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Ethnic dimension of Iraqi Assyrians often ignored

Iraqi Assyrians are often referred to simply as “Christians,” but there is an ancient, distinctive ethnic aspect to Assyrian groups that is overlooked, thus undermining their rights.
An Iraqi Christian Assyrian girl joins in New Year (Aketo) celebrations on April 01, 2011, in the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk, 500 kilometers north of the capital Baghdad. Descendants of Iraq's ancient Assyrians are enjoying the start of parties and parades to celebrate their New Year, a pagan rite that glorifies resurrection and life and dates back millennia. AFP PHOTO/SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)

“The images of 1914 and 2014,” remarked Sabri Atman, director of the Assyrian Genocide Research Center, “are very similar indeed.” As the centenary of the Sayfo, the Ottoman genocide against Assyrians, approaches, northern Iraq’s ancient Christian communities are facing a similar nightmare at the hands of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). Yet, while English-speaking peoples have become familiar with Iraq’s Yazidi minority since IS’ summer offensive, Assyrians worldwide are complaining of media misrepresentation of their ethnic identity.

“Articles that refer to us as Christians only contribute in eradicating Assyrian identity,” tweeted Assyrian actor and community activist Rosie Malek-Yonan. “When Assyrians identify themselves as Iraqi Christian,” she continued, “we’ll only be seen as Christian Arabs and Christian Kurds.” The term “Christian” is convenient, particularly as Assyrians are targeted as such. IS, for its part, does not distinguish among Christian Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs in violating their rights. The majority of Iraq’s Christians, however, are not Arabs or Kurds. Many feel this ethnic aspect to the extermination of Christian communities is being evaded.

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