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Iraq's Christian Refugees Fear For Their Ancient Culture

Juliana Taimoorazy points out Nineveh Plains of northern Iraq
Juliana Taimoorazy points out Nineveh Plains of northern Iraq

ITHACA, NY (WSKG) - On Wednesday evening, in Ithaca, a small group gathered in the Tompkins County Public Library in Ithaca to learn about the plight of Assyrian Christians from Iraq. The gathering was organized by the Ithaca Coalition for Unity and Cooperation in the Middle East.

Assyrians are from northern Iraq and their homeland is the area near Mosul called the Nineveh Plains.

When ISIS captured Mosul in 2014, Christians in northern Iraq were quickly singled out. They were ordered to convert or die. Some were able to flee.

Guest speaker Juliana Taimoorazy said Iraqi Christians began facing persecution around 2008.  "With the bombing of the churches, decapitating of the priests, kidnapping of women and children and executing fathers in front of their families," she said, "that’s how everything began and they started fleeing their homes..."

Her family's experience was different. For example, they were able to immigrate to the U.S. together from Iran in 1990.

A 2016 study by the Pew Research Center found Christians made up the largest number of refugees entering the United States as religious minorities in their home countries.

Now, Christian families are divided. Siblings and parents are separated and sent to different countries. "What is happening today, aside from their suffering...and trauma that has been inflicted on them...since the fall of Saddam. It is really the breakdown of family. Their family, their community has been torn apart," she says.

Taimoorazy says Assyrians fear this will destroy their culture, which dates back over 6,000 years. It means they cannot worship together and children aren't learning their native language, Amaraic.

She explained Iraq's Christian population has gone from one and a half million to barely two hundred thousand.

Her non-profit, the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, provides aid to Christians throughout the Middle East. She is also a senior fellow at the Philos Project in New York City. It provides aid to Assyrian Christians.  

Now that ISIS has been pushed out of Iraq, Taimoorazy says, some Assyrians want to return home to the Nineveh Plains.  However, there is a condition -- security in the form of a self-autonomous region.