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Faith & Values: Time to learn about Assyrians, other cultures
By ELIZABETH MCNAMER
For The Gazette
True, all of the perpetrators of the horrible crimes of Sept. 11, 2001, were Muslim, came from the Middle East and were Arab.
In the aftermath of the event, several Americans expressed their anger by attacking mosques and anyone who looked Arabic or Middle Eastern.
The Islamic religion was held responsible for the deeds of a few renegades. President Bush had to go on television to reassure our Muslim citizens and friends that our struggle is not against them and urged them to join us in the war against terrorism.
America learned about Islam only from the devastation that struck us that day.
And much misinformation spread. To name a few: Islamic religion condones aggression, yet the very word Islam is derived from "salaam" and means "peace"; Islam encourages suicide attacks, whereas the killing of oneself is regarded as a mortal sin that earns eternal damnation; Islam is intolerant of other faiths, yet Muhammad incorporated the idea of religious toleration into the Koran. Sura 2 256 reads, "Let there be no compulsion in religion."
Yet another misconceptions is that all Muslims are Arab; whereas, most are non-Arab. Nor do most live in the Middle East.
But the attackers did not stop at Muslims. Middle Easterners became the target of venom.
In Chicago, the Assyrian Church of St. John was burnt to the ground, and the St. Mary's Assyrian church in Roselle Ill., received threats in the form of a letter: "Are you with the U.S. or with the enemy?"
Individual Assyrians and Assyrian businesses received similar threats.
Assyrians are not Arabs. Nor are they Muslim. They are a Semitic people who come from ancient Assyria, a part of the world that is today northern Iraq and eastern Turkey.
These people embraced Christianity as early as the first century, and they have retained their Christianity despite persecution.
They speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. They still retain the name "Assyrian."
Most of us are familiar with the Assyrians from the Old Testament.
They are not portrayed in a good light.
Two hundred years ago, nothing was known about them except what was written in the 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles in the Bible, where they are presented as fierce, invincible warriors, who regularly swooped down from the north, terrified the inhabitants of Israel, demanded exorbitant tributes and then went back home.
With the excavations done by British archaeologist Henry Layard at Nimrud, Ashur and Nineveh in the mid-19th century, we learned the rest of the story. The artifacts from these cities can be seen at the British Museum in London: enormous statues of human-headed winged bulls, other winged creatures, obelisk, stone slabs showing young men and women being flayed alive, prisoners hanging from poles or being impaled on stakes, stricken people being led away from their towns under heavy guard, battering rams attacking fortified city walls, blazing torches being thrown at the enemy.
The Assyrians may have been no more ruthless than other of their neighbors at the time, but they depicted their brutality on bas-reliefs that adorned the staterooms of their kings' places.
We first hear of their intervention in Israel in 853 B.C., when Shalmaneser came through Damascus, destroyed numerous towns and demanded tribute. Local rulers formed an alliance to oppose him, but futilely. Shalmaneser had an inscription made of his great victory:
"They rose against me for a decisive battle ... I slew 14,000 of their soldiers with the sword, descending upon them like Baal when he makes a rainstorm pour down. I spread their corpses, filling the entire plain with their widely scattered soldiers ... with their corpses, I spanned the Orantes before there was a bridge."
Shalmaneser again came in the reign of King Jehu in 841 B.C. The incident is not mentioned in the Bible but is represented in four panes of the stele called the Black Obelisk. It shows the Israelite king Jehu, bowed in abeyance offering tribute.
In 745 B.C., the energetic Tiglath Pilaser III undertook a widespread expansion of the Assyrian Empire. In three campaigns carried out between 734 B.C. and 732 B.C., the Assyrians destroyed many ancient cities: Megiddo, Hazor and the place that we now call Bethsaida.
Excavations show this great city fought valiantly but was overcome, and set on fire in the spring of 732 B.C. So hot was the fire that it melted the brick.
Assyrian arrowheads have been found at the site. Deportation of captured people became the policy under Tiglath. Israel was made a province of Assyria with Samaria as capital and a governor appointed there. The kingdom of Israel was at an end.
There was some intermarriage between the vestiges of Israel and the Assyrians. These people turn up later as the Samaritans.
King Ahaz of Judah had not sided with the consortium against Tiglath, but this did not guarantee safety. We read of the terrified king and his people plundering the temple and their own homes to make payments to keep the Assyrians at bay, but " all to no avail" (2 Chronicles 28: 21).
Judah was made a vassal of Assyria and forced to pay money each year.
Assyria wore itself out. In 612 B.C., combined forces from Egypt and Babylon destroyed the state.
The ancient Empire of Assyria came to an end, but the indigenous population of Assyria still lives in great numbers in the Middle East.
In the last 30 years, Assyrians have been severely discriminated against because of their ethnic difference. They have been denied basic human and civil rights.
In Syria, Turkey and northern Iraq, they are recognized as a religious minority though erroneously referred to as "Arab Christians."
Millions fled their homeland and sought new lives for themselves in America. Many live in Chicago.
After the Sept. 11 attack, they lined up by the hundreds to donate blood and to help the victims of the terrorists in whatever way they could. Yet the Assyrians became the victims of hate crimes, presumably because of their Middle Eastern background and a mistaken identification with Arabs.
Well had the prophet Nahum spoken: "O King of Assyria, your nobles slumber. Your people are scattered on the mountains and none to father them. There is no assuaging your hurt, and your wound is grievous." (Nahum 3: 18-19).
It has been said that Americans learn about geography only at a time of war. Does it take a terrorist attack to have us learn of other cultures?
Elizabeth McNamer is an adjunct professor of philosophy and religion at Rocky Mountain College.
To be featured The Faith & Values column appears regularly in the Saturday Life section of The Billings Gazette. Pastors, ethicists, educators or other experts who would like to write a column about faith, ethics or values for the section, should contact: Susan Olp, Billings Gazette, 401 N. Broadway, Billings, Mont. 59101. Or call her at 657-1281, fax to 657-1208; or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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