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"We can no longer call Iraq home": ISIS severs ancestral ties

Australian communities with ancestral ties to Northern Iraq are struggling to come to terms with the suffering of family and friends at the hands of the terrorist organisation ISIS.

Hermiz Shahen, from the Assyrian Universal Alliance, told The Point Magazine that Assyrian and other minority groups in Syria and Iraq, like the Chaldeans, Yazidis and Sabian Mandaeans, are facing severe persecution under the onslaught of ISIS.

“The current situation in Iraq and Syria has become tragic for the Christians and other minorities in general as they face the risk of extinction in the land of the cradle of civilization... Assyrian Christians have lived in their homeland, in the city of Mosul and in Nineveh plains for thousands of years. They were told to leave, convert or pay “jizya” (religious tax on non-Muslims). Under these threats, many have suffered the ultimate price in barbaric executions and beheadings, or have fled the ancient city,” he said.

Carmen Lazar, manager at the Assyrian Resource Centre in Fairfield, said the crisis in Iraq and Syria is having a big impact on local families who still have relatives in the old country.

“Families residing in Australia are constantly concerned and worried about their relatives. They constantly have to wake up every morning to call and see if there relations are safe.”

She said the trauma that local families are experiencing is both physical and psychological. “They are becoming forgetful and constantly worried and stressed and (it is) having a great affect on their health. Many are providing financial assistance from their own income limiting them immensely and impacting marriages and family relationships.”

A mass exodus of Chaldeans and Assyrians during the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s spurred the growth of these migrant communities in Australia. Many settled in Sydney’s south-west, where strong community links are now supporting new cohorts of arrivals fleeing the current conflict. 

“Families residing in Australia are constantly concerned and worried about the relatives. They constantly have to wake up every morning to call and see if there relations are safe.”

– Carmen Lazar, manager at the Assyrian Resource Centre in Fairfield,

Some important figures have found a new home in the suburbs. Pope Francis recently appointed Archbishop Mar Emil Nona as the new head of the Chaldean church in Australia and New Zealand. Nona was the Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul in Iraq for the past five years, before he was forced to flee along with his family and congregation after ISIS captured the city in June 2014. He now delivers sermons in Sydney’s Chaldean community in Bossley Park.

Fairfield – or “Little Baghdad” as many locals fondly refer to the Sydney suburb – is home to the largest population of Sabian Mandeaens outside of Iraq. An ancient faith community which adheres to the teachings of John the Baptist, the Sabian Mandeaens are another persecuted minority who are suffering at the hands of ISIS.

Local community member Yassmen Yahya said the trauma is being re-lived by families who left Iraq and are now residing in Australia

“Many have fled horrific situations and the current situation in Iraq triggers many of those memories. It’s difficult watching the country we were born and raised in crumble before our eyes. We are people of peace, we are pacifists. For us, violence is never the answer and we are often conflicted when we see the news.”

Yahya said members of the Mandaean community can no longer call Iraq home

“We cannot survive there. We need our people out from there. They need to be resettled in places like Australia where the majority of their community resides so we can best look after them. When following the news, it seems that when discussing actions to be deployed in Iraq to combat the Islamic State, there is no sympathy or regards to the innocent people nearby. We need more understanding. Issues like this needs to be handled with sensitivity and take into account the traumatic state the Mandaean people are in, and every other religious community,” she said.

Shahen said 18 Assyrian organisations met in Sydney earlier this year to discuss the situation in Iraq and its implication on local Christian communities here in Australia.

“The primary purpose was to provide direct aid and relief to the displaced Assyrians surrounding the Nineveh region. The meeting resolved also to form a delegation by these institutions for future meetings with government departments. We also managed to successfully to raise just over $38,000 in three hours,” he said.

Shahen thanked the Australian Government for committing to an additional intake of 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq. He also said the Assyrian community has called on the government to take in more Assyrian refugees as a response to the crisis.

The current conflict in Iraq is stirring strong feelings among persecuted groups about ISIS-inspired extremism. Shahen said that “most Muslims are pious and non-violent”, but that shouldn’t deny people from the right to be critical when religion is used to justify violence. 

“Most Muslims see Islam as a religion of peace, preferring to let others live as they wish. But Islamic jihadism seeks to spread Islamism by force. Islamism is not always violent, but that does not mean we should not always challenge it. Any desire to impose any religion over any people, whether by law or war, is inherently a repugnant idea,” he said.

Yahya said violent extremism has the potential to tear communities apart, but intergenerational communication was key to maintaining unity.

“In my community, we are all brothers and sisters and we all have families connected and related to each other and so in a way we are as one. If anything comes to disrupt that circle, it would cause a separation of the community and a total loss of oneself. Unity is a powerful thing.”

Ms Lazar, believes a more peaceful approach is needed when countering violent extremism.

“In my point of view I think there needs to be conversation rather than raising weapons, kidnapping and threats to innocent individuals and families. There needs to be a clear understanding of what it is such terrorist groups are trying to achieve by acting in such a horrible manner,” she said. 

The Point

Australian families are struggling to come to terms with the persecution of family and friends under ISIS in Northern Iraq.


Image: Chaldean Church website


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