By Rev. Matt Koerber
I met Ashur* when I visited Iraq five years ago. He is friendly and quick to make newcomers feel welcome. We were almost complete strangers when he invited me to his house for dinner with his family. I am thankful that we could stay in touch (mostly through mutual friends). Ashur is part of a minority ethnic group in Iraq that is historically Christian. He lives in the United States now and hopes to work for the US Army. I initially interviewed him about what it was like to be a refugee, but we talked so much about the complexities of being a Christian in a Muslim majority country that it made sense to publish the interview this week.
When I called Ashur to ask if I could interview him for the blog he responded with characteristic enthusiasm. He assured me, “I’m gonna answer with the only truth that I know. Be prepared!”
He is quick to smile and invite you into his confidence. The outwardly friendly persona can initially hide the fact that he has had a very difficult life.
“My family was born in Baghdad, but because of being Christian you cannot stay at the same place for all of your life. It depends on the political situation, and your religion can affect the place where you live. My father and mother grew up in Mosul, which is the ancient city of Nineveh. My father was an engineer and worked for a private company outside of Baghdad. After his work project ended, we moved back to Mosul where he lived with family. At that time the government started to harass people who were not part of Saddam’s Baath (political) party.”
Ashur loves the history of Iraq and used the occasion to launch into a discussion about the social fabric of the region. He continued, “The thing that you need to understand is that in Iraq there are inhabitants from different ethnic groups: Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, and Izidis. In all of the cities of Iraq, you can find Christians. They were there before the Arabs.”
I knew from my brief visit to Iraq that in that part of the world there is no distinction between religion and ethnicity. To be Kurdish or Arabic is to be a Muslim. And to be Assyrian or Chaldean is to be a Christian. One Iraqi friend once told me that he spoke “the Christian language.” What he meant was that he spoke Assyrian. But that is how people talk about it. It is how they think about the entwined nature of religion and ethnicity.
Most of the Assyrians have connections to the Orthodox Church. It is the part of the world close to where the Biblical adventures of Jonah and Daniel occurred, and where some of the earliest Christian monasteries and chapels were built. Not far from where Ashur lived, was the hometown of the prophet Nahum. For years, the local Jewish community had maintained what they believed to be his tomb. However, the Jewish inhabitants of Iraq have mostly been driven from the area and now the ancient synagogue housing Nahum’s grave lies in ruins.
Ashur is proud of his people’s history and eager to share its importance. “The language of our people is called Assyrian, but it is – as far as I know – very similar to the Aramaic which Jesus would have spoken,” he told me. In a world dominated by Arabic, it is often hard to keep the language in use. He continued, “Growing up, the only place that I retained my language was in church. Some people go to church to be religious, but many go to retain their language.”
I asked him what it was like to grow up as a Christian in Iraq.
“I grew up in a Catholic school in Nineveh. It was a very good school, and at that time in the 80’s many rich and politically important families sent their kids to these schools. They believed it was the best education… But there were challenges for my family – my father couldn’t find a job. Being a Christian and not having family connections made it really hard. It is not like in America where you just apply for a job. You have to know someone. My uncle was part of an opposition party, which was under government investigation. That made it even harder for my father. They took him to the police station to be interrogated. They wanted him to be an informer, but he refused. The police told my father, ‘as long as Saddam lives you will go hungry.’ After that, the only jobs he could get were under the table.”
But political and religious ties are not the only relationships which mattered in Iraq. Their Muslims neighbors felt a responsibility to help out. In spite of ethnic and religious differences, members of the community reached out. This is the complex web of life in the Middle East.
“Our neighbors would help us to get a job (with under the table pay). The Arab neighbors had connections,” Ashur said. This is another difference between the Middle East and America; “In Iraq, neighbors see each other in their gardens and greet each other. We will invite each other to eat. Connections are more strong there.”
But as the political situation grew more tense, life got even more difficult for Ashur’s family.
