Assyrian Agonistes

by Jerry Gordon (March 2011)


St. Peter’s Bones
By Kenneth Timmerman
Cassiopeia Press, 2011, 293 pages



Ken Timmerman, columnist and foreign correspondent has written another action-packed tale about real world moral questions. His first thriller, Honor Killing, was based, in part, on Timmerman’s nearly 20 year investigation of the Iranian nuclear development program and secret war against the US and Israel, as well as, humanitarian issues arising from Islamic totalitarian doctrine and infiltration of our government.

In St. Peter’s Bones, Timmerman crafts plots revolving around the plight of the beleaguered Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac (hereafter referred to as the Assyrians) Christian community in Iraq. Timmerman’s motivation in writing this novel, based in part on his own involvement and reporting on the predicament faced by this ancient Middle East Christian community, was to add some emotional content beyond the meager news reports about the assaults against them by sectarian forces in Iraq and the flight of more than half the estimated 1.5 million Assyrians in the Iraqi community seeking safe havens elsewhere in their Diaspora.

The descendents of the Biblical Assyrians were early converts to Christianity via St. ThomasAramaic, the lingua franca of the Ancient Middle East was the mother tongue of the Assyrians and continues in daily use and in their liturgy and worship. The Aramaic script with blocked letters influenced what became Judaic Hebrew that adopted many Aramaic words in holy texts. Aramaic was spoken by Jesus and his disciples, including Sts. Paul and Peter both of whom were instrumental in founding the Church in Rome. Peter was executed by crucifixion (upside down) by the Emperor Nero in 66AD. Despite the schism between Eastern versus Western churches and the onslaught of Islam in Mesopotamia, the Assyrians have survived successive waves of massacres and persecution under Syrian Caliphs, during the barbaric Mongol invasion of Tamerlane and under Ottoman Sultans. The Assyrians, Armenians and Syriacs were subjected to a genocidal jihad by Ottoman Forces and Kurds during the period from 1914 to 1923. It is estimated that upwards of 270,000 to 500,000 Assyrians in Turkey, Western Iran and Mesopotamia were slaughtered during the Great Genocide. Kurdish forces massacred more than 3,000 Assyrians in August, 1933; some believe they were betrayed by the British administrators in Iraq.  Episodic massacres of Assyrians by Kurds and Arabs have continued throughout the 20th and into the 21st Century. The latest incident being the bombing of Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad on October 31st, 2010 when 58 were killed and more 100 injured  by a bombing attack during worship services. The fictionalized Assyrian interpreter cum narrator in St. Peter’s Bones is portrayed as a descendent of those who fled the Great Genocide from Persia to Mesopotamia in 1923.

Watch this You Tube Video, “Where God Weeps” with Father Keith Roderick, Secretary General of the Coalition to Defend Human Rights about the daily assaults of kidnapping, rape and murder of Assyrians in Iraq.

The Assyrian community, exemplified by the protagonists in the novel, portrays their situation as being caught between the hammer of Kurdish sectarian forces encroaching the plains of biblical Nineveh and the anvil of Sunni Arabs assaulting Christian enclaves in Baghdad, Basra and northern Iraq. Some of the dynamics in the novel concern the quest of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) based in Erbil to regain control over Mosul and Kirkuk with its vast oil reserves allegedly protecting the Assyrian Christian community in the Plains of Nineveh. The Assyrians are hapless pawns in this contemporary struggle between opposing historical ethno Islamic groups seeking to overtake the Christian ancestral homeland with access to vast oil resources. Mosul and Kirkuk were ‘Arabized’ by the late Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein.

Timmerman takes the title of this latest novel from the tale of the purported secret book and sacred relics maintained by Assyrian monks at the Christian Monastery of St. Hormidz at Alqosh in Northern Iraq. These fictional monks from the Assyrian diaspora in the novel maintain virtual armed control over the secret book and custody of the sacred relics allegedly maintained at the St. Hormidz Monastery. The sacred relics are the purported bones of St. Peter taken by St. Hormizd to the monastery in Northern Iraq from Rome in 846 AD under orders of Pope Leo the Fourth during a Saracen siege of the Holy City. See Andrew Bostom, The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims  for a discussion of the Muslim assault on the Vatican and desecration of the holy relics. As noted in the novel, the sacred relics were re-discovered by the Vatican and their discovery was officially announced by Pope Pius, XII in 1950. The provenance of these sacred relics at the St. Hormizd Monastery is contested by a Vatican Priest, a relative of Pope Pius XII, in the Timmerman novel.  The secret book is deemed to be explosive because it contains alleged evidence that Mohammed, the founder of Islam, took instructions about Christian doctrine from a Nestorian Priest, Bahira, as a youth, only to have Mohammed subsequently reject it in favor of jihad.

