A group of young Christian Iraqis who identify as Assyrians have been brought on a tour of Israel as part of an initiative to encourage the rebuilding of communities destroyed by ISIS.
More than 100,000 Christians were forced to flee when ISIS attacked the Nineveh plains around the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2004. The population of Christians in Iraq has been reduced from around 2 million in the 1990s to fewer than 500,000 today.
An exciting movement has now begun to encourage Christian Iraqis whose families escaped from ISIS to return and rebuild their communities. The Philos Project, an organization which promotes Christian engagement in the Middle East, has partnered with America’s Museum of the Bible Foundation to bring 28 young Iraqi Christians from the U.S. and Canada to Israel for a week and a half.
In addition to experiencing the good things Israel has to offer, the group saw how life can go on and thrive after a community has suffered a catastrophe such as the Holocaust or the invasion of ISIS. Moreover, life continues during conflict.
Reflecting on this after being told of the terrorist attack in which three members of the Salomon family were killed in Israel during Shabbat dinner last week, Diana, a woman with the Iraqi group, told the Jerusalem Post it reminded her of the home she had fled.
“You go out and you don’t know if you are going to come back safely,” she said. “I saw people acting normally as if nothing happened, life goes on, memories came back.”
Another participant, Mary Anton, was born in Iraq and left for Canada in 1995. She grew up speaking Arabic, but has now started to learn Assyrian, the ancient Semitic language of her roots. She told the Post she is keen to return to Nineveh to see where her ancestors are from.
Indeed, the group identify as Assyrians. Referred to in the Bible, the ancient Assyrian Empire began in the 25th century BC and stretched across northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and the edges of northwestern Iran. Assyria came under the control of various powers and was eventually dissolved by the Arab Islamic Conquest in the seventh century AD. The remnant of the Assyrian people were mostly Christian by then and they remained in the area as an indigenous population.
In regards to going back and rebuilding, the group are aware of the difficulties.
“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,” a participant called Evon told the Post.
Nevertheless, the group has hope going forward and the trip to Israel was an encouragement.
“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,” Mary summarized.