We have so far in the book described how the Assyrian identity has been damaged in relations with Turkish or Arab rulers, mainly because of the Assyrian Church leaders' submissiveness and self-interest. But there is another neighboring people who have even bigger interest in Assyrian issues, namely the Kurds. The Assyrians and Kurds have lived as neighbors for centuries, but the Kurds have expanded their territory and progressively occupied more and more Assyrian lands, especially after their active participation in massacres against the Christian Assyrians and Armenians, which culminated in the first genocide of the 20th century, the Seyfo of 1915. When the real owners were murdered or displaced, their homes and properties were occupied by various Kurdish clans who enriched themselves on their christian neighbors' expense. The same policy continues today in Northern Iraq, where the Kurds want to expand their territory at the expense of the Assyrians.
The Assyrians who survived the Seyfo genocide and remained in their native land, tried to keep good relations with the Kurdish majority in order to live in peace. But Kurdish leaders want to weaken and oust the Assyrians who stands in the way of Kurdish expansion. They create division among the Assyrians by classic, time-tested methods that Turks, Arabs and other neighboring people have used successfully. Kurdish leaders also utilize various Assyrian church leaders to push through their policy of divide and rule. As we have seen in previous chapters, many church leaders among the Assyrians are an easy game, which increases the vulnerability of the Assyrians.
The majority of Assyrians in the Middle East are still living in Iraq, where Assyrian political parties such as ZOWAA enjoyed strong popular support. But Kurdish rulers intrigue in the political establishment to induce the Assyrian leaders to renounce their rights that are not under Kurdish dominance, for example, to form a separate province on the Nineveh Plain.
Barzani divides Assyrian unity
KDP leader and the president of KRG, Massoud Barzani, is one of these Kurdish leaders who interferes in the internal affairs of the Assyrians. He has taken every opportunity to shatter the Assyrian unity, especially after the fall of Saddam's regime.
After the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Mr. Yonadam Kanna was appointed as member of the parliament in Baghdad. In January 2005, the first elections were held and he now became elected as the only self-reliant Assyrian MP who was not on the Kurdish or Arabic electoral lists. He was elected with the votes of Assyrians and ZOWAA became the largest Assyrian political Party in Iraq, even in following elections.
Already in October 2003 ZOWAA, in collaboration with Assyrian Democratic Organization (ADO), gathered the main Assyrian organizations, parties and churches to a conference in Baghdad. The aim was to unite the Assyrian nation for the challenges and possibilities that were waiting in the new Iraq. A new constitution would be written and the Assyrian's rights to be written into the constitution. But the internal conflict of denominations was an obstacle. The Baghdad conference decided to compromise by calling the people ChaldoAssyrians and the language Syriac (Suryani in Arabic). By this decision the main parties felt involved and Assyrian Patriarchs gave the compromise their blessing. But self-interest among the various church leaders and the intrigue behind the scenes led to the unity burst pretty soon.
Before that, the Chaldean bishop Emmanuel Delli who was a candidate to the Chaldean Patriarchate, while invited to MP Yonadam Kanna's new home in Baghdad along with other guests, was positive to the compromise of the conference. He had even asked ZOWAA for help to be elected as patriarch, says Sait Yildiz, former President of the ADO Sweden, who attended the Baghdad Conference. But six months later, when bishop Delli had been appointed patriarch, he sent a letter to Iraq's Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari and said that Yonadam Kanna did not represent the Chaldean Church. Patriarch Delli now claimed that the Chaldeans were their own nation and not a part of the Assyrian nation. He urged his community to break all links with the Assyrian Church of the East, which in turn began to react in its own way. Patriarch Mar Dinkha's deputy in Iraq, bishop Gewargis Sliwo, wrote in 2005 a letter to the Iraqi Constitutional Committee and demanded that they would only enter the name of Ashur in the constitution. The provisional constitution called Assyrians ChaldoAssyrians. But when the real constitution was adopted in 2005, they were described as two different people, Chaldeans and Assyrians.
