chicagotribune.com/Christians from Iraq, Syria hear Obama, await action on Islamic State

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SHAFAQNA – As President Barack Obama outlined his new strategy for dealing with the brutal terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, there were some here who watched him Wednesday night with skepticism and fear. They have good reason for fear. Their world over there is being destroyed. And Obama, and President George W. Bush before him, have given them ample reasons for skepticism. Their families have been slaughtered; there are reports of their women raped and sold as slaves. Their ancient churches have been burned and their monasteries — dating to the absolute beginning of Christianity — have been razed.

The doors on some of their homes have been marked with the sign of the Nazarene: Islamic State has told them to either betray their faith and convert to Islam, or run, or die.
They are the Christians of Iraq and Syria. And up until quite recently in America, they’ve been largely ignored.

But they’ve survived there since Christianity began. They once lived in relative peace, protected ironically by the dictators of each nation, until the U.S. began waging neocon war.

“The atrocities against Christians in Syria and Iraq are difficult for Americans to believe, they are nightmares that civilized people can hardly understand,” the Rev. Nicholas Dahdal, of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Cicero, told me Wednesday.

“And the president speaks, and we wait, but words are not deeds,” Dahdal said.

Parishioners at St. George include Christians from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere. And there were others I spoke to Wednesday about Obama’s plans as well.

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The consensus is that their families and friends in Syria and Iraq are all but lost if the West does not stop Islamic State.

And yet, they also believe that if the West proceeds and the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad is toppled as was Saddam Hussein in Iraq before him, then the Christians may very well be wiped out by the storm to come.

As it happened in Iraq, it is happening in Syria, with chaos and hatred and failed states and massacres.

The murderous Saddam didn’t protect the Christians in Iraq because he was kind. He did so because it was in his political interests to balance power. And the equally ruthless Assad family in Syria did the same.

What is clear to me now is that if Bush and the neoconservatives had not pushed to topple Saddam, but left him weakened as Bush’s father had done in an earlier war, Islamic State wouldn’t have been born.

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And Obama’s search for “moderate” rebels in Syria may be just as dreamy as the Bush administration’s hope for a democratic, united Iraq, which is now disintegrating rapidly into separate and warring ethnic states.

Tony Kalogerakos is a lawyer, Assyrian Christian and activist whose family comes from Baghdad. Like so many, he has no love for the dictators, but he understands what happens when tribalism runs unchecked.

“If the dictators had been left alone, the Christians would have kept their lives,” said Kalogerakos. “But it’s something that many Americans don’t want to deal with, or acknowledge. … A few weeks ago Obama said he had no strategy for Islamic State. A genocide taking place and no strategy? Now there’s a strategy?”

Kalogerakos said he’s been trying to contact cousins and other family in Iraq with no luck. Some had fled Baghdad and run to the north, and then Islamic State took Mosul.

“Family members are missing. When you go missing now, you’re dead,” he said.

Martin Youmaran, a stockbroker from Arlington Heights, belongs to the Assyrian American National Federation, a nonprofit organization founded in 1933 after Assyrians were massacred by Ottoman Turks in the then-newly formed Iraq.

He wants humanitarian aid. And he wants guns to fight. I don’t know that arming another desperate group there will bring peace — especially since we’re relying on Kurds from the north to fight Islamic State for us. But Youmaran says his people have no other choice.

“For 7,000 years Assyrians have been on that land, and what you’re seeing is ethnic cleansing on a great, bloody scale,” he said.

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Youmaran said a delegation of Assyrians was to meet with the Obama administration Wednesday.

“We’re asking Washington, let us have the means to defend ourselves. There were 1.5 million Assyrian Christians in 2003 in Iraq. In 2014 there were 400,000. And after the fall of Mosul, there were 200,000 and all were displaced,” he said.

Earlier in the summer, American news networks covered many of the atrocities visited against Christians and Syria and Iraq.

But their stories were washed out of the broadcast news cycle when a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., killed an unarmed African-American teenager and the anger and looting and protests that followed fed the cable news beast.

And when Islamic State beheaded two Americans, the news cycle turned again. On cable, the beheadings became the focus of U.S. political animosity against Islamic State. The Christians became an afterthought.

“As much as I’m anguished over the treatment of Christians there, I agree with the president’s policy,” said retired Cook County Judge William Haddad, a Christian whose family hails from Lebanon. “I don’t want to see any of our American boys over there. We as Americans don’t understand the Middle East at all. Colonial powers created artificial borders.

And now we’re seeing the unraveling.”

At his church, Dahdal hears the lamentations of his flock and doesn’t know what will happen.

“There are no moderate rebels in Syria,” said Dahdal. “This is childish talk. Moderate rebels? Our people are being killed. Our clergy kidnapped. And America is, I hope, beginning to realize that Christians have been there from the beginning, and that Christians are dying.”

jskass@tribune.com

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