by Jerry Gordon (November 2015)
Map of Iraqi Christian area of Nineveh Plains
One of the oldest Christian minorities in the Middle East is in danger of extinction: the Assyrian Chaldeans in Northern Iraq and adjacent Syria. They are descendants of ancient Babylonians and Assyrians who were converted to Christianity in the First Century by disciples of St. Thomas, Mar Marie and Mar Addie. These Iraqi Christians revere the prophet Ibrahim, Abraham of the Old Testament, who left Ur of Chaldea, in Southern Iraq, to found the Jewish faith and nation in Israel. Following the conquest of Judea and the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, Jews were removed by Nebuchadnezzar to Babylonia where a community flourished for over 2,500 years until their expulsion by the Iraqi nationalist regime following the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948. Iraqi Jews and Christians share something in common, Aramaic, the lingua franca of the ancient Middle East of two millennia ago spoken by Jews, including Jesus and his apostles. Iraqi Christians built a significant religious culture and civilization over six centuries numbering more than 7 million until the grand jihad of Islam swept out of Arabia 1,400 years ago. Their homeland is the biblical Plain of Nineveh in northern Iraq with its historical center in Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, now occupied by another group of 21st Century jihadists, ISIS.
Iraqi Christian Dance Troupe
Over the millennia Iraq Christians, like the area’s Jews, suffered depredations from Romans, Islamists, Mongols, Ottomans, Kurds, Arab Ba’athist dictators such as the late Saddam Hussein, sectarian Iraqi Shia and Sunni supremacists and barbaric ISIS jihadists who forced their flight from Mosul. At the start of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraqi Christians numbered 1.4 million. Given the onslaught by sectarian Iraqi Shia militia forces like the Sadr brigade, the Christian community in Baghdad and Southern Iraq fled to Mosul and the Nineveh Plain in the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). With the conquest of Mosul in June of 2014, Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities like the Yazidis were forced to flee. Their numbers have been reduced by more than 80 percent. Now there are less than 200,000 Iraqi Christians, 170,000 of these living in abject squalor and poverty bereft of housing and adequate humanitarian assistance in the KRG. They are threatened with possible extinction unless they can receive immediate assistance with the prospects of asylum and reunion with relatives in the US and elsewhere.
Mar Mattai Monastery Library Nineveh Province, Iraq.
French philosopher and humanitarian, Bernard Henri Levy wrote in a Jerusalem Post article in October 2015 of his experience visiting the ancient fourth century C.E. Mar Mattai monastery with its four remaining monks located less than 3 kilometers from the front line of Kurdish Peshmerga forces facing ISIS. Levy noted:
When the weather is clear on the plain of Nineveh, you can see the ISIS front lines defending Mosul about 20 km in the distance. The vast monastery perched high on Mount Alfaf is hewed from stone, its passages, stairways and terraces exposed to the sun and weather. In the courtyard on the ground level live two families who fled Mosul and the persecution of Christians there. Four monks live at Mar Mattai.
Their friendly relations with the Jews who, like them, have felt at home in the region since the Babylonian exile.
And then we speak of IS and its mystifying savagery.
“Of course we had problems with the Persians, Mongols, Arabs and Ottomans,” says Raban Yousiff, a cheerful monk of about 40, acting as spokesman for the bishop, whom we recognize by his purple sash and who says nothing. “But never has this region seen such perversity as these men who, while claiming to be fighting in the name of God, are killing him.”
The monk tells us about the fall of Mosul in June 2014. About the “Nazarenes” who were given a few hours to choose between conversion and death by the sword. About the 300 families who flocked here in panic. Two months later, after the barbarians took Qaraqosh and everyone feared that the monastery would be destroyed by the jihadists – as they had wrecked Mar Behnam, south of Mosul – the families fled again.