ZOWAA's leader MP Yonadam Kanna, who had been sitting in the constitutional committee, was recommended to resign from the Parliament in protest against his people was entered as two different ethnic groups, says Sait Yildiz who stood very close to Mr. Kanna by that time. But Mr. Kanna refused to resign and was satisfied with putting a reservation against the decision.
Assyrian leaders, especially church leaders, then had trouble getting along, which weakened the unity of the Assyrians. But players like Barzani was not sitting with his arms crossed. He started his attempt to weaken ZOWAA, which had proved itself as a major political player among the Assyrians and could choose their own MP in Baghdad. Barzani's move was to create a counterweight to ZOWAA and he launched Sarkis Aghajan.
Sarkis Aghajan - Barzani's extended arm
Sarkis Aghajan was born in 1962 in Arbil of Assyrian parents. He became a member of the KDP and became a memeber of the Kurdish Parliament at its establishment 1992. He took one of the five quoted Assyrian sits. The remaining four belonged to ZOWAA. He is also good friend of Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani (Massoud's nephew). The two grew up together when Nechirvan 1975 fled to Aghajan's family property in Iran, after the United States had stopped supporting the Barzani clan. Aghajan got the post of Minister of Finance in the KRG over the years 1999-2006 and was also deputy prime minister from 2004 to 2006. In May 2006, his mandate as Minister of Finance was renewed and he got a sizable budget to spend on projects to tie Assyrian political and religious leaders to himself. (Today he has entirely disappeared from the political scene. He is said to be an advisor to Nechirvan Barzani).
This would enable the road to be open to the KRG's plans to rule the fate of the Assyrians. Likewise, it would be easier to expand the boundaries of the Kurdish autonomy by incorporating neighboring Assyrian lands on the Nineveh Plains. The area is not only strategically important as the connection to the Kurds in Syria, it also has large oil reserves underground. Sait Yildiz says that when the Assyrians in 2010 met the KDP politburo to present requirement of an Assyrian autonomy in the Nineveh Plains, the Kurdish leaders told them clearly that they would never relinquish the area, because its vast oil reserves. It is also said that the Kurds already have drilled 6-7 new oil wells on the Nineveh Plains.
Sarkis Aghajan has also been marketed as the man behind the construction of the new homes to the Assyrians in northern Iraq. Some simple houses were actually built but when you compare it with the houses that were built for the Kurds in the same project, the Assyrian houses appear as very modest. KDP has also tried to win the Assyrian votes in the elections held after the fall of Saddam, by luring with jobs and housing. But not everyone got access to these simple dwellings. A condition was loyalty to the Kurdish administration's directives. Such a directive was to vote on KDP's electoral list Ishtar 513 in the 2007 election. The Assyrians who refused were denied assistance or housing.
In 2007 Aghajan gathered most Assyrian parties and organizations to a conference in Ankawa, an Assyrian suburb of the capital Arbil, and formed the so-called People's Council, namely the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council. ZOWAA did not participate. The designation ChaldoAshur, which had been developed at the Baghdad Conference in 2003, was now changed to the triple name ChaldeanSyriacAssyrian after the three main Assyrian churchs. Aghajan now got much space in two large Assyrian satellite channels, Ishtar TV and Suroyo TV. These channels had a large Assyrian audience and started a campaign to promote the triple name. Persons related to Suroyo TV have informally admitted that the channel's management got paid for promoting the triple designation and the new People's Council. When asked why, they replied that the money would still go to someone else if Suruyo TV had rejected the offer. Before that the owners of Suroyo TV, the so-called Dawronoye, for many years used the double designation Assyrians/Syriacs, which was more accepted in Sweden.
Three years later, in 2010, the Assyrian organizations and parties formed a new umbrella organization when the Assyrian Universal Alliance, AUA, had finished its congress in Ankawa, says Sait Yildiz who was the chairman of the meeting. The new organization was named the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian parties assembly. This time, even ZOWAA participated and the triple name has since become the official name of the Assyrian community as well for ZOWAA as ADO and other participating parties. The meeting decided to apply for a new province on the Nineveh Plains, according to the Iraqi Constitution, and an Assyrian autonomy within KRG.
