Assyrians and Syria’s Struggle For Democracy And Freedom / INTERVIEW
Augsburg, Germany (AINA) 28.102012 — The struggle for democracy and human rights in Syria has turned to a disaster for all ethnicities and minorities in the country. The Assad-Regime is not only fighting the rebels but also the innocent civilian people with unimaginably cruelty. Issa Hanna, co-chairman of Assyrian Democratic Organization (ADO), Section Europe, has commented in an interview on the current situation and problems in Syria.
Brückl: Mr. Hanna, you are the co-chairman of Assyrian Democratic Organization, Section Europe, and therefore you know best your fellow countrymen situation in Syria. Will you tell me first something about the Christian Assyrians in the country?
Hanna: Currently Syria has a Christian population of about 3 Million, living there as independent indigenous religious and ethnic groups, among them cultural and national minorities, also numbering the Aramaic-speaking Christian Assyrians. They form an ethnic minority with its own language, literature, political and cultural organizations.
The Assyrians have been present in Mesopotamia and Syria for more than three millennia; they became Christians in the first century and became fervent evangelists and missionaries. They belong to the following churches: The Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Chaldean Church of Babylon [a Roman Catholic uniate]. In the broader sense also the Greek-Melkite-Orthodox Church, the Greek-Melkite-Catholic Church, the Syrian- Evangelical and the Syrian-Catholic churches.
Even though Syria is a part of the historical homeland of the Assyrians (the name Syria deriving from Assyria), Assyrians were only recognized as a religious confessional group within the Arabic Republic of Syria, which gained independence in 1946. This has to be traced back to the aggressive Arabic nationalism, which has indeed guaranteed general freedom of religion but did not accept other ethnicities or nations.
Brückl: What is the Assyrian Democratic Organization?
Hanna: The ADO was founded in the homeland Syria, in Qamishli, on July 15, 1957. The development of national consciousness at the beginning of the 20th century was the result of two important elements. On the one hand the awakening among our own intellectuals, such as Naoum Faik, Ashur Youssef, Freidun Nouzha, with their clear understanding and far-sight for the Assyrian national question, and secondly the historic tragedies our people suffered in the course of their long history, that found their high point in genocide and displacement in the 20th century during World War I. This genocide we call Seyfo in Assyrian, which means sword — under which the massacres, persecutions and displacements are to be understood.
Out of these common historical experiences the Assyrians developed the national idea, from which resulted the necessity to create an organization that has the ability to campaign for the national future and the needs of our people.
Brückl: What are the goals of ADO?
The Assyrian Democratic Organization is a national, political and democratic movement, which is aimed at the protection of the Assyrian people’s existence and the realization of all of its legitimate national attempts as well as its full political, cultural and administrative rights in its historical homeland. We want to achieve the constitutional acceptance as an indigenous national ethnic group within a pluralistic Syria. This is more than necessary as the current developments in the entire Middle East have aggravated the inherently precarious situation and desperate need of the Assyrians in their homelands because of repressions and attempted murder by fundamental Islamic groups.
The ADO has the strong conviction that democracy with all its components that guarantee justice, freedom and equality, is the best system for building civilized societies. Also it is strongly convinced, that women are entitled to all political, cultural, social and economic rights.
Furthermore the Assyrian people have the unlimited right to return into the lands from which they were exiled as a result of the genocide, to reclaim the property, assets and lands, that were snatched away from them; this must happen under international supervision and jurisdiction.
Brückl: What are some of the steps the ADO has taken to achieve these goals?
Hanna: In 2005 the Assyrian Democratic Organization was already part of the so-called group of the “Declaration of Damascus,” which aimed to unify the Syrian opposition and called for reforms and democracy.
To implement these goals, the Assyrians are also strongly committed in the opposition. So the Assyrian Democratic Organization as a Christian group is also a founding member of the Syrian National Council (SNC), founded in November 2011. The goal of SNC is to create a new constitution that guarantees equal treatment for all members of the Syrian society — so Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmen and others, regardless their religious, ethnic or national origin. That means acceptance of equal rights for all in accordance with Syria’s territorial and demographic integrity and unity. During the National Convention for a new Syria in March 27, 2012, the Syrian National Council has also clearly stipulated these goals.1
Brückl: Where is the greatest concern regarding the equalization of all Syrian citizens?
Hanna: Democracy and stability of the new Syria will only be realized by implementing the above measure, as the country will be able to guarantee its minorities’ existence and rights by an explicit implementation in the new constitution, to realize and to defend these proposed constitutional rights by clearly stipulated and effective mechanisms in all forms of justice and to promote the minorities with their cultural riches including their languages and specific constructive inputs to the Syrian society in the spirit of a peaceful, harmonic and fair-minded cross-social cooperation.
The Christians in the country desire a secular government, formed by secular powers.
Brückl: Do you see a chance to achieve a consensus between the different ethnicities and religious communities and how could it be realized?
Hanna: As Syria is a multiethnic state, composed of numerous ethnicities with religious and cultural diversity, where also multilingualism prevails, this consensus might be a little problematic to achieve. But this diversity depicts enrichment for the state.
Brückl: The Assyrian Christians are in danger like in other regions of the Near East, e.g. in Iraq, to be exterminated. What might happen to counteract against this development?
