The terrorist attack on Friday in Jerusalem brought back memories of terror in Iraq for Diana, a member of a group of Assyrian youth leaders touring the country. “You go out and you don’t know if you are going to come back safely,” she recalls. “I saw people acting normally as if nothing happened, life goes on, memories came back.”
Her family of Chaldean Catholics left Kirkuk in Iraq in 2008 and moved to Canada, part of a wave of immigration of Christians who have left Iraq since the 1990s. She is one of 28 young Assyrians from North America spending a week and a half touring Israel.
In the last decades the population of Iraqi Christians has declined from some 2 million in the 1990s to less than 500,000 today. When ISIS attacked Nineveh plains around Mosul in 2014 more than 100,000 Christians fled numerous villages and towns that they have ancient roots in. Now a movement has begun abroad to encourage Christians whose families fled Iraq to take a new interest in rebuilding communities and reconnecting young people to their identity.
The idea of bringing young Assyrians to Israel was pioneered by the Philos Leadership Institute and its Passages Israel program. Juliana Taimoorazy, who was born in Iran and now runs the Iraqi Christian Relief Council says that the Philos Project program partnered with the Museum of the Bible Foundation to sponsor and bring young Christian millennials to experience Israel.
She describes a “vision to cultivate the young leaders for the Assyrian nation to lead it into a positive tomorrow.” The multi-layered idea is not only to encourage leadership skills among members of this Middle East diaspora community, but also to connect them to Israel and for them to learn about the conflict.
Sitting at a table in a hotel in Jerusalem, five of the participants described their trip to the border of Gaza and the Galilee. They also enjoyed the night life, music, food, and for some it “felt like back home.”
But for these young men and women, all in their twenties, “back home” is a complex story. Fadi Besmaji grew up in Saudi Arabia but lives in Toronto and has a master’s degree in engineering. Even though he is of Syriac Orthodox background, as a young man in restrictive Saudi, he recalls his mother wearing the black garb that women wear in the kingdom. Christian activities only took place when they summered in Syria, where there is an active Christian community.
Mary Anton, one of the leaders who has been to Israel before, was born in Iraq. Her family moved to Basra briefly for work and came to Canada in 1995. She grew up speaking Arabic and has only recently taken up learning Assyrian, an ancient Semitic language. Another participant, Meryana Moshe, was born in Jordan but came to Canada in 1999, while 28-year-old Evon and Diana, who asked not to use their last names, left Iraq in 1997 and 2008.
Although Assyrian church groups have come on pilgrimage before, the youth say it is the first initiative of its kind to bring young people from this community, including members of the Assyrian Church of the East, Catholic Chaldeans, Syriacs and Protestants.
Fadi says a visit to the country on a “Christian-led trip to the Holy Land” was on his bucket list. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is constantly present on his campus back home. “It’s very oppressive, before the vote on BDS, the pro-Palestinians had a big poster of a girl who was bombed and they said Israelis did it.”
Meryana agreed: “You can’t even approach these pro-Palestinian activists.
They just yell and attack you [if you question them]. That’s why I wanted to come.” For this group the story of the founding of Israel has a message for how they think young Iraqi Christians can come together in the future. “I think Israel is an inspiration for a future Assyria.
Jews and Assyrians went through the same things, being here inspires me to build Assyria and build our people and learn about our heritage and I look at Israel and see a future Assyria,” says Mary.
The church has been a center of life and identify for many of these young immigrants. “Toronto is very multicultural. [When we arrived] we had a host family, so they took us for a week and we found a local Assyrian Church of the East and there was already a community there,” recalls Evon.
Many of them followed the news about Iraq growing up, but ISIS atrocities were overwhelming. “I used to read about Iraq until ISIS and then it got to you, it’s heartbreaking and I felt I couldn’t do anything,” recalls Meryana. Mary says she can’t wait to go back and see where her ancestors are from.
But they know the challenges that Christian communities face in Nineveh. “You have Kurdish and Arab forces trying to claim it as theirs, they fund and train and arm their own militias and there is politics,” says Evon. They face hurdles not only because of the competition for who will rule Nineveh and whether Christians will receive more autonomy there, but also among competing Christian groups who don’t agree on the future.
Taimoorazy compares Iraq to a flower in which the Christian minority is like the scent of the flower and she wants to see Assyrians return and rebuild. “Technically ISIS is defeated, but it has won because homes are destroyed. That doesn’t stop us from serving the community.”