“They took my father for 40 days in the late 1980’s. He was tortured and then released. After 1991 (and the First Gulf War), it started to get really dangerous for Christians of Syrian origin. (Other Christians from different tribes were not persecuted.) Then, my family moved to the Kurdish region, to the city of Zakho. After ‘91 they started to declare their own government in the Kurdish region. In those days there were only a couple of hundred families in Zakho. Now it is a bigger city.”
I asked him how things were different in Zakho. He told me, “In Zakho, it was a very different story. These people were Kurds. They still live with a tribal mentality. They are not radical Muslims.”
I know from experience that the Kurds have a strong sense of ethnic identity. They have been persecuted by many Arab groups over the years and are generally very tolerant. They had felt the heavy hand of Saddam. There are museums which enshrine the memory of Kurdish civilians killed in a gas attack by Saddam’s army. In my experience, the Kurds were delighted by the outcome of the Second Gulf War as it solidified their semi-autonomous position and further shielded them from the attacks of their neighbors. To this day, the question of Kurdish independence haunts all geopolitical debates in the region.
Ashur told me how things again changed after the Second Gulf War. He said that Kurdistan (the informal name for the Kurdish region of Iraq) was quick to embrace the Americans and they began to see job growth. After finishing college, Ashur began to work for the US Army as a translator. He spent 2 years in Mosul and after the occupation returned to Kurdistan where he began to teach at an English language school. But while things were looking up for Kurdistan, things were getting harder for Ashur in his personal life.
After his father died from cancer, Ashur felt the burden of caring for his family. He decided that his best opportunity for work was to try to emigrate to the United States. There is a special immigration visa for people who had worked in the army and who were experiencing persecution. Ashur applied for the visa and came to the U.S. in 2014, where he lived for a time with his former army captain. He struggled to find a job and after a traumatic bout of appendicitis he returned to Iraq. Back in Iraq, his options grew dim and hope faded. Ashur began to despair of life itself. In the depth of despair, Ashur encountered his faith in a new and vibrant way.
“When I was young, my family went to church. I always had a feeling that God was with me. But I didn’t know Jesus until my father died. I knew him in my head, but not his presence. Because we lived in a Muslim society – where they don’t believe in the Trinity – there were times in my life that I did not really want to pray to Jesus. But he touched me and changed my life. At my lowest point, I was sitting on the roof of a building looking off the edge of the third story. I honestly began to think about jumping. But Jesus met me in that place. I felt as if he grabbed me. I knew that he was real. And everything good happened after that.”
After that crisis point, Ashur made a personal commitment to read the Bible every day. In the midst of great personal turmoil he has kept that commitment and found it to be a source of spiritual life. He returned to America where he stayed with a friend that he knew from Iraq. He has worked hard in a variety of low paying jobs but has finally been received into an army training program and the promise of a solid career.
I asked him to reflect on the complexities of his life in Iraq. He told me, “I love my Kurdish neighbors.” But he was also wary of the wide range of interactions that were possible. “There is a spectrum of ways that my Muslim neighbors might interact with me. Since Saddam fell, Kurdistan has become more religiously observant. Some people can start off friendly – religiously moderate – and then they change. Some people get drawn towards radicalization. There are a lot of signals that help me determine if a person is safe. How they dress, how they talk to women.
Ashur expressed concerns about processes that shifted some people towards radicalization. Often, people who feel like they have few options and little hope can be easily swayed. He has concerns about what might be taught in a particular mosque and expressed a belief that some housed recruiters for more radical expressions of Islam. He described his perception of how this might play out.
“There are people that you know in the community that will disappear for a period of time. You know that they are doing something wrong. Someone came to him and recruited him to do something violent. Poverty is a big factor. A lot of these people who are poor are the ones who disappear.”
The varied experiences that Ashur has with Islam are not easily reconciled. On one hand, he summarized the experience of Christians in the Middle East as being very difficult. “If you are a Christian, you are still a second-level citizen.” On the other hand, he is thankful for the hospitality of many Muslim neighbors and misses the communal nature of Middle-Eastern life. Perhaps it would be best summarized by an observation he made about daily life back in Iraq. “You have to take each person one by one,” he said. “You have to get to know people.”
*Ashur’s name and personal information have been changed for the safety of his family still in Iraq.