Iraq’s Nineveh Plains Christians Need the Pope’s Support

Authors:  Juliana Taimoorazy and Uzay Bulut

Pope Francis visited parts of northern Iraq once occupied by the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists, including the cities of Mosul and Baghdeda in the Nineveh Plains, on the third day of his historic trip to the country.

On March 7, the Pope prayed among Mosul’s ruined churches before meeting Christians there. The city was once a former ISIS stronghold. He later met Christians in the ancient Church of the Immaculate Conception, which was torched by ISIS and has now been restored, in the Assyrian town of Baghdeda (Qaraqosh).

ISIS had invaded and captured Baghdeda in August of 2014 after the withdrawal of Kurdish forces. This invasion forced a majority of Nineveh inhabitants to leave their homes. The indigenous Christian community, which belongs to a number of denominations, forms a demographic majority in the Nineveh Plains. This is a region of immense historical, cultural and religious significance among the natives in the Assyrian heartland.

Mosul and Nineveh

Mosul contained sizeable ethnic Assyrian and other Christian communities, with many active ancient churches and monasteries, until its invasion by ISIS in 2014. Mosul has also for centuries been a significant center for Christians.

Mosul is built along the Tigris, one of the Biblical rivers of Paradise, opposite the ruins of the well-known Assyrian capital city of Nineveh, which was inhabited as early as 3,000 BC. This was where, according to the Bible, the residents escaped God’s destruction after the prophet Jonah came to them and encouraged that they turn away from sin.

“Mosul and the Nineveh Plain are places of great historical and current relevance for the Assyrian people as a whole,” said Efrem Yildiz, a Professor of Hebrew and Aramaic Studies at the University of Salamanca.

“But above all it is important for the implantation of Christianity in the Middle East starting with northern Mesopotamia, the ancestral territory of the Assyrians who converted to Christianity in the first century of the Christian era. The kingdom of Adiabene, together with that of Ashur and Osrhoene, were the first small Assyrian kingdoms to convert to Christianity and were the ones who brought the Gospel to all Far East.

“Currently, the Christian presence in the area is essential for all of Mesopotamia and especially for the Assyrian people, who are divided into different Catholic and non-Catholic ecclesial branches. The Nineveh Plains is the last hope to be able to implant true democracy and develop Christianity as it deserves, if it has the support of the Western world,” said Yildiz.

The indigenous people of Iraq are Assyrians, who have inhabited there for millennia. The ancient Assyrians ruled their empire from several capitals in what is today known as Iraq. One of them was the city of Nineveh, which was once the largest city in the world. However, Assyrians have been stateless for more than two millennia, since the fall of the Assyrian Empire and sack of Nineveh in 612 BCE.

Hannibal Travis, a Professor of Law at the Florida International University, notes:

“As the early Christian church was growing and evangelizing distant lands, the Assyrian identity survived the destruction of Nineveh. Assyrians continued to practice their ancient religion and inhabited their ancient capital of Assur, rebuilt in a new style.”

However, with the Arab conquests of Mesopotamia, Persia, Syria, Armenia, Egypt, and the Levant, the Eastern Christian peoples fell to a subordinate status, also known as dhimmitude.

“Arab officials decreed the destruction of many churches, the cessation of Christian religious services, the deportation of Christians from the land, the expropriation of their property, and the executions of those who resisted,” adds Professor Travis.

Despite severe persecutions, Assyrians have remained resilient.

“The modern Assyrians of Iraq and Persia have had such ancient Assyrian names as Sargon and Sennacherib since the earliest European contact with them. The name ‘Assyria’ was also consistently applied to the area around the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh, and the Christians of Iraq reaffirmed their Assyrian identity from the earliest French and British contact.”

Assyrian contributions to science and intellectual developments, even under Muslim rule, are also well-documented. Assyrian Christians living under the Abbasid Caliphs, for instance, are credited with translating many Greek scientific and philosophical works into Arabic, writes Professor Travis.

The Pope went to these ancient lands in Iraq, which are of deep significance for Christianity. He visited the Church Square in Mosul to pray for the victims of ISIS. Surrounded by the ruins of the square’s Four Churches, he said the exodus of Christians from Iraq and the broader Middle East had done “incalculable harm not just to the individuals and communities concerned but also to the society they leave behind.”

2014 ISIS Invasion

Like the early Islamic armies who invaded the region in the eighth century, ISIS also murdered the Christians of Iraq, desecrated Christian places of worship, and beheaded religious statues.

