Tuesday 5 August 2014

"There is a place for arming Christians to defend themselves"

Manifestação a favor da criação
de um território para os assírios
Mardean Isaac defends the creation of a semi-autonomous homeland for the Assyrians in Iraq. This is the full transcript of the second part of an interview. The first part, about who the Assyrians are, is here. The news piece, in Portuguese, can be found here.

Mardean Isaac defende a criação de um território semi-autónomo para os Assírios, no Iraque. Esta é uma transcrição completa da segunda parte de uma entrevista. A primeira parte, sobre quem são os assírios, está aqui. A reportagem encontra-se aqui.

There were demonstrations today [Saturday, August 1st] all over the world. How many people took part? What is it you are asking for in these demonstrations?
Demonstrations took place in around 30 cities, in around 10 to 12 countries. In terms of numbers, around 40 to 50,000. Australia alone had around 6.000.

What we are asking for is, first of all, a recognition that what is going on is Ethno-religious cleansing. That is to say, in Iraq we have absolutely no protection, no security of our own, no legal or political recourse. We have simply been surrendered to the chaos which is taking place there, with nothing to stand against it.

Many of the signs you'll see point to a movement called #DemandForAction and also contain the phrase SafeHavenNow. What they point to is our desire to create a semi-autonomous region, within the Ninevah province where we can guide our own destiny, where we no longer have to be at the mercy of death squads, paramilitary groups, auxiliary forces, all other groups which have taken over Iraq, which have turned the Iraqi army into what it is now, which is nothing.

We want a region where we can live side by side with the other minorities which inhabit it, and where we can flourish, and where we can secure our own future in Iraq. That is what we want. However, we also exhibit solidarity with all our brothers and sisters in Syria, especially in the province of Hassekah, who are also undergoing terrible security crisis, and securing themselves against ISIS's onslaught.

Who would set up this province, who are you directing these pleas to?
This movement has been going on for a long time. It has really gathered momentum over the past 7 years. What is strange about what is going on now is that previously we were lobbying the Federal Government of Iraq to say "look, there is a region which Kurdistan covets and it’s in between the area which is definitely yours, and the area that is definitely theirs, and they have designs on it and we want it to become semi-autonomous.

So it was directed at the Federal Government, sort of against Kurdish designs, especially since Kurdistan kept putting off a referendum in the region in order to flood the area with more Kurds. Now all of a sudden the situation is very different indeed, that is to say, most of the plains have been taken by the Kurds. There is no reason to believe that they want to give them back, they have expanded their own territory by over 30%.

So in our protest today [August 2nd 2014] in London, in our demands, we said: Irrespective of who controls the plain, we want it to be semi-autonomous whether its Kurdish or Iraqi. Either way it will not pose a security threat to anybody, to say the least. To arm extremely disadvantaged groups like the Assyrians, the Yezidis, the few Mandeans, an absolutely extraordinary sect, the Shabaks and so on... these people are not interested in taking anybody else’s land, they simply want to secure their own.

We don't want a state, we want a part of Iraq, whether with the Kurds - we have a long and very complex relationship with them, we can certainly "do business with them" - or whether it is with Iraq, if they can get it together and expel ISIS.

Mardean Isaac
Interestingly the Kurds at the moment seem to be the ones who are best equipped to confront ISIS and defend the Christians in the region...
That's also interesting. There have been reports of fighting between the Kurds and ISIS today [August 2nd 2014], but they have so far had an implicit mutual enemy. The Kurds have taken what they want from Iraq and ISIS have taken what they want and they have allowed each other to do that.

Of course, with all these implicit deals, once these territories are secure now it’s uncertain what is going to happen. The Kurds have taken us in. I don't think they should be praised to much for that, we're talking about dealing with people like the Christians of Mosul who have been dispossessed of absolutely everything, they weren't even allowed to take watches or rings for God's sake. So the fact that the Kurds have set them up in shelters is... ok, fine.

But the Kurdistan Regional Government has a lot to answer for in terms of the way they treat us. They need to stop privileging building rights to Kurds, they need to stop confiscating our lands, all kinds of issues need to be worked out between us and the Kurds. But yes, certainly, there is a possibility of establishing an understanding. But the Kurds need to get out of their mode of insecurity, this mode of land grabbing and desperation to secure as much as possible, and ethnic hegemony. Its partially understandable why they are in that state, given their history and their antagonism towards Arabs and the State of Iraq, but they need to get out of it immediately and recognize that we suffered together in the North, we fought together against Saddam, our villages and our treasures were also destroyed, we have a shared history and they must recognize this. They must stop calling us Kurdish Christians. We have no interest in being called Kurdish Christians, we are not Kurds. And we deserve not only our full cultural, linguistic and religious rights, but also some degree, an appropriate degree of self-administration.

All of the Middle Eastern Christian religious leaders I have spoken too, and others I have read have been unanimous in saying they don't want a separate homeland just for the Christians. How far can this movement go if it doesn't have the backing of the religious leaders?
That's an interesting question...

I'll speak for myself. The position of the Chaldean church, especially their leader in America, is an outrage. His position is that because the Chaldeans inhabit a spiritual nation they have no particular interest in clinging to the territories they have in Iraq. Many statements have been made by Chaldeans that have deeply disappointed us regarding their attachment to Iraq.

As far as any religious leader who is ignoring the political reality must be criticized for it. We have absolutely no interest in being politically beholden to our religious leaders. If people want to go to church, affiliate themselves with whichever ecclesiastical institution it's their business. When it comes to issues of politics and history, I personally, and many other Assyrians, don't believe that the Churches should play a leading role, at all.

Autonomy, that's fine... but who would defend this state? Would it make a difference if you're all gathered in one place but there are still these groups that just want you gone? And on this subject, the bishops have been clear in saying that they don't want Christian militias, they don't want to respond to these persecutions with force. Is that your position? Is there a place for arming the Christians to be able to defend themselves in the Middle East?
Yes, I think there is a place for arming Christians to be able to defend themselves. To say that we don't want to respond to these persecutions with force is utterly baffling to me. We have no interest in doing anything with arms, other than protecting our villages. So in terms of the Church leaders who have a blanket position on these things, which I consider to be a politically cowardly one, I would simply like them to answer specifically as to what many people in the Ninevah plains need to do when they hear news of ISIS approaching within half a day.

Militantes do Estado Islâmico em cima
de uma Igreja em Sinjar, no Iraque
I've spoken to some of these people and they've gone to Turkey, where they live in a state of Limbo, because they are not Turkish citizens, especially when whole villages or communities are drained, they have no idea when they can return. Leaving is difficult, returning is difficult, their lives are completely suspended.

We're not talking about suddenly handing out guns to people, we're not talking about being irresponsible, and to suggest that we are, simply by recognizing the security problem is just bizarre to me. It's bizarre to anybody involved. Just go to Demand For Action, an initiative unconnected to any religious group or political party, its bizarre to them too.

What we need is organized, sanctioned, official security forces. Not militias, not squads of guys with guns, but people who protect villages and will put off attacks by looters and pillagers, which is what these groups are.

To even describe ISIS as an Islamic State is an absurdity. It’s a rag-tag crew of angry, stupid young men, who join together to go on a murder spree. It’s as if they are playing video games, that's how despicable they are. They gun people down wantonly... And there aren't that many of them. The Iraqi army should have protected us and they didn't.

So my question to all of our church leaders who are saying "we're Christian, we don't do violence", and so on, is, "what is the alternative?". That's my question.

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