A forgotten minority

Observations on Iraq (1)

Proof that Messrs Bush and Blair have opened a veritable Pandora's box in Iraq came with the news on 17 January that the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Basile Georges Casmoussa, aged 66, had been kidnapped by insurgents. Casmoussa (later released) comes from Iraq's embattled Chaldo-Assyrian minority, itself an offshoot from the country's ancient Church of the East.

When Bush and Blair drew up their invasion plans for Iraq, it is doubtful that either knew that some 500,000 Assyrians, whose empire predated that of Babylon and who still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ, lived in Iraq, and that any latter- day "crusade" would put them directly in the firing line. Since the invasion, however, attacks on churches and monasteries, people and property, have intensified as the Assyrians are blamed for the actions of the "Christian invaders". The attacks culminated last year in the firebombing of the Church of St George in Baghdad, as well as a spate of murders. Some Assyrian women have been forced to wear the veil.

Even before the war Iraqi Assyrians faced victimisation, though Saddam Hussein presided over a secular state and his foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, was a Christian. In northern areas, Assyrian villages were bulldozed along with those of their Kurdish neighbours as the Iraqi dictator built a buffer zone during the Iran/Iraq war. Now the Assyrians want to return and rebuild. But that will cost money.

Our God-fearing PM might be interested to learn of the Assyrians' role in burnishing Britain's 20th-century colonial role in Iraq. Like the Turks in Cyprus and other minorities across the empire, they were co-opted to police the majority population. Assyrian levies reputedly put down Sunni uprisings in Fallujah and Ramadi within days - and without the carnage left behind by the US army after its recent incursion into Fallujah. But their actions did not endear them to the Arab majority, nor would the British government honour agreements signed with them after they had served their purpose.

Now the situation is critical. Thousands of Assyrians are fleeing northern Iraq, joining the ever-growing global diaspora. The people who constructed the "cradle of civilisation" may soon be ancient history. Which is why an all-party group led by Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, the former Labour leader Michael Foot, Baroness Cox and others will launch the "Save the Assyrians in Iraq" campaign on 24 January.

The aim is to enshrine the rights of the Assyrians in the new Iraqi constitution and offer them security in their homeland in and around Mosul in northern Iraq. The Kurds, the Turkomen and the Marsh Arabs have all received some acknowledgement of their special plight. Until now, however, the Assyrians have been treated as a historical anomaly and footnote.