Stephen Crittenden: The plight of Christian minorities in the Islamic Middle East is one of the 20th century tragedies to which we pay least attention.
From the Copts in Egypt, to the Maronites, the Melkites in Lebanon, Orthodox and Chaldeans, the Christian population of the Middle East is a fraction of what it was, and more vulnerable than ever. Nowhere is the situation worse at the moment than in Iraq. And few groups are more vulnerable than the ancient Assyrian Christian community. In fact, this week the Italian journalist Sandro Magister, has warned of the end of Christianity in Iraq.
In early May in a heavily Christian suburb of Baghdad, a Sunni extremist group began broadcasting a fatwah over the loudspeakers of the neighbourhood mosque: the Assyrian Christian community had to convert to Islam or leave, or die. Their Muslim neighbours were to seize their property. The men were told they had to pay the gizya – the protection money Jews and Christians traditionally had to pay to their Muslim overlords – and families were told they could only stay if they married one of their daughters to a Muslim.
More than 300 Assyrian families have fled, mostly to the north into the Kurdish region of Iraq where they are not welcome either They are sleeping in cemeteries, they have no food, more than 30 of their churches have been bombed, their children are being kidnapped and murdered.
Rosie Malek-Yonan is an Assyrian-American. She is a successful film and television actor who has appeared in many popular shows including Dynasty, Seinfeld, E.R. and Chicago Hope. Her novel, The Crimson Field, is a fictionalised account of the little-known Assyrian genocide that took place at the hands of the Ottoman Turks during World War One at the same time that the better-known Armenian genocide was taking place. She recently directed a documentary film on the same subject. And last year she was invited to give testimony before the US Congress about the plight of Assyrian Christians in Iraq. Rosie Malek-Yonan spoke to me from her home in California.
Rosie Malek-Yonan: The Assyrian people are the indigenous people actually of Mesopotamia, before it even was Iraq. All of that area was Mesopotamia and is the original homeland of the Assyrians. They date back to over 6,000 years and were always concentrated in that region.
Stephen Crittenden: And Christianity was accepted by Assyrians, well virtually in apostolic times, right at the very, very beginning?
Rosie Malek-Yonan: Right. Assyrians were actually the first nation to accept Christianity as an entire nation, not just individuals, but the entire nation, and we built the first church of the east.