Local Assyrians are grabbing their picket signs and leaving their hometowns to defend their homeland by traveling to San Francisco on Saturday for a regional protest, just one portion of a worldwide effort demonstrating objection to the religious persecution currently plaguing Christians in Iraq.
This Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a jihadist group commonly known as ISIS, has given Christians in Iraq an ultimatum: Convert to Islam, pay an unsustainable tax, leave, or be killed. Desecrating religious sites and painting signs on their homes to identify them as Christians, ISIS’ aim to eradicate Christians from Iraq, a geographical area of significant biblical history, is being considered genocide according to Ilbret Gelyana of the local Assyrian community.
“We are becoming a minority in our own homeland, ISIS has driven us out,” said Gelyana, noting that the Assyrian people have existed in that region for more than 6,000 years. “This has been building for some time, but now it has escalated. We as an Assyrian community feel that this has become genocide. This isn’t just a religious issue; it’s an issue of humanity.”
While control of the northern region of Iraq and origin of the Assyrian empire that includes major cities of Nineveh and Mosul has changed hands over the years, the worldwide Assyrian community has survived for thousands of years despite not having a singular nation with which to identify. The recent displacement of the Iraqi Christians and subsequent abuse of its people and historically significant cultural sites by ISIS has garnered worldwide attention and is especially felt in areas that harbor large Assyrian populations such as Chicago, Los Angeles, as well as the Stanislaus County.
Conversation amongst local Assyrians has been colored by the tragedy of their brethren abroad thus generating the decision to make the trip to San Francisco to publicly protest the ongoing crisis and generate conversation amongst those outside the Assyrian community. The San Francisco protest is just one of several that are taking place across the country on the same day in order to show solidarity for those persecuted abroad as well as shed light on the international conflict.
“They can bomb our churches, they can take our land, they can kill our people, but no matter what, our language and culture is in our hearts. We are calling on everyone and anyone who will stand with us Assyrians in the name of Christianity and humanity,” said Gelyana.
While the protest serves as an opportunity for local Assyrians to express their concerns with a more global scope, smaller conversations are also happening in homes across the area and the issue has gained traction online. Several hashtags, such as #WeareN — the “N” standing for Nineveh — are trending online thus drawing attention to the ongoing crisis outside of the immediate Assyrian communities.
The Northern California portion of the worldwide protest will take place at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Justin Herman Plaza located at 1 Market Street.