Assyrian Chaldean Christians executed by ISIS, September 23, 2015
The situation is no better for Assyrian Chaldeans in Syria, once thought to be a sanctuary, but now overrun by the forces of the Islamic State subjecting Christians to the choice of abiding by the Islamic dhimma, paying the Jizya or facing death. Nina Shea, Director of the Hudson Institute Center for Religious Freedom wrote in a National Review On-line article about ISIS’ genocide of Christians and describing the execution of three Assyrian-Chaldeans by ISIS on September 23, 2015 during the Muslim commemoration of the “Feast of Sacrifice” (Eid al-Adha). This was an act of barbarity and ethnic cleansing. These victims of ISIS were among a group of 200 hostages taken in February 2015 from 35 villages in the Khabour river valley in Hassake in north eastern Syria near the border of Iraq. She noted:
This is genocide and we are morally and legally bound to help them. A military resolution to this crisis will be too late for these peoples. Catholic priest Father Douglas Bazi, the director of the renowned Mar Elias refugee encampment for Iraqi Christians in Erbil, tells me: “Help us live. Help us leave.” They need visas. The West can easily provide them, and it must.
In the wake of the Syrian refugee and illegal migrant flood of Europe, the Administration has raised the allotments for resettlement in the US of humanitarian refugees for both 2016 and 2017 to 85,000 and 100,000 persons with priority preferences for Syrians fleeing from detention camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. However, there is little to no mention of preferences to rescue Middle East Christians like the Assyrian-Chaldeans and other ancient religious minorities targeted by ISIS for genocide.
On the October 11, 2015, Lisa Benson Show we heard about the compelling need for rescue of Chaldean Christians from veteran community leader in the US Joseph T. Kassab, of the Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute (ICAE). Mr. Kassab, a native of the Nineveh Plains of Iraq, came to the US in 1980 as a refugee from the tyranny of the Saddam Hussein regime. That followed completion of his education at the University of Baghdad and its Medical School under the Auspices of the Royal College of Medicine in the UK. After completing additional graduate studies at Wayne State University in Michigan, he established a professional career in micro-biology. He also emerged as a vigorous advocate for rescue of his fellow Chaldean Christians at both domestic and international conferences. He is the President and Founder of ICAE. He has appeared on both radio and TV interview programs concerning the threats to Iraqi Christians and resettlement in the US and Diaspora.
Against this background we reached out to Mr. Kassab for this interview on the plight and rescue of Iraqi Christians.
Jerry Gordon: Joseph Kassab thank you for accepting our invitation.
Joseph Kassab: Thank you for inviting me.
Jerry Gordon: Where did you hail from in Iraq and what prompted you and other family members to come to the US?
Joseph Kassab: I was born to Chaldean Catholic parents in 1952 in the village of Telkaif-Nineveh Plain Mosul-Northern Iraq. We came to the U.S. about 35 years ago as refugees fleeing the late Saddam Hussein’s regime. They demanded we join the Ba’athist Party which we adamantly refused to do because we wanted to stay politically free and as independent Christians.
Gordon: What can you tell about this ancient Middle East Christian community and its unique liturgy?
Kassab: Chaldeans are the descendents of the Babylonian Empire-Civilization from about five millennia before Christ. Our immediate forefather is prophet Ibrahim who was born in UR of the Chaldea (now al Naseriah Province) Southern Iraq. We were pagans and became Christians through conversion by St. Thomas’ Disciples Mar Marie and Mar Addie in the very first decades of Christianity in Mesopotamia, now Iraq. This Christian community contributed significantly to the civilization in Iraq when it flourished for six centuries until the advent of Islam which disrupted Christianity by the sword. It should be mentioned that Christians were also victims of the atrocities of the Romans, Mongols, Tatars, Ottomans, and the recent modern Islamic regimes. Christians in what is now Iraq numbered about 7 million before the arrival of Islam. Prior to the 2003 Iraq war, the Iraq Christian community numbered 1.4 million. Now after Iraqi Islamic militias and ISIS brutality it numbers is less than 200,000. We are ancient Christians who speak and understand the Aramaic language, which Jesus spoke.