When ISIS terrorists invaded Mosul in July of 2014, they threatened to kill Christians unless they converted to Islam or paid the jizya tax. A statement issued by the Islamic State was read at the city’s mosques. It called on Christians to comply or face death if they did not leave the city.

The ultimatum cited a historic contract known as dhimma, under which non-Muslims in Islamic societies who refuse to convert are offered so-called “survival” under second-class citizenship if they pay a fee, called a jizya. “We offer them three choices: Islam; the dhimma contract – involving payment of jizya; if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword,” the ISIS statement said.

Christians in the region were thus forced to choose between paying the jizya tax, converting to Islam, leaving or getting murdered. Tens of thousands of Christians fled.

Cultural Genocide

ISIS also launched a war on the region’s ancient and medieval cultural heritage, attacking archaeological sites with bulldozers and explosives. Jonah’s Tomb in Mosul, for instance, was destroyedin July of 2014.A year later, parts of ancient Assyrian sites such as Nimrud and Khorsabad were destroyed. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) described the bulldozing of Nimrud as a “war crime.”

“Nimrud is the modern name,” said Nicholas Postgate, a professor of Assyriology at the University of Cambridge. “The ancient name was Kalhu. It’s mentioned in the Bible, under the spelling ‘Calah.'”

According to the National Geographic:

“Reports of looting at Mosul’s libraries and universities began to surface almost as soon as ISIS occupied the city… Centuries-old manuscripts were stolen, and thousands of books disappeared into the shadowy international art market. Mosul University’s library was burned in December.

“Many of the site’s sculptures were housed in the Mosul Museum, and some were damaged during the rampage through the museum documented on video. Men were also shown smashing half-human, half-animal guardian statues called lamassus on Nineveh’s ancient Nirgal Gate. ‘I’m not sure there’s much left to destroy in Mosul,’ says Columbia’s Jones.”

ISIS particularly targeted Christian places of worship such as the Mar Behnam Monastery:”Established in the 4th century, the monastery was dedicated to an early Christian saint. The holy site, maintained since the late 1800s by Syriac Catholic monks, survived the Mongol hordes in the 1200s but fell to ISIS in March. The extremists used explosives to destroy the saint’s tomb and its elaborate carvings and decorations.”

Ramsin Edward, Director of Media and Communications of the Assyrian Cultural and Social Youth Association Inc. (ACSYA),authored a report on this matter titled “Assyrian Cultural Heritage at Risk in Northern Iraq.”

“Intentional destruction of archaeological sites, as well as places of cultural and religious significance have a devastating impact on indigenous Assyrians,” Edward said.

“These sites and monuments are very significant in validating collective memory, forming cultural identity, and providing the Assyrians with a sense of belonging. As Assyrians form new diaspora communities due to ongoing conflict in the region, they become increasingly more disconnected from their motherland and are confronted with the process of assimilation. This is extremely concerning.”

Despite all challenges, Edward remains hopeful. “The Pope’s visit to Iraq will most certainly draw attention to the country’s historic sites and may perhaps even encourage tourism. However, beyond these dusty ruins, there exists a living culture that is on the brink of extinction. The right to self-determination is an integral element of basic human rights and freedoms. An autonomous self-governing region and self-security will be the only viable and long-term solution for the Assyrians. Statically speaking, the areas in the Nineveh Plains where Assyrians maintain their own security have seen the most re-settlement in contrast to other areas.”

Continued Persecution

Assyrians have for centuries been targeted by Muslim extremists for their faith and ethnicity. Historians record that the first massacre of Assyrians in the modern era took place in the 1840s in northern Mesopotamia in the Ottoman Empire. The greatest assault against the community would take place in less than a century later. During the 1915-1923 Assyrian genocide by Ottoman Turkey, approximately300,000 Assyrians were killed and innumerable women abducted.

Many descendants of the genocide’s survivors left Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s due to the violent conflicts between the Turkish military and the Kurdish PKK. An elderly Assyrian couple– Simoni and Hurmuz Diril – who had had to leave Turkey for Europe returned to their ancient village only to be kidnapped last year.

The couple was abducted from the village of Mehr, a historically Assyrian village that has been repeatedly caught in the crosshairs of various conflicts. The mother, Simoni Diril, was found deceased on March 20, 2020. The whereabouts of the father, Hurmuz Diril, remain unknown. Their son, Father Adday Remzi Diril, is a Catholic priest based in Istanbul, known internationally for his pastoral care of 7,000 Iraqi Christian refugees displaced in Turkey.

