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Assyrians Hope for U.S. Protection

Descended from early Christians, they fear their compatriots in Iraq will come to harm.

February 17, 2003|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 compatriots live.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 20, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Eastern Catholics -- An article in Monday's California section incorrectly characterized the predominant religion among Chaldeans as Roman Catholic. The Chaldean Catholic Church, like other Eastern or Uniate Catholic faiths, acknowledges the supremacy of the pope, but has a distinct liturgy and different practices than the Roman Catholic Church.

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 the enemy?"

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