Hanna: In the last month over 15.000 Assyrian families had to leave their homes in the city of Homs and other towns in Syria, to flee to the neighboring states Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, or to their former native villages and to their relatives. As in Iraq, violence and anarchy are rising daily in Syria and the crimes toward the Christians make life unbearable.
Therefore we expect from our politicians here in Europe to campaign now more intensely for the Christians in Syria then before and to grant more solidarity but also active assistance to them. Essentially it does not only concern moral but also political support, to give the Christian population security and hold that it can capture a stronger role in the society of the country for the future.
Brückl: Which role is western media playing in this connection?
Hanna: The politicians in the west must campaign specifically for the Christians now. Unfortunately that has not been the case so far, judging from the articles of the leading media. On the contrary, many in the western media have accused the Christians of generally supporting the Assad Regime. That is not accurate. The Christians have suffered under the rule of the Assad-Regime as well as all the other parts of the population. They are not for Assad, but they are simply in sorrow about their security and future.
Brückl: Who on your opinion bears the main responsibility for the escalating situation in the country?
Hanna: To answer your question, it is first necessary to consider the general view of Syria.
For nearly five decades the country has suffered from structural crisis in the political, economic and cultural sectors, and most of all in human rights. The reason for this is that all these areas were controlled not only by an authoritarian but a totalitarian regime, which has monopolized and aggressively controlled all aspects of life, power structures, resources and distribution of wealth. That way the regime has deprived the people of all civil freedoms and rights and so cut off the entry to any participation in political life, which is the basic requirement for a democratic society. This toward advantage and development of the country were blocked.
Brückl: What influences and trends are currently the most important in preventing peace in the country?
Hanna: Military attacks by foreign states aggravate the situation for the Christians, which causes at least a wave of emigration. Thus, more and more chaos will be generated in the country. Furthermore the fundamentalists still have more chances to cause escalation and to gain more space, and to gain the advantage.
The longer this lasts the more complicated will become the situation for the Christian population.
Brückl: How could these be eliminated and who has the most influence to contain this?
Hanna: If the 6-point plan will be adopted by Kofi Annan’s successor Brahimi and implemented by both sides, the state of Syria can be saved from chaos. And they can establish a stable transitional government and slowly restructure the state in all sectors. This should be in the interest of all great powers, but the solution will not be simple.
I would urge all to take seriously the 6-point-plan so that chaos in the country can be prevented.
Brückl: Do you believe that democratic elections such as have taken place in Egypt and which have caused even more misery for the Christian population, would lead to an improvement of the Christian situation in Syria?
Hanna: In either case the situation in Syria must be judged differently from Egypt. The people in Syria are different. For centuries Christians and Muslims in Syria have lived peacefully together, and they rarely experienced this Islamic fundamentalism. I believe if given the chance we will experience Syria differently. Syria is a multiethnic state, Syria is multilingual, the different mother tongues can be spoken there. This is enrichment for the country. Therefore there are better chances, better prospects for Syria than in Egypt.
Brückl: How can the West work against the prospect of a complete displacement of the Christians from their native homelands?
Hanna: Western countries should be in solidarity with the Christians in Syria, to highlight the persecution of Christians, and to give concrete support economically and politically.
Brückl: Do you keep it for the right solution to affiliate more and more Christian refugees in Europe? Or is there on your opinion another possibility to rescue the Christian population within their country?
Hanna: We as Assyrian Democratic Organization desire that we will succeed in supporting our people in Syria to help them stay and live in peace in their motherland. But if refugees have fled country, it is expected that the host country shall receive these people on humanitarian grounds.
Brückl: Do you believe that strife and tension between Syria and Turkey will lead to conflagration?
Hanna: Turkey has tried, with the downing of the Turkish aircraft, to expand its position and to drag Syria into its circle of influence. I think this was a test for Turkey and NATO to discover what kinds of weapons Syria possessed. The current skirmished at the Syrian-Turkish border are, however, minor incidents in comparison to the happenings in Syria itself.
Brückl: What will the Assyrian Democratic Organization do give more support to the Christians in their native country?
Hanna: We try as much as possible to raise awareness of this problem, to inform all about the real situation, and we also try from here to circulate any objective information to governments, human rights organizations and the media, so that an accurate picture is presented.
Hence, numerous conferences are concerning the situation in Syria are taking place. The Italian government is especially committed in cooperating with the Syrian National Council to compile solutions for the conflicts. The last one took place on September 20, 2012, in Rome (AINA 9-26-2012). There the ADO presented a relevant document to the Rome Conference, in which it clearly emphasized its demands, goals and chances. Those conferences also represent an essential instrument for imposing more pressure upon the Assad-Regime.
Brückl: What do you personally desire most for Syria’s’ future?
Hanna: I wish that freedom and justice will rule in Syria among its population and that all together will rebuild the country as a healthy state. My desire is also that Syria as a country in Near East will play again a great role.
Brückl: Thank you cordially for this extensive interview.
By Marianne Brückl
This interview was originally published in German. It was translated from German by Marianne Brückl. It has beend edited by AINA.
Notes: 1 The constitution guarantees equal treatment between any religious, ethnic or national components of the Syrian society — Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmen and others. It will accept equal rights for all in accordance with Syria’s territorial and demographic integrity and unity.