Christmas in Iraq at a refugee camp

As a Christian in the so-called Islamic State, which spans across swaths of former Iraqi and Syrian territory, you can agree to pay tribute to the Islamist overlords of your neighbourhood, convert to their version of Islam or be gruesomely murdered.

It is becoming increasingly clear to Iraq-watchers that Iraq’s minority communities are in danger. Anyone who has watched Iraq in recent months has seen the humiliation and horror the Yazidi community in the north of the country have been subjected to. Massacre, enslavement, rape, starvation, you name it. That’s the reality of the daily lives of those minorities who didn’t, or were unable to, leave their communities and homes. And those who have managed to escape it more often than not find themselves in squalid conditions with thousands of others who have been displaced by that group.

Assyrian Christians in Iraq celebrating Christmas 2014

As they marked Christmas we see how squalid the conditions in which Iraq’s Assyrians now live, far from their homes and out in the cold (I don’t say this in order to impugn the valiant efforts of many of their Iraqi compatriots who are doing their utmost to help these people). The only real solace they have is the fact that they are still alive. The Assyrians in Iraq, as you know, are a minority who, not wholly unlike the Kurds, have been subjected to genocidal campaigns in the past.

Genocide. Now that is a term that conjures up disturbing images in ones mind of mass-graves, piles of bodies and other really foul, nasty and horrendously evil doings. And as you know was coined by a Polish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin. While the term was coined while the Jews of Europe were being exterminated by the mighty power of Hitler’s Germany Lemkin had a particular interest in mass crimes of that kind and distinguishing them from others in a legal sense. Before the Holocaust of course the big mass slaughter of people was of the Armenians in World War I which took place as the moribund Ottoman Empire was on the verge of disintegration.

In 1933 around the time Lemkin was making a presentation of the United Nations’s predecessor the League of Nations he was deeply disturbed by the massacre of Iraq’s Assyrians. They were at that time staging a revolt against the Kingdom of Iraq and wished to have considerable autonomy from Baghdad. Clashes ensued and later saw to the Iraqi Army undertake a killing spree shooting dead any male they saw in 63 Assyrian communities, the most salient being Simele (after which the massacre is named). Around 600-3,000 Assyrians were estimated to have been killed.

While obviously many wars result in much more casualties it was the systematic nature of that campaign that was so disturbing. And what’s equally disturbing is how today in front of our eyes the Assyrians have been forced to flee from their villages and communities in which they have resided for millennia now since had they stayed they would likely be either violently subjugated by the Islamic State or subjected to a campaign of genocide. And not unlike the time Lemkin was formulating what would eventually become the Genocide Convention we have today we again see that the Assyrians do not view Baghdad in a favourable light. Far from it. While the Iraqi military is not the one targeting the minorities in the mountains of Northern Iraq at the behest of the Iraqi government today (hate to sound sardonic but that is progress of a kind) it was unable to protect or aid the Assyrian communities leaving them completely exposed to Islamic State onslaughts, a devastating failure on Baghdad’s part which left quite a bitter taste in the mouths of those people. Understandably this has led many of them to conclude that there is nothing for them in Iraq anymore, not even hope of any semblance of a tenable future on their kindred soil. Indeed many Christians, and other minority communities, seek to leave once and for all in light of what they have been subjected to by Islamic State. It may have already been too much for them and any help Baghdad can give, or try to give, now may very prove to be too little too late.

While they have escaped annihilation, or at least a very tyrannical sectarian oppression, one hopes that as they welcome 2015 we see some hope re-instilled which will give them a fighting chance to return to their communities and rebuild their lives. Dim as a chance it may seem at the present it’s a reminder of a very salient and elementary fact, that being the health and success of the Iraqi state is predicated on how safe its minorities both are and feel. Obviously the country is in quite a dire condition at this point in time. Given that harsh reality Baghdad needs to recognize that a successful future for Iraq, dim as it may seem from the vantage point of this very dark time, lies in its ability to not only treasure its broad array of communities (I think most Iraqis do, as was evidenced, for example, by the cross-communal Shiite-Christian marking of the commemoration of Arbaeen recently) but to ensure it is able to protect them and their civil and human rights. Every minority community in Iraq needs to see and feel that the army and police is their army and polices, state arms which protect them and gives them a secure environment within which they can fully realize their ability to prosper with their various different neighbouring communities.

After all, the safety, security and stability of its minority communities is a very important litmus test of the health of the Iraqi state and society as a whole as well as an indicator of  its potential to thrive in the future when this violent and chronic plague which is earnestly trying to destroy it is shaken off.