Saturday, November 27, 2010


The skewering and ritual roasting of Orthodox cleric and Greek freedom fighter Athanasios Diakos, simply because he would not convert to Islam is a fact and yet it seems as unreal as other stories of torture – the placing of red hot helmets on Saint Kalliopi’s head, or the scraping away of flesh and the boiling in hot oil that comprise the travails of the saints in the martyrologion of the Orthodox Church. Incidentally, though Athanasios Diakos died for his faith, he has not been made a saint and it would be interesting to find the reason why.
Such tortures appear remote and fairy-tale like because they belong to the re-modern age of darkness and barbarity. In this, the age of enlightenment and emancipation, not only persecution, but also martyrdom are considered to be uncivilized. Yet consider this: Between 2003-2010, a two month old infant was kidnapped, beheaded, roasted and returned to its parents on a bed of rice, a fourteen year old adolescent was decapitated because he was a "dirty Christian sinner," and another fourteen year old boy was crucified in his own village because he was a Christian.
This heinous state of affairs, reminiscent of the persecution suffered by the Greeks under the Ottomans during the four hundred years of their subjugation, has arisen in Iraq after its “liberation” by the US led alliance and is visited each day upon its native Christian population. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the number of native Assyrian Christians has plummeted from estimates of one and a half million to only five hundred thousand. It is not difficult to discern the reason for their flight. They are terrorized, murdered, raped, harassed, threatened and abused by Arab co-citizens who believe that non-Arab Christians are not humans, have no place in ‘Islamic’ Iraq and can therefore be treated with the utmost brutality.
The toppling of the repressive Baath regime has merely highlighted the west’s inability to transform a totalitarian state into a pluralistic, tolerant democracy, where all religious and ethnic groups may live in peace. Instead, the western invasion has served to underline an Islamic ideology that sees no place for its native population of Christians. Indeed, two weeks ago, Al Qaeda-linked militants in Iraq issued a statement saying that all Christians are now legitimate targets.
Since June 2004 at least seventy churches have been bombed, and large numbers of young Christian women have been abducted and raped, causing some of them to commit suicide.
Female Christian students have been targeted in Basra and Mosul for not wearing veils. Most disturbingly, some had nitric acid squirted on their faces. Elders of a Christian village in Mosul have been warned not to send females to universities. The Mahdi Army, the military wing of one of the main power blocs in Iraq's new Government has circulated a letter warning all Christian women to veil themselves in Iraq.
If this was not enough, Al-Qaeda has recently moved into an Assyrian neighborhood and has begun collecting the poll tax the Greeks know as haratsi, which was paid to the Ottomans as a condition of Christians being allowed to retain their religion, and demanding that females be sent to the mosque to be married off to Muslims. In the meantime, 95% of liquor stores have been attacked, defaced or bombed. 500 shops in the market of Dora a suburb once inhabited mostly by Assyrian Christians were burned in one night.
Then came the most horrific act of inhumanity of them all, terrorists stormed into a Baghdad church, yelling “kill the pigs.” The ensuing massacre left fifty two people dead. Al Qaeda, who claimed responsibility for the slaughter issued a statement whereupon its stance towards Iraq’s native Christian population was made unequivocal.
“Upon guidance issued by the Ministry of War in the Islamic State of Iraq in support for our downtrodden Muslim sisters that are held captive in the Muslim land of Egypt and after accurate planning and selection, an angry group of righteous jihadists attacked a filthy den of polytheism. This den has been frequently used by the Christians of Iraq to fight Islam and support those who are fighting it. With the grace of God, the group was able to hold captive all those in the den and take over all its entrances.”
A week later, twelve bombs were detonated at six different locations in Baghdad targeting Christians. Another six people are now dead.
It is clear that neither the inept government of fractious Iraq or its western occupiers have any vested interest in safeguarding the religious or ethnic rights of its aboriginal inhabitants. This being so, all parties participating in the occupation of Iraq are morally responsible for the genocide now being undertaken against Assyrian Christians.
A few weeks ago, having had enough and severely disturbed by the recent church massacre, the Assyrian communities of Melbourne held an impressive rally in front the State Library, which was also attended by representatives of various Greek community organizations. The protesters, most of them refugees themselves, chanted peace slogans in English, Assyrian and Arabic and were heartened by the fact that some Muslims attended as well. They held aloft pictures of children killed by Islamic terrorists, and described, tearfully, what it felt like to walk out of one’s door not knowing whether one would see their loved one’s again. There are few Assyrian families in Melbourne who have not experienced such loss first-hand.
The demands of the protesters were quite reasonable:
1. The establishment of an international commission investigating crimes against Iraq’s Assyrian people.
2. That Australia urges the Iraqi government to implement specific measures designed to protect Iraq’s Assyrian people in areas in which they reside.
3. Self-determination for all Assyrians in their ancestral homeland in the Nineveh Plains where they may enjoy their own security forces, manage their own affairs, run their own schools, and freely practice their religion within a self-administrative unit structure in accordance with Iraq’s constitution.
4. That the Australian government meets its moral obligation as a participant in the war on Iraq and look compassionately upon visa applications from Assyrian people under
Australia’s humanitarian immigration program.
Nonetheless, the true significance of the protest was only felt, towards the end, which concluded with the chanting of Church prayers for the dead, when an elderly gentleman walked up to me and said: “Where are the Australians? No one has walked off the street to ask us what we are doing or why we are protesting. The west does not care about us at all.” I was reminded of our own annual Justice for Cyprus march, whose attendees dwindle every year. We march along empty streets, the black-clad ladies who have lost husbands and brothers and for whom the protest has any true significance weep and them we go home, having achieved nothing. For this is what modern democracy means – a guarantee that we can express our innermost thoughts, but no ancillary right that anyone will hear them or, in any event care.
At least the Melbourne Assyrian community is united in its resolve to campaign for the affording of basic rights for their people and we, who have historically suffered similar persecution in the past from the same quarters, can only sympathise with them. What irks the most however, is that a few months ago, when a young Greek man was tortured and murdered in Albania, simply for being Greek, our corpulent, sprawling community, barely bat an eyelid in its indolence. Food for thought.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 27 November 2010