime of barbarity,” which involved the systematic destruction of national and ethnic groups. It was a crime against humanity perhaps as old as humanity, he believed. Much of his modern research was based on the Ottoman genocide against its Armenians and Assyrian populations, as well as anti semitic pogroms throughout Europe. Regretfully, Lemkin left Madrid without recognition for his ideas on the illegality of modern ethnic cleansing.
It wasn’t until Lemkin, at this point a refugee in the US, served on the American team for the Nuremberg Trials from 1945-46 that his concept, now named ‘genocide,’ was finally recognized and included in the prosecution of Nazi war criminals. Lemkin did not live without extreme loss from the very topic he had spent his life researching — while working on the prosecution of Nazis, he learned that 49 members of his family, including his mother and father, had perished in death marches, the Warsaw ghetto, and European concentration camps. Lemkin was finally able to press world leaders to recognize that perpetrators of genocide must be brought to justice. On December 9, 1948, the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, inspired by his work. Today, 83 years have passed since Lemkin presented his first paper in Madrid begging world leaders to acknowledge what drives massacres, like Simele, and genocide, and why these acts and their perpetrators must be held accountable by law.
The Simele Massacre had a profound impact on the fate of the Assyrian Church of the East and the Kingdom of Iraq. Scholars like Kanan Makiya argue that this pogrom transcended “tribal, religious, ideological and ethnic barriers as Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, Sunni Kurds, Sunni Turkmen, Shia Turkmen, and Yazidis; Monarchists, Islamists, nationalists, royalists, conservatives, Leftists, federalists, and tribalists” were united against Assyrians and Christianity in “the first genuine expression of national independence in a former Arab province of the Ottoman Empire.” Like the Assyrian Genocide, it represents a state perpetrated violence that encouraged anti-Christian sentiments.
Beyond breaking the spirit of Assyrians and their dreams of nationalism, the Simele Massacre also led to the move of the Assyrian Church of the East from Iraq to Chicago where it remained until 2015. Mar Eshai, the leader of the Assyrian Church of the East, was forced into political exile from Iraq in 1933. In 1940, he settled in Chicago where the seat of the Assyrian Church of the East remained until last year.
In the summer of 2014 we witnessed an Assyrian genocide in Iraq. Over 125,000 Assyrians — nearly half of the remaining Assyrian population — were forced to flee their villages and towns in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain from ISIS. Unlike in the past, this genocide is now globally acknowledged; in March 2016 the US government publicly recognized that ISIS is committing genocide against Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria as a deliberate attempt to wipe out religious groups.
But ISIS is not the sole perpetrator of Christian ethnic cleansing in Iraq. Since 2003, Christian have been killed simply for their faith, identity, and property. As Lemkin himself described in his 1944 book, “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe,” genocide is more often a long coordinated effort to eradicate a people and their history over time. “Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves,” he wrote. Sadly, what people better represent Lemkin’s idea of a gradual genocide today than the Assyrians, the very people who first inspired his work in 1933.
It is in response to this most recent ISIS genocide that the Assyrian Church of the East decided to move the seat of the patriarch back to Erbil from Chicago in support of its persecuted followers. “It’s the story of survival back in Iraq,” says Father George Sulaiman of Chicago’s St. George Cathedral on the move which took place in 2015. “We believe our roots are there, if the roots are withered then eventually the tree will fall. The church is trying as much as she can to strengthen her existence in the east despite all the challenges arising lately — that’s the main goal,” he says. Father George believes Erbil also has historical significance to the church: it was the seat of the patriarch from the fall of Baghdad during the Mongol Invasion in the 13th century until 1933 when its leader was forced into political exile. In many ways, it is a return to what was before 1933 despite all that has been lost since that fateful year.
So with deep pride and joy but also sorrow, Assyrians celebrate the new ordination of these five priests dedicated to leading our proud and fearless Assyrian brothers and sisters who have chosen to stay in Iraq. These ordinations in Ainkawa are an indication of the survival and rebirth of Christianity in Iraq.
Undoubtedly, Assyrians have lived through a gradual genocide from 1933 to present. Since 2003 Assyrians have gone from a population of 2.5 million to just an estimated 250,000 in their native Iraq. We must demand when will the international community prosecute those states, leaders, and politicians behind the current ISIS genocide and the 11 years of persecution in Iraq after the US-invasion. When will Assyrians have closure and protection as a people? The Jewish community often says, ‘Never Again’ to hold vigil for their six million dead from the Holocaust. When will Assyrians be able to finally say ‘Never Again’ to the destruction of their nation?