As for the Chaldean liturgy: the importance of the Chaldean Rite mass cannot be overlooked. It is the only mass that uses Christ’s own language, Aramaic, and can trace its roots of worship and celebration of the Holy Eucharist to the first Christians in Mesopotamia founded by Mar Addai and Mar Mari. The Chaldean mass is much different from the Latin Rite mass in that it has four biblical readings: two from the Old Testament and two from the New. Although prayers are said exclusively through singing, the rite is very solemn. The focal point of the mass is the Holy Eucharist, in remembrance of the true sacrifice of Christ. The celebrant (the priest) faces the altar and the crucifix, rather than the faithful, making the mass a truly God-centered celebration rather than man-centered. When facing the altar all devotion is given to Christ; this pivotal point in the Chaldean Rite makes our worship as a community beautiful, poetic and spiritually edifying. Also, the role of the priesthood has more importance in the Chaldean Rite, in that when facing the altar and away from the faithful the priest becomes the truest intermediary agent between Christ and his children. Through the priest we receive Christ’s flesh and blood; on our behalf the priest offers our prayers and sacrifice in the celebration of the Eucharist. Clearly the veil plays an important role in the Divine Liturgy.
Gordon: French commentator Bernard Henry Levy wrote about an ancient Christian monastery in Iraq and its three monks in a recent Wall Street Journal article. What is its significance?
Kassab: Two years ago I visited Mar Mattie Monastery. It is an ancient shrine that is visited by Middle East Christians including local Iraqis who come to receive a blessing. The monks of this monastery are always praising the good relationship between Christians and Jewish people throughout the history that they lived and shared together, the good and bad in Iraq and the region. They relate through their religions, history, forefathers, and suffering at the hands of Islamists. A good example of Iraqi Jewish tragedy (just like what is happing now to Christians in Iraq) was during an ominous time in the history of Iraq called “Farhud” the disruption or pogrom. The 150,000 affluent Iraqi Jewish community in Baghdad was attacked, some killed, and ransacked in the summer of 1941 by Islamists. (See our New English Review interview with Dr. Harold Rhode, here and Iconoclast interview with Iraqi Jewish American Reut Cohen, here).
Gordon: What was the situation for Iraqi Christian following the 2003 War?
Kassab: Some of the drastic changes that occurred in Iraq were:
More than 350 political parties were formed; Iraqis were used to be ruled by one single political party.
The US intended democracy has not been established due in part to the increased Islamic laws in Iraq. The constitution has never applied for the benefit of the people but only for personal interests.
The majority of Muslim Iraqis became more extreme Islamists than secular.
Sectarian militias were formed by the major Islamic parties. They are armed, roaming loose in the country, terrorizing, kidnapping and killing people based on their identity, sect, religion, ethnicity, and profession including the innocent Christians.
A severe “Brain Drain” is continuing to take place in Iraq as scholars, professionals, academics, and business entrepreneurs are kidnapped for ransom and some killed. A number have managed to escape Iraq for freedom.
Iraq’s borders are still unattended and porous as the foreign fighters and terrorists like ISIS continue to enter Iraq freely. Iraq has no effective uniformed army or security apparatus as used to exist before the 2003.
- The corruption level among Iraqi government officials is outrageous. The majority of ex-patriates officials returned to Iraq in 2003 penniless and hungry but nowadaysare wealthy. This explains why Iraq does not have a functional infrastructure.
Gordon: How did you get involved in advocacy on behalf of the Iraqi Christian community?
Kassab: I started my advocacy work on behalf of the oppressed and persecuted fellow Iraqi Christians following my admission as a refugee in the US. more than 35 years ago. I said to myself since God has been good to me by opening the door of opportunity and to live in the land of the free why wouldn’t I advocate and help relieve the plight of those Iraqi minority groups including the Christians who desperately need sanctuary here.
Joseph T. Kassab in Nineveh Province, Iraq, 2014
Gordon: What is ICAE proposing to be done to protect Christians in Iraq?