In the constitution of KRG from 2005 only parts of the Nineveh Plains were included in the Kurdish claims. But in the draft constitution from 2009, which is not approved by the Kurdish parliament yet, the KRG claims sovereignty over the whole area of the Nineveh Plains, according to Yalda Marokil, the representative of ZOWAA in Scandinavia. He adds that the conditions of forming an autonomy within KRG make it impossible for the Assyrians to form such an autonomy, since they don't form majority anywhere in KRG. ZOWAA asked the Kurdish leadership to change the word "Majority" in the constitution to "large number" (in Arabic Kathafeh Sha'biyeh) but it was refused.
As to the choice of the triple name it is a tactical way for Barzani to name the Assyrians after their church affiliation and not by ethnic identity, in order to denote the Assyrians as Christian Kurds. It is also arranged by the size of the churches and not by alphabetical order, as is usually the case. The same thing also occurs in Kurdish press in Turkey. They talk about Kaldani, Süryani and Asuri as if they were three different groups of people. The question is whether it is ignorance or if they are influenced by their Kurdish brethren in Iraq.
In recent years, the media both in Iraq and in the Western world has increasingly abandoned all titles and the Assyrians are now called "the Christians of Iraq." The same applies to reporting on the civil war of Syria, where the Assyrians often are called "Christians." Even ZOWAA's leader Mr. Yonadam Kanna has often used the term "Christian" instead of saying the Assyrians, which he has been criticized for.
Church leaders honor Aghajan with medals
As we have shown in previous chapters in the book many priests are engaged in politics because they are used to be ascribed the responsibility for the community's civil affairs as well. Sarkis Aghajan have received a disproportionately large support of so many church leaders that it is likely the result of political interference at the highest international level. Probably the United States and Israel, on behalf of Barzani, have ensured that Aghajan has been flooded with medals from various church leaders.
It started with the late Pope Benedict XVI in August 2006 who raised Aghajan to Knight Commander of St. Gregory the Great. Then Aghajan was honored with first-rank awards and medals by the following Assyrian, Coptic and Armenian patriarchs:
1. Mar Dinkha IV, Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, instituted a special medal to Aghajan's honor. The patriarch is good friend with both Sarkis Aghajan and Nechirvan Barzani since he was a bishop in Tehran.
2. Cardinal Emmanuel III Delli, former Patriarch of the Chaldean Church.
3. Patriarch Zakka I Iwas, former patriarch of Syrian Orthodox Church.
4. Patriarch Addai II, the Old Church of the East (follows the older Assyrian calendar).
5. Anba Shenouda III, former Pope of Egypt's Coptic Church.
6. Patriarch Karekin II, head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Many of these church leaders are likely to have been promised benefits, personal or for their own community, in order to show their loyalty to the new Kurdish administration. Nor is it far-fetched that they received a portion of the money that Sarkis Aghajan spent so lavishly when he was Kurdish Minister of Finance. Even Mor Gabriel monastery in Turabdin got a substantial amount of money as a gift of Aghajan. He sent the money in cash with a trusted Assyrian, who was formerly a pupil at the monastery. This man has told it to a cousin to me, adding that he personally got $ 10 000 in the "tip". Aghajan has also sponsored the reprinting of the patriarch Afrem Barsom's book Sritotho d Turabdin, as we have already told you about in the chapter on the patriarch Zakka's Arabization of the Assyrians. Actually Aghajan is said to be deeply religious and belongs to a free church. But his liberal use of funds from the KRG's budget has almost certainly been designed to tie the Assyrians to the Kurdish KDP for more political than religious purposes.
One of the Assyrian enthusiasts who have put lots of effort to highlight and combat the Kurdification of Assyria is the author Fred Aprim, a resident of California. Regarding Assyrian Church leaders' conduct towards foreign powers, Fred Aprim writes following accurate summary:
"The churches have been politicized and each patriarch or church leader is searching for his own self-satisfaction and glory with lesser considerations to the future of the people on the whole. These patriarchs have been relying on Kurds and Arabs to save their churches and flocks when they should rely on their own power that comes from their unity."