Timmerman noted this fictional treatment as the equivalent of Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses.

The passage in the secret book about the three “goddesses” of Meccah––known to Muslims as The Satanic Verses, because only Satan could have dictated such heresy––of course became famous to a Western audience because of Salman Rushdie’s novel of the same title.

My particular twist to this story––comparing them to the Christian triune Godhead––is, I believe, unique.

Timmerman notes the contribution of Australian Anglican minister and human rights advocate, Mark Durie, in fashioning this central plot line concerning the views of Muslim scholars about the rejection of Christian doctrine that allegedly Mohammed was exposed to by the Nestorian monk, Bahira:

Not content, however, to just invent a story as grave as that of the founding of Islam, I spent a great  deal of time with authentic Muslim sources, starting with the most famous of them all, Ibn Ishaq’s Life of Mohammad. Ibn Ishaq recounts the influence on Mohammad of a Coptic monk named Bahira, as well as the influence of his wife’s cousin, a convert from Christianity who was known to have translated the Gospels into Arabic. I adapted his account of Mohammad’s early success as a caravan leader working in his wife’s employ as part of the “Secret Book” of the Guardians of St. Hormizd.

              [. . .]

Well after I had completed the first draft of St. Peter’s Bones, I had the opportunity through Bill Murray, chairman of the Religious Freedom Coalition––another group that has done wonderful work to support the embattled Christians of the East––to meet Australian scholar of Islam, Mark Durie. His most recent book on dhimmitude, The Third Choice, is illuminating. Mark sent me a link to a remarkable website, written by Muslim scholars that told the story of the Nestorian monk Bahira and his alleged influence over Mohammad in great detail. He also steered me toward the Hadith from Sahih Bukhari, considered the most trusted of all the early Muslim chroniclers, quoted at the end of my book.

One of the fictional protagonists in the novel, a Vatican priest and nephew of Pope Pius XII, seeks to acquire the secret book at Alqosh to assist the Holy Father in Rome in exposing the real origins of Islam. The Monks and the Vatican's envoy priest figure in a tumultuous conclusion and battle at the Alqosh Monastery in the climax of Timmerman’s thriller who are attacked by al Qaeda units seeking to destroy “The Secret Book,” as heretical. The descendents of Abouna (Priests in Aramaic) are deemed Guardians of St. Hormizd –the keepers of the sacred book. They figure prominently in the Timmerman novel as leading protagonists. One is the novel’s narrator, a former interpreter for US Coalition Forces, fired on pretext of being a distant relative of the late Saddam Hussein’s deputy Tariq Aziz by a rogue corrupt official of an American security contractor firm in Erbil. The other is a young American Assyrian woman from California traveling with a party of human rights advocates investigating the threatened Assyrian community.

That fictional group provides continuity in Timmerman’s novel. It is composed of the aforementioned Vatican priest, a former Governor of South Carolina, the head of an international Christian human rights group and former Marine who meet up with the Assyrian interpreter in Amman, Jordan seeking humanitarian refugee status for coreligionists fleeing Iraq. The fictional human rights group is rebuffed by US Embassy staff, a rogue CIA operative and the Muslim processors at the local office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. At one point the leader of the group asserts that the US government is giving priority to Muslim rather than Christian emigration, a send up on what really happened to Timmerman and others that we reported in a New English Review article, Why is the UN Determining Who Becomes Humanitarian Refugees in the US?

We noted what Timmerman and the members of the actual investigative group encountered:

In late November [2007], a delegation that included former South Carolina Governor Beasley, William Murray of the Religious Freedom Coalition, Dr. Keith Roderick, Washington Representative of Christian Solidarity International (CSI), journalist, author and human rights activist Kenneth Timmerman met with Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey, head of the Bureau of Population Refugees and Migration and her staff about the Iraqi refugee crisis. They reported on their recent fact–finding mission in Jordan and other Middle East locations. What they got was a polite reception and no support to correct the current UNHCR refugee certification effort in the region that discriminates against Iraqi Christians.