Kassab: Here are some of proposals:
Ensure their legal rights and religious freedom in the Iraqi constitution and among Iraq’s Muslim people;
Ensure significant participation in Iraqi politics, government and parliament;
Ensure a fair share of Iraq’s national revenues; and,
Establish a Protective Area with significant economic development provided and secured by the international community.
Gordon: What are the mission and achievements of the Iraqi Christian Advocacy and Empowerment Institute (ICAEI) seeking to bring refugees to the US?
Kassab: The ICAE Institute mission, as we carry forward the 5,000 year-legacy of our cultural and religious heritage, is to create a better present life for our people in the homeland; Iraq, in countries of first origin, and in the US. This arises from the four pillars of our vision which reaffirm us as a community and as a people:
Empower the persecuted and the oppressed and restore their ethno-religious rights;
Ensure respect for our humanity;
Advocate for the restoration of our human rights; and,
- Work for the re-vitalization of our capabilities to better contribute to humanity and civilization.
Our major achievements are:
Advocated for the establishment of a US Congressional Caucus on the Middle East Ethnic and Religious Minorities;
Advocated for a US Presidential Envoy to Ethno-religious communities in the Middle East;
Advocated and lobbied for US House and Senate Resolutions in support of the plight of Middle Eastern (Iraqi Christians);
Lobbied the Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, US Senate Judiciary Committee and Dept of Homeland Security for special humanitarian concern Visas (P-2) for Iraqis who are beneficiaries of immediate relative immigration petitions. More than 30.000 Iraqi Christians have arrived as refugees under this Visa program;
Promoted a national US Church pledge for solidarity with Middle Eastern Christians-Iraq, and;
Established international community awareness on the ominous plight of ancient Christians from the Middle East and Iraq.
Gordon: How threatening is the ISIS genocide towards Assyrian–Chaldean Christian communities in both Iraq and Syria?
Kassab: ISIS brutalities and atrocities committed against innocent Christians and Yazidis in Iraq is a very serious issue that needs to be immediately confronted by the international community. These evil acts of ISIS are leading to serious cultural and human genocide. ISIS’ acts of brutality are intentional to gain the attention of the world and the global media is falling for it. Our suggestion is not to fall for it as it is better to look into their evil Islamic ideology and expose it to the world.
Gordon: How large is the refugee Iraqi Christian community that fled Mosul and the Nineveh Plain in the Kurdish Region of Iraq?
Kassab: It is estimated that the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) Christian community that fled Mosul in June 2014 and the Nineveh Plain in August 2014 to Kurdistan to seek protection and shelter is approximately 160,000-170,000, living in Erbil (86,000), Duhok (72,000), Kirkuk (8,000) and in Sulimaniah (2,000). Some of these Internally Displaced Christians have fled to the neighboring countries of Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon to register with UNHCR for future settlement in western countries. Some have reached Europe through desperate means and smuggling and some have drowned in the Mediterranean. It is estimated that there are only 200,000 Christians left in Iraq out of 1.4 million before the 2003 war.
Gordon: What are the current conditions of Iraqi Christian refugee camps in the Kurdish Region and what kinds of assistance are they receiving?
Kassab: The current conditions for Iraqi Christian IDPs are very chaotic and horrific. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is doing its best to provide for them. However, they are unable to absorb more than 3 million refugees from Syria and Yazidis in their region. The Iraqi government has done nothing for its citizen IDPs. Corruption is very high among the Iraqi government officials and that by itself makes distribution of relief to its IDPs very poor. The UN and humanitarian local and international NGOs are unable to function properly due to lack of coordination and efficient capacity. Therefore people are losing hope and are availing of any opportunity to escape abroad. Christians are urban refugees-IDPs meaning that they do not live in UN refugee camps. Instead they seek shelter with relatives, in unfinished buildings, parks and churches. Overall, this support can be very short lived because volunteering always has a sunset.
Gordon: Iraqi Christians were prominent as interpreters for US forces during the Second Gulf War. Did they receive any preference in seeking immigration to the US?
Kassab: Iraqi Christians and others who helped US troops during the war did receive earlier some help through the US-Special Incentive Visa programs that we lobbied for. Unfortunately this program is now very limited and very few numbers of people are coming through it to the US.
