15 July 2004

Assyria: New Iraqi Census Officially Recognizes ChaldoAssyrians

The future of Iraq can be promising if all population groups that form part of the Iraqi society get their fair chance for recognition and development. The Assyrians of Iraq, no doubt, are the most ancient population group that has lived in that country from ancient times. Although they have adopted Christianity and have taken other definitions (religious, linguistic etc.), they should still be considered as the grandchildren of the ancient civilization.

Thousands of Assyrians live also in the present day Armenia, where they enjoy the constitutional rights of an ethnic minority. During the Soviet era the Assyrian schools in Armenia where one of the few schools that taught Assyrian in the whole Region. Now there is possibility to have schools in Iraq that can teach Assyrian freely and help preserve the heritage of the Assyrian people.

The new Constitution of Iraq should protect the rights of the ethnic and religious minorities, thus setting an example for many other countries in the Region, who used to ignore these rights and prefer to adopt a policy of assimilation. AZAD-HYE.

With the handover of sovereignty by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) now complete, the new interim government in Iraq has begun to prepare the groundwork for nationwide elections now set for 2005. Reports have surfaced that in preparation for a nationwide census, a new draft census form including the various Iraqi constituent groups has been prepared. The draft survey form reportedly includes Arabs, Turkoman, Armenians, Kurds, and Assyrians. The inclusion of Assyrians (also known as Chaldeans and Syriacs) marks a historic milestone in that under the former regime Assyrians were deliberately classified as Arabs, despite their protestations. As a direct result, past Iraqi censuses have resulted in Assyrian under representation.

The initial draft version of the census form caused some concern and confusion within the Assyrian community. Reportedly, the new draft form originally included the term "Ashori" -- the Arabic version of Assyrian. For Iraqi Assyrians, the preferred term for official governmental business is "ChaldoAssyrian." This term was overwhelmingly adopted by Iraqi Assyrians during the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian General Conference in Baghdad in October of 2003. The Baghdad conference, sponsored by the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM) and the Assyrian Democratic Organization (ADO), was unimaginable just a few months earlier under the past Baathist regime. During a very critical period, the ChaldoAssyrian community of Iraq convened the meeting to formally adopt the official name to be included in any future Iraqi constitution as well as to press for recognition of an Assyrian self-administered area in the Nineveh Plain. The adoption of ChaldoAssyrian is broadly seen as the best way to avoid external threats to exacerbate internal tensions over the name issue that might otherwise result in fragmentation of the third largest demographic group in Iraq.

Formal complaints by various groups within the community to the census bureau have, according to insiders, led to the census bureau acknowledging that ChaldoAssyrian will indeed be the term utilized in the census form. Prior to the anticipated reversal, Assyrian leaders had feared that the draft version represented an affront to the Assyrian community's political expression as well as potential fragmentation of the community in the upcoming census. As one leader noted, "there was concern that the resulting tension and confusion might lead to another undercounting of our people in Iraq." Another analyst added, "It remains critical at this time to not deviate from the agreed upon formula of the Baghdad conference in order to not hand our adversaries the victory of under representation of our people there once again."

The inclusion of "Ashori" in any form has itself been seen as highly significant on another count as well. During the previous regime, there was a deliberate distinction made in Arabic between "Ashoris" and "Athoris." As part of the Arabization campaign of the Baath regime, Ashori referred to ancient Assyrians while Athori referred to today's Assyrians as a Christian Arab religious minority. By making such a distinction, the government deemed today's Assyrians unrelated to the ancient Assyrians in order to deny Assyrians their legitimate ethnic, historical, cultural and indigenous status within Iraq. In the Assyrian language (Syriac), there is no distinction between the two terms and both are used interchangeably. Appropriately, the new proposed census form uses the term Ashori (or ChaldoAshori) acknowledging the historical continuity of the Assyrians of Iraq.

One of the greatest challenges facing Assyrians in Iraq today remains a proper accounting of numbers. Community estimates outside Iraq have put the numbers at between 6-10%, while in Iraq Assyrians are given only 4% representation. No real hard facts are known since Assyrians have never been included in official Iraqi censuses, they were fragmented as separate religious minorities along Church denominations. One Assyrian observer bitterly noted "We constituted just over 10% of the casualties of the Iran-Iraq War. How is it, then, that we are 'allowed' to die for our country proportionately, but not allowed to be represented politically fairly to the same extent?"

Some of the responsibility of seeing that all Assyrians are counted in the upcoming census will fall on the shoulders of the new ChaldoAssyrian Minister of Immigration and Refugees, Ms. Pascale Warda Eshoo. Although Assyrians continue to protest only one ministerial position, the new ministerial level appointment of Ms. Eshoo is seen as highly significant because through that position she may be able to contend with the two most vexing issues for Assyrians in Iraq. First, she will be able to assist with displaced Assyrians within Iraq. Secondly, from the perspective of representation, she will be able to assist with properly registering Assyrians in the diaspora. One analyst noted, "In the US alone, 80-90% of Iraqi-Americans are Assyrian. Even if , pending a fair census, we are only 1.5 million in Iraq, there are at least hundreds of thousands outside Iraq that need to be counted." Another observer explained the discrepancy of 6-10% of a nation's population contributing 80-90% of its diaspora by simply summarizing "disproportionate persecution has led to disproportionate emigration."

Despite the climate of fear and intimidation that the horrendous security situation has engendered, there have been some recent hopeful signs for Assyrians. The new Iraqi interim President recently acknowledged the importance of the Assyrian diaspora community. Speaking in Washington to an audience of Iraqi expatriates, Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawer stated that the Assyrians are the indigenous people of Iraq and are an important and integral part of government. Their fair representation will be ensured in the new political makeup inside and outside of Iraq, where they represent a majority of the Iraqi Diaspora communities.

Source: Assyrian International News Agency

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