The Diril family hopes that the Pope’s visit of Iraq would bring their parent’s forced disappearances to the Pope’s attention and therefore to the world’s attention.

What the future might hold for Assyrians in Nineveh

Ashur Sargon Eskrya, the president of Assyrian Aid Society – Iraq, said that Assyrian Christians still live in an unstable situation in Nineveh plains and in villages and towns under the KRI (Kurdistan Region of Iraq) control.

“This situation stems from a lack of security in the Nineveh Plains and a lack of a legal frame to protect our rights as an indigenous people of Iraq, or even as citizens of the country.

“Nineveh plains are currently divided into two parts; the north part is administrated officially by Baghdad and its security is under peshmerga forces and Asayish (Kurdish security force) of the KRI that are trying to illegally seize Assyrian lands. The south part is controlled by the Iraqi government and its security is provided by three local forces. One is the Assyrian NPU (Nineveh Plain Protection Units), which is part of the Iraqi security forces. The other two are Shabak militia, the Babylon brigade and the 30th brigade, which are following orders coming from outside of the country. This makes the region unstable.”

Turkey’s airstrikes against northern Iraq are increasingly ruining the security of the region and making it harder for Assyrians to return, said Eskrya.

“Assyrian Christian villages near Iraqi Turkish borders are suffering from Turkish airstrikes against Kurdish PKK fighters. The PKK have infiltrated Assyrian villages and are using them as a battlefield, in addition to new conflicts which ingress rapidly in the region between two rivalrous Kurdish groups – KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) peshmerga and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) – after the security agreement on the region of Sinjar between the Iraqi government and the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government).The Kurdish peshmerga have also started installing more check points and controlling flowing foods into some Assyrian regions like Nahla Valley.”

The unity of all security forces and militias in the Nineveh Plains under the Iraqi government and recognizing the Assyrian right to self-rule would largely solve security problems in the region, said Eskrya.

“Nineveh plains should be neutralized from the conflicts between Kurdish, Sunni and Shia political parties. The next step should be to draw a road map to establish a legal framework based on the article 125 of the Iraqi constitution to guarantee the rights of Assyrian Christians by establishing a new local administration, a Nineveh plains province, for Assyrians.

“Also, in the villages under the KRG control, it is important to stop the land grabs by Kurds of Assyrian villages and lands immediately.”

Eskrya thinks that for Assyrians to survive in their lands, the support of the Pope and the international Christian community is essential.

“The Pope and Holy See should help protect Christian rights in Iraq and to help keep Christianity as part of the future of Iraq. This should include bringing the attention of the international community to the Assyrian plight and putting more diplomatic pressure on the Iraqi government and the KRG to make them democratize their laws in a way that would recognize the rights of Christians as well, for these two administrations still have laws which violate the human rights of Christians and other non-Muslims.”

Eskrya added that aid and support should be provided to the Assyrian Christian community directly as a strong financial and political plan is needed to help Assyrians who are currently in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan seeking asylum there to return back to their homeland. “If stability is provided in Nineveh, we believe that more Assyrians in the diaspora will return to our lands,” he said.

Eskrya also called on the Pope to lead the efforts to unite Christians in Iraq:“Historically, Eastern Christians belong to the same race, heritage and tradition. However, their ecclesiastical divisions have long fueled sectarianism. The Pope has the ability to mediate between these groups by promoting dialogue, partnership, and find common ground.”

Professor Yildiz also said that the international Christian community with the involvement of the highest authority of the Catholic Church could help the Assyrians to preserve their faith in a very complex region. He continued:

“For centuries Assyrians have suffered persecution, massacres, discrimination of all kinds for being different from others in terms of their faith. What makes them the most vulnerable and defenseless victims is their Christian faith. If the international Christian community does not take the protection of these people seriously, their presence in their ancestral territory has its days counted. So it is not enough to feel sorry for their delicate situation but they also have to act at the international political level to guarantee the rights of these people abandoned and forgotten by the whole world. The Pope of Rome has a crucial role in ensuring the survival of the Assyrians in their land. I hope that this trip will do something to help the Assyrians to live in peace so that they can develop in the Nineveh Plain as a people and a nation like any other people.”

Juliana Taimoorazy
Juliana Taimoorazy
Juliana Taimoorazy is the founding president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council (ICRC).