Gordon: The State Department Humanitarian Refugee P-3 Visa Family Reunification Program was shut down for three years because of fraud in Somali and other African refugee communities. How did that frustrate your efforts to bring Iraqi Christians here?
Kassab: Yes, it was shut down because they could not identify the family connections through lack of documentation and because of massive fraud by some applicant groups. However, the Iraqi Christians can be readily identified because they are petitioned by US Citizens, they have authentic documentation from the Iraq government and church authorities. They volunteered for finger printing during the early days of petition which leaves no room for fraud.
Gordon: How many Iraqi Christians can be documented and cleared by the US DHS for Family Reunification under the US Refugee Resettlement P2/P3 Visa Program?
Kassab: I know for Iraqi Christians we can provide substantial evidence of their origin and religion. We know we have over 200,000 Iraqi Christians in the Middle East that need to be resettled and re-unified with their loved ones. Our office has a roster over 50.000 Iraqi Christian IDPs and refugees who are desperately asking our help to have them resettled here. I call it Kassab’s-‘Schindler List.’ Vetting for those innocent people is easy because they are not terrorists; rather they are the victims who ran away from the terrorists.
Joe T. Kassab with Ellen Sauerbrey former Asst. Secretary of State, Bureau of Population Refugees and Migration
Gordon: How cooperative has the leadership of the State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration been in establishing quotas and preferences for admittance of Iraqi Christians?
Kassab: The State Department PRM is not very helpful when it comes to refugee Christian admission policies. We frequently talk to them. So far we received a lot of lip service. However, PRM is very busy now admitting a lot more people from other than the Christian faith. When we ask them why this is; they deny it or give us many excuses. Just examine the statistics of the demography of refugees admitted to the U.S. from the National Visa Center (NVC) from the Middle East and you will get your answer there.
Gordon: What are your organization’s proposals to provide sanctuary in the West for Iraqi Christians?
Kassab: We have proposed the following to facilitate the safe passage of my people:
Provide Immediate international humanitarian relief for Iraqi Christian IDPs and refugees;
Resettle those Iraqi Christians in Western Countries for those who decide not to return to their homes;
Consider emergency air lift operations for Iraqi Christians equivalent to what we did for Viet Namese refugees that were ordered by President Ford in the 70s following the fall of South Viet Nam;
Use the US President’s annual allotment discretion to bring an initial 50,000 IDPs;
Increase the allotments for Iraqi Christians refugees’ admission to 50,000 in the annual Presidential Memo for US Refugee Admission Program (DOS; PRM -USRAP); and,
Request the US Congress to approve resolutions allowing admission of special onetime refugees based on humanitarian concern from Iraq and appropriate enough funding to help bring in 100,000 Iraqi Christians refugees
Gordon: How can Americans assist the Iraqi Christian Advocacy and Empower Institute in carrying out its mission?
Kassab: We need to have Americans better informed, engaged in alleviating the suffering of this very ancient community of Christians in the cradle of Civilization.
Americans can do the following to help:
Learn more about the rich culture, faith, and history of this frail ancient Christians community;
Increase awareness of the plight of this community;
Talk to and encourage their Representatives in the U.S. Congress to help support this community;
Call and/or join and/or support a pledge for solidarity and unity for the persecuted and oppressed Christians and other religious minorities in the region; and,
Speak about and provide help to prevent the imminent extinction of this Christian community if help is not rendered quickly.
Gordon: Joseph Kassab, thank you for this compelling interview on the plight of Iraqi Christians and requirements to spare their extinction.
Kassab: Thank you for inviting me to present the case for why we need to spare their fate and provide a safe haven for them here in the US and the West.
Listen to an interview with Joseph T. Kassab of the ICAEI on the Lisa Benson Show.
Also see Jerry Gordon’s collection of interviews, The West Speaks.
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Jerry Gordon is a also regular contributor to our community blog. To read his entries, please click here.