According to Dr. Keith Roderick of Christian Solidarity International (CSI), Iraqi Christian refugees, even those who would be classified under our Humanitarian Refugee guidelines as Extremely Vulnerable Persons (EVP), are being directed to UNHCR Offices in Amman, Jordan. They are entrapped in a long bureaucratic process. Many have reported that they are discriminated against, files are lost and stories that substantiate their profound fear of persecution including death threats are dismissed. The US Embassy in Amman is virtually impenetrable with Jordanian guards at the initial point of contact for refugees. They are all directed to UNHCR offices, even when they could take advantage of the Direct Access Program or Immigration P-2 Visas for family reunification.

The UNHCR receives tens of millions in compensation from our government for this processing function.

As Ken Timmerman writes in a article, “Iraq Christian Refugees Ignored by U.N.” on the plight of Iraqi Christian translators, very few of the 500 translators and US Embassy workers eligible to receive emergency relocation have been certified under a Congressional mandate for those facing death threats. This, despite the fact that they had brought with them letters of appreciation from US commanders and the US Embassy in Baghdad. They were not allowed to present them. Why? Because local UNHCR workers discovered that they were Christians and would not process them.

Consider these comments from Murray in the Timmerman article:

“The UNHCR interest is to get people to fill out their forms and register as asylum-seekers, because they receive money from Uncle Sam. They have no interest in helping these people whatsoever.”

Murray’s other observation was acute:

“It reminds me of what certain people say about Jews – the Jews are better organized…we see that applied to Christians from Iraq. When you say that about Jews, it’s called anti-Semitism. This is a cultural bias, but against Christians.”

I asked Dr. Roderick what he would recommend.

He indicated that CIS should waive these onerous requirements in lieu of the US Embassy and US commander letters documenting their valued service to America in Iraq. He suggested that perhaps the solution might be in the form of executive waivers and/or Congressional resolutions and legislative amendments. The other possible solution is to create administrative units or provinces for Iraqi Christian minorities in their ancestral homelands on the Nineveh Plain. These administrative units would provide local policing and security for their villages and economic development.

Much of those  discussions in 2007 with US State Department and Embassy officials in Amman, Jordan courses through the fictionalized version in Timmerman’s St. Peter’s Bones

The subplots in St. Peter’s Bones reflect the tragedies that befell the Assyrians during the visit by the fictional human rights investigation group. The Assyrian interpreter accidentally runs into a former Iraqi Sunni al Qaeda terrorist leader, who at the opening of the novel, is captured and turned over to the CIA. That sets the stage for unraveling the conspiracy of a Sunni Awakening plot by the CIA to entrap the real leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The former colleagues from the special ops team appear later after they leave the corrupt Pentagon security contractor firm and join a special Pentagon procurement Inspector General (IG) team.

The special Pentagon procurement IG team figures prominently in the climactic conclusion by coming to the aid of the Assyrian interpreter, ultimately confronting and arresting the corrupt American security firm official engaged in a scam with Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) officials to create profitable markups on equipment sold to the KRG. The investigative group is are flown from Amman to Erbil, the capital of  the KRG, to meet with officials of the government, including a toady Assyrian involved with dispensing relief funds for the Assyrian internally displaced persons huddled on the plains of Nineveh. Personal tragedy strikes the interpreter narrator when his sister is kidnapped as a hostage by Kurdish Intelligence agents and then his brother is killed along with 18 others valiantly defending his people in a suicide bombing of an Assyrian food distribution program in Karamlesh, the site of the ancient fortress of Assyrian King Sargon. The interpreter’s sister is freed with the assistance of the special procurement IG team leader who forces the corrupt American official to obtain her release from KRG security forces. The group wends its way in wild vehicle caravans drives under watchful KRG peshmerga minders and Assyrian security personnel through a thicket of attempted attacks by Al Qaeda units who reappear in the ultimate clash at the fortified Monastery of St. Hormizd at Alqosh. The Vatican priest engages in contretemps with the Assyrian military monks over acquisition of the sacred book and relics, in the midst of which the al Qaeda forces attack and nearly destroy the complex with a huge Fuel Air device detonation that destroys the main fortifications. 

Timmerman displays in these climactic scenes a thorough knowledge of military hardware and tactics, along with an appreciation of the internal conflicts in US intelligence echelons in the region, no doubt, gleaned from his actual experiences on the ground as a journalist in Middle East war zones.

Timmerman’s St. Peters Bones is a gripping story about the possible extinction of the ancient Assyrian Chaldean Christian minority in Iraq caught between Kurdish and Sunni Arab sectarian conflicts on the biblical Plains of Nineveh. We hope that readers will take note of this and urge our government to prevent the inevitable and preserve the Assyrian heritage. For that, we are thankful that Timmerman chose to write this fictional treatment about their plight.


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