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Los Angeles Times
February 17, 2003 Monday Home Edition
Assyrians Hope for U.S. Protection;
Descended from early Christians, they fear their compatriots in Iraq
will come to harm.
by Teresa Watanabe, Times Staff Writer
They regard themselves as heirs to an ancient Mesopotamian tradition
that produced early legends of creation, a great flood and a boy in
a basket, set adrift in a river and rescued. But those traditions
have virtually vanished from widespread public awareness, they say,
eclipsed by later biblical stories.
Their history is rife with massacres -- including attacks by the
Ottoman Turks and Kurds in the early 20th century that wiped out
much of their population. But their problems have been overshadowed,
they say, by the Armenians who suffered alongside them.
After losing their empire and wandering stateless for more than 2,600,
years they were promised a homeland, they believe, by the League of
Nations after World War I. But the promises were betrayed, they say,
their interests cast aside. Now many of the world's remaining Assyrian
Christians, several thousand of whom live in Southern California,
fear they will become an afterthought again as the United States
prepares for a possible war against Iraq, where nearly half their
In the drive to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Assyrian
spokesmen say, the United States must stay engaged long enough to
ensure that whatever regime comes next protects the country's ethnic
and religious minorities.
Otherwise, "at the end of the day, all of the other people in Iraq
are Muslims, and they will discriminate against us and try to get rid
of us," said Carlo Ganjeh, U.S. secretary for the Assyrian Universal
Alliance. "This is the sad reality of the Mideast."
More than two millenniums ago, their ancestors created one of the
world's great empires, covering much of what is now Iran, Iraq, Syria
and Turkey. Among the earliest peoples to convert to Christianity,
they claim inventions including the wheel, the Zodiac and fractions.
But today, with their people scattered in 40 countries, Assyrians
are one among many peoples who survive from the ancient days of the
Middle East, half forgotten by the world.
"I don't know anybody who's ever heard of Assyrians," said Anil
Varani, 20, youth group vice president of the Assyrian American Assn.
of Southern California. In the 13 years since she emigrated from Iran,
she has usually told others that she's Babylonian -- a related people
at least vaguely familiar to more Americans, she says.
Some Assyrians say Jews are one group of people who seem to be more
familiar with them. But because the Hebrew Bible describes Assyrians
as cruel and ruthless conquerors, people such as the Rev. William
Nissan say he is invariably challenged by Jewish rabbis and scholars
about the misdeeds of his ancestors.
Asked whether many Jews still bear grudges against modern Assyrians,
Yitzchok Adlerstein, an Orthodox rabbi who teaches at Loyola Law
School, replied: "They still survive?"
The scant public awareness puts Assyrians in the position of frequently
fighting to assert their proper identity, even among themselves. Some
argue for a common Assyrian identity for all the non-Arab, Christian
groups that trace their ancestries to ancient Mesopotamia and
surrounding lands. Others who would fit into that blanket identity
regard themselves as distinct from Assyrians, both ethnically and
religiously. For example, some Chaldeans, most of whom are Roman
Catholic, say they should be considered separate from Assyrians,
who belong to the Church of the East, the Syriac Orthodox Church,
the Syriac Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations.
The internal divisions are noted as one of the community's greatest
challenges by both U.S. government officials and Assyrian leaders
such as Ronald Michael, president of the Assyrian American League.
"My greatest criticism and challenge" to fellow Assyrians, he said,
"is to put aside personal differences and come together and coalesce."
At the same time, Assyrians say they must fend off efforts to "Arabize"
them, both here and abroad. The Assyrian International News Agency,
for instance, has chastised the Washington, D.C-based Arab American
Institute for saying Assyrians, including Chaldeans and Syriacs, are
Arab Christian minorities. The news agency called such attempts an
"egregious, willful and deliberate mischaracterization of Assyrian
identity" to enhance the Arab demographic "and, by extension, political
clout in the U.S."
"Assyrians are not Arabs," the news agency wrote. "Assyrians,
including the Chaldeans and Syriacs, are the indigenous Christian
people of Mesopotamia and have a history, spanning 7,000 years,
that predates the Arab conquest of the region."
After Sept. 11, 2001, in what the Assyrian news agency called "an
erroneous association with the Arab identity," St. John's Assyrian
Church in Chicago was set afire and another Assyrian church in a
nearby town received a letter asking, "Are you with the U.S. or with
More than two decades earlier, said Noray and Elgret Betbaba, who
emigrated from Iran in 1969, their former sandwich shop and home in
Oxnard were vandalized while Iran held U.S. hostages in the early
1980s. At one point, Noray Betbaba said, he and his friends were
threatened in a North Hollywood bar by a man wielding a knife who
told them: "You dirty Iranians. You leave here or I'll cut you up."
