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[casi] Iraqi-Assyrian Question / Federalism debate

      70th Assyrian Convention Addresses the Iraqi-Assyrian Question

      Posted 09-18-2003

      The seventieth annual convention of the Assyrian American National
Federation (AANF) was held in Chicago from August 28-September 1.  In
addition to the extensive cultural, arts, and social events, the AANF again
hosted several political and historical panel discussions of interest to
Assyrians (also known as Chaldeans and Syriacs) attending the convention
from North America, Canada, Europe, Australia and the Middle East.

      The panel discussion entitled Focus on Iraq on August 30 featured an
impressive array of speakers including Mr. Firas Jatou of the Assyrian
International News Agency (AINA), Dr. Ronald Michael of the Assyrian
American League (AAL), Fr. Ken Joseph an Assyrian activist now based in
Iraq, Mr. Willy Fautre from Human Rights Without Frontiers, and Professor
Walid Phares of Florida Atlantic University.  The panel was moderated by
chicago-based attorney Genevieve Daniels of the Assyrian Academic Society.

      The panel discussion centered on the future political aims of
Assyrians in Iraq.  Mr. Firas Jatou of AINA presented an historical analysis of the demographic
concentrations of Assyrians in the northern Iraqi provinces.  Drawing on
maps of Assyrian villages and historical sites from the 1960's, Mr. Jatou
demonstrated that the greatest concentration of Assyrian villages remained
relatively intact around the province of Mosul (ancient Nineveh) and Dohuk
(Noohadra) despite centuries of persecution and upheaval.  Mr. Jatou also
showed that, despite the destruction of nearly 200 villages by the Iraqi
government and Kurds from the 1960's till today, Assyrian villages remain
prominent in Nineveh and Dohuk.

      Dr. Ronald Michael of the AAL outlined the past year's lobbying
efforts in Washington and plotted a course for future activities.  Rev. Ken
Joseph, having just flown in from Baghdad to participate in the panel
discussion, described the difficulties in the daily life of Assyrians  as
well as the political challenges in Iraq.  Rev. Joseph implored Assyrians in
the Diaspora to remain committed to the Assyrians of Iraq by visiting and
assisting.  Rev. Joseph predicted that without an Assyrian autonomous area,
the threat of Islamic pressures would drive Assyrians out of Iraq.

      Mr. Willy Fautre presented the most detailed proposal for autonomous
regions within an integrated Iraq based in part on a Belgian model that
respected ethnic and linguistic minorities' rights.  In Mr. Fautre's model,
two overlapping forms of federalism are envisioned.  First, the nation would
have separate administrative "regions" each with its own parliament -- a
form of territorial federalism.  Each community e.g. Assyrians, Turkman,
Arabs, and Kurds would also have their own parliament representing their
communities throughout the country -- a form of community federalism.  The
community parliament would have full autonomy in schools, culture,
agriculture, energy, religion, protection of monuments etc.  The unity of
the federal government would be guaranteed by a bicameral system with a
House of Representatives elected directly by the people and a Senate
appointed by the various communities.  For legislation affecting linguistic,
cultural, or religious rights, both houses of parliament would have to pass
the bill.  In addition, though, in the community-based Senate, a
super-majority (e.g. 2/3) vote would be needed in addition to a simple
majority of every represented community.  In such a way, each community
would enjoy virtual veto power in matters of language, culture, and

      Prof. Walid Phares of the World Lebanese Cultural Union (WLCU), began
his presentation by asking why he as a Lebanese Maronite ought to be
speaking on the political future of Assyrians in Iraq.  "Simply," he
answered, "because we are one people.  We believe we are the Western
Assyrians and you are the Eastern Assyrians."  Mr. Phares added his
historical perspective on federalism noting that during the Lebanese
conflict the Syriac Maronites proposed a similar federalism as a solution to
the Lebanese conflict, but the proposal was rejected and never implemented.
Mr. Phares noted that after September 11 and the subsequent War on Terror,
world opinion had shifted and that now was the time to press for federalism
entailing an Assyrian province in Iraq.  Mr. Phares added that Assyrian
rights were in essence the test case for ethnic minority rights for all
religious and ethnic minorities throughout the region including the Assyrian
communities in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iran as well as other
religio-ethnic Christian communities in Egypt and Sudan.  Mr. Phares
advocated developing a regional strategy to "connect the dots" of the
various till now disparate efforts especially between the Syriac Maronites
and Assyrians.

      The proposal for an Assyrian self administered zone established in the
environs of Mosul, extending to Dohuk in the north and Fesh Khabur to the
northwest has gained increasing appeal among Assyrian activists,
intellectuals, and political leaders. The current political challenges
facing Assyrians in the newly developing Iraq include rising Islamic
pressure, gross under representation of Assyrians, and a sometimes callous
misrepresentation of Assyrians simply as a Christian minority without
reference to the Assyrian political, cultural, and nationalist platform.  As
Mr. Jatou reflected, the increasing Islamic fervor as well as other
challenges in Iraq necessitate the establishment of an administrative area
for Assyrians and Yezidis, who are, along with the Mandeans of southern
Iraq, the indigenous non Muslims of Iraq.  Such an area would serve as a
sanctuary to preserve and protect Assyrian language, culture, religion, and
geography-- in short, ensure Assyrian survival.

      Reflecting on the tone and direction of the AANF convention panel
discussions, one observer approvingly noted a heavy emphasis on the current
challenges of Assyrians in Iraq and the Middle East.  "Seventy years ago,"
he stated "the AANF was founded by Assyrian Americans specifically in
response to the massacre of Assyrians in Simele, northern Iraq by the newly
formed Iraqi Army. The massacre of thousands of Assyrian women, children,
and elderly was the first military campaign of the newly formed Iraqi State.
Seventy years later our people are once again at the threshold of a newly
emerging Iraqi nation. We need to make sure we Assyrians in the Diaspora
along with all of our organizations remain focused and once again continue
the commitment and guardianship over our people in Iraq."

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