A conversation with Julia Taimoorazy on minority rights in the Middle East

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Julia Taimoorazy, born an Assyrian Christian in Iran, has become an advocate for the rights of Christian minorities in the Middle East. After volunteering with young Iraqi Christian women arriving into the US, she founded the Iraqi Christian Relief Council (ICRC), an organisation dedicated to supporting and defending persecuted Christians in Iraq and the wider Middle East. At the 2019 Oslo Freedom Forum, WikiTribune spoke to her about her life story, her activism, and the historical background to divisions in the Assyrian diaspora.

Taimoorazy fled Iran in 1989. She remembers her time in the Islamic Republic as one of religious persecution and harassment. “My neighbours would spit on the ground when we would walk by … teachers would try to force me to convert to Islam [by saying] the Shahada [the basic statement of faith in Islam].” Eventually, she escaped to Germany and then to the US, where her experience of life as a Christian in Iran informs her activism today.

The ICRC founded by Taimoorazy campaigns for the rights of Assyrian, Syriacs, and Chaldean Christians, particularly in the Nineveh Plain of northern Iraq. Nineveh was the site of a devastating 2014 campaign by the Islamic State (ISIS) against Christians and other religious minorities, recognised by the European Union and other organisations as a genocide. The ICRC’s Return to Nineveh initiative seeks to assist Christians who fled ISIS to return to their ancestral lands.

Though Taimoorazy’s work is primarily concerned with helping Christian communities recover from ISIS, she is critical of US foreign policy for putting minorities in the Middle East in a more precarious position than they were prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “The presence of the US [in the Middle East], although it may have had good intentions, has turned out to be a disaster for [minorities] … it’s time for the US to start taking a look at … these people whose lives were devastated according to the policies that the US has implemented or continues to implement.”

Taimoorazy is careful to emphasise that the plight of minorities in the Middle East is not solely an issue for other Christians, but rather the whole of humanity. When the Islamic State destroyed historical artefacts in museums and ancient archaeological sites, such as the city of Nimrud, Taimoorazy says that was attempted erasure of history that amounts to an attack on humanity’s universal heritage. “It should be all hands on deck because it’s the destruction of humanity.”

An element stressed during Taimoorazy’s address to the Freedom Forum and in her interview with WikiTribune was that certain terms relating to the oppression of minorities can be so overused as to lose their precise meaning. “The term persecution or the term genocide really in its essence talks about the destruction of human beings’ lives and everything that they know in their culture … It has become an everyday term for individuals for example. I was harassed in Iran; I didn’t say I was persecuted in Iran.” She is wary of hyperbole because some of her ancestors were killed and persecuted, while her immediate family was merely harassed while living in Iran.

As an Assyrian Christian, Taimoorazy has long campaigned for the government of Iraq to recognise the rights of the Assyrian people. In 2014, the Iraqi Council of Ministers approved a plan to create three new provinces in Iraq, including in Nineveh, where the largest numbers of Iraqi Assyrians live. But proposals for an autonomous Assyrian province in northern Iraq have so far been met with limited approval from national Iraqi leaders. Most recently, the Al-Rafidian Coalition’s demand for a self-governing Christian region did not materialise, despite hopes that US President Donald Trump would offer his support to the plan.

Some elements of the Assyrian diaspora, Taimoorazy says, can be radical. “Because we’re comfortable in diaspora, we tend to forget the situation on the ground.” Radicals “add fuel to the fire without really considering what is happening to those people who are actually suffering on the ground.” One element that has contributed to this radicalism has been the repeated perceived betrayals of Christian communities in the Middle East by Western and Eastern powers, Taimoorazy claim.

As Christians, Taimoorazy says, “the Assyrian people in northern Iraq, southern Turkey, north-western Iran, were ready to fight for the crown of England”. The Assyrian Levies, founded in 1928, was the first military force established by the British in British-controlled Iraq. British officers eventually came to admire the loyalty and bravery of Assyrian fighters, but Taimoorazy claims this loyalty was not repaid in kind: “Britain had given us a promise, that in exchange for our allegiance they would give the Nineveh area to us as a homeland. So we were betrayed.”

It was not only the UK, but also France and Russia, who betrayed their fellow Christians, Taimoorazy laments. That Assyrians have been repeatedly let down by Western powers, most recently the United States after the invasion of Iraq, has contributed to the strengthening of “loudmouths who promote radicalism and pure nationalism that intolerant of the other” among diaspora voices, she claims.

Additional criticism is reserved for infighting among different diaspora communities of Middle East Christians. “Chaldeans, the Assyrians, the Syriacs, the Church of the East, we’re all at each others’ throat in the West, while there are people who are dying and their fending for themselves in the East.”

All the while, “we have forgotten how to be human beings in my community.”

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