Assyrians say the assault on their identity is most pronounced,
however, in their ancestral lands. Michael said Iraqi President Hussein
has cleansed textbooks of Assyrian history and accomplishments, denied
government benefits to those who refuse to use Arab or Muslim names,
uprooted Assyrian villages and banned the Assyrian language from
Many Assyrians say they fear even greater persecution in a post-Hussein
Iraq if the United States withdraws too quickly and leaves the country
Their fears of persecution are grounded in the living memories of many
Assyrians. On a recent Sunday, several dozen Assyrians gathered to
share their family stories at the Assyrian center in North Hollywood,
a social hall decorated with the Assyrian flag, winged bull statues
and portraits of ancient kings.
According to cultural anthropologist Arian Ishaya, Assyrians first
came to California in 1910 as farmers in the Turlock area of the
Central Valley. They have since moved into the "solid middle class"
as small-business owners and professionals in computer science, law,
engineering and medicine. The nation's largest Assyrian populations
are in the Detroit and Chicago areas, but Assyrian spokesmen claim
a population of 7,000 in Southern California.
For Assyrians like William Warda, a 62-year-old graphic designer,
success in America has not diminished memories of a horrific past. At
the recent Assyrian center gathering, Warda said he was a 4-year-old
boy in the northwestern Iranian area of Urmia when he saw his village
plundered, his father shot through the head and his 6-month-old sister
bayoneted by Turks in 1946. Prevented from burying his father's corpse,
Warda said, the family watched helplessly as dogs picked it apart.
"They said, because you are Christians, you are supposed to die,"
Warda said -- adding that Muslims in another village sheltered them
and helped the rest of the family escape.
Manon Dooman, a 67-year-old artist and former nurse, said most of her
family was massacred by the Ottomans in 1915, but her grandmother
survived, escaped to Russia and passed down stories of seeing
sword-wielding soldiers ruthlessly slaying Assyrian Christian boys
Assyrians say they lost 750,000 people to the Ottomans; the Turkish
government denies any atrocities, just as it rejects Armenian
assertions of genocide. Assyrians commemorate the 1933 slaughter
of 3,000 Assyrians in Iraq on their Aug. 7 "Martyr's Day," but that
history, too, is little known outside their community.
Ever so slowly, however, Assyrians appear to be coming together --
and drawing more attention.
Ganjeh, of the Assyrian Universal Alliance, said a meeting in London
last November for nine of 14 major Assyrian political organizations
represented a milestone in unity efforts and that follow-up meetings
are being organized. Though many Assyrians still dream of recovering
a homeland or autonomous state, others say guarantees of democratic
freedoms in a Muslim-ruled state may be the best they can hope for.
Signs of Hope
In the United States, Assyrians had been neglected by Washington
policymakers crafting plans for a post-Hussein Iraq.
But that changed after intense lobbying by groups such as the Assyrian
American League, which was established last year and has won the
backing of some prominent politicians, including Rep. Henry Hyde
(R-Ill.), who represents a district outside Chicago.
Assyrians are now formally mentioned in speeches by President Bush
and included in Iraqi opposition meetings convened by the U.S. State
Department. The Assyrian Democratic Movement has qualified for federal
funds under the Iraq Liberation Act, which funnels federal money to
Iraqi opposition groups.
"We basically got in the face of everyone," said Michael of the
Assyrian American League. "Our rights, which have been trampled on
for so long, need to be secured."
Meanwhile, Assyrians say other Christian groups are beginning to
rally behind them. A worldwide day of prayer for the protection of
Assyrian Christians was observed Sunday and supported by the Rev. Pat
Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network.
"Western Christians must show some interest in what's happening and
help us out," said Shamiram Tabar, president of the Assyrian American
Assn. of Southern California. "Otherwise, sooner or later the Mideast
won't have any Christians left whatsoever."
GRAPHIC: PHOTO: LOOKING AHEAD: At the Assyrian center, Moshi Abraham,
left, 76, of Chatsworth, Youaf Shahbaz, 72, of Reseda, and Alexander
Pirayoo, 78, of Northridge discuss their thoughts on fallout from a
possible U.S.-led war on Iraq.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Anne Cusack Los Angeles
Times PHOTO: REGRETS: The Rev. William Nissan is among those who say
many know of Assyrians only for their ancestors' misdeeds. PHOTO:
WORRIES: Michael Atnill, 17, a member of the youth group of the
Assyrian American Assn. of Southern California, and Anil Varani,
the group's vice president, outside the Assyrian center, where young
people discussed their concerns for Assyrians in Iraq. PHOTOGRAPHER:
Photographs by Anne Cusack Los Angeles Times
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