Category Archives: Politics

Vote Assyrian names new executive director

By Joe Snell | May 2022 | Photo provided

A Chicago-based Assyrian political group last month appointed a new executive director. Ashur Shiba was named new chief of Vote Assyrian, effective immediately. He previously served as one of four executive board members. With the new role, he’s become the group’s first-ever executive director.

“We’ve lost quite a few board members over the years,” Shiba said, citing some members that have gone on to run for office or others that will serve as community center directors. “We had to have someone realign and restructure Vote Assyrian.”

Founded in 2015, the group began registering Assyrians to vote. Within one election cycle, it had reportedly registered almost 5,000 new voters, a large number for an area where just a few thousand votes can sway a local election. 

As the organization grew, it started hosting candidate forums for both Assyrian and non-Assyrian candidates, and later organized workshops to certify community leaders as deputy registrars.

The group most notably led a 2020 campaign for the US census to encourage Assyrians to check the “Other” box under the Ethnicity category and to write in “Assyrian.” The initiative, aimed at recognizing Assyrians as a distinct ethnic group and to better understand community population figures, was formally recognized by the State Department.

Shiba, who joined Vote Assyrian in 2018, wants to steer the group back to its roots of registering and educating voters, especially about the importance of primary elections.

“People typically don’t vote in the primary elections, they vote in the general elections,” Shiba said. “The general election is very important, but picking a local board that runs the city you actually live in is just as important. We’re able to win more seats that way and we’re able to get more representation.”

The organization has big plans for the future, he said. By the end of this year, it hopes to reopen the Assyrian Chamber of Commerce and break the tape on a new Assyrian Mental Health and Drug Addiction Center. 

“The opportunities in front of us are greater than ever, yet the challenges we face grow with every new opportunity,” Shiba said. “Non-Assyrians have started to take notice of us. Prior to Vote Assyrian, there weren’t any Assyrian elected officials in the area. Today, there are six in the Cook County area.”

Assyrians that hold elected office in the Chicagoland area

Naema Abraham
School Board President, District 219

Shamoon Ebrahimi
Alderman of the 8th Ward

Sargon Guliana
Board member, District 72

Tony Kalogerkas
Trustee, Village of Golf
Former trustee of Morton Grove

Mary Oshana
Skokie Park District Commissioner

Atour Sargon
Trustee, Village of Lincolnwood

Biden campaign launches Chaldean, Assyrian advisory council in grasp for voters

October 2020 | By Yasmeen Altaji

CHICAGO — Biden for President Michigan, Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden’s official Michigan chapter, established a Chaldean/Assyrian Advisory Council on Tuesday in an effort to reach Chaldean and Assyrian voters in the state less than one month out from November’s presidential election.

Biden’s campaign hopes to sharpen its appeal to Michigan’s Chaldeans and Assyrians, a large minority community in a crucial swing state. 

Talks of creating the council have been active for several weeks, according to council member Crystal Kassab Jabiro. 

“One of our goals is to really share… a dignity of life approach that we see coming from the Biden council.” Jabiro said, describing the importance of spotlighting issues including women’s reproductive health and “equitable and affordable medical care.”

“Many [Chaldeans and Assyrians] are on Medicaid and Medicare. Many of them are low income,” she said. 

Jabiro also expressed council-wide concerns with Trump’s demonstrated fight against Obamacare and its subsequent implications for the protected coverage of preexisting conditions, stating, “We feel like he’s coming for these people.”

The council also wants to bring voters’ attention to immigration policies, she said, citing ICE raids on Chaldean community hotspots in Detroit earlier in Trump’s presidency which resulted in the detention of more than 100 Iraqi nationals.

The Chaldean Chamber of Commerce estimates that 121,000 Chaldeans and Assyrians live in Michigan. In 2016, Trump won the state by a margin of only 0.2% — just over 10,000 votes.

To Steve Oshana, a member of the National Democratic Ethnic Coordinating Committee (NDECC), these numbers mean that the Chaldean/Assyrian vote could have a significant impact on Michigan’s election results.

“When you’re talking about an election being won or lost by fewer than 15,000 votes [in 2016] and you have [121,000] Chaldeans in Michigan — of those, maybe 30,000 eligible voters — that can make a huge difference,” Oshana said.

The Chaldean/Assyrian Advisory Council will work on several community outreach projects — including phone banking and “friend banking” — in an effort to mobilize voters in the community and encourage early voting, according to a statement released by the group on Tuesday. 

The group also has plans to create a Chaldean/Assyrian Women for Biden council to be spearheaded by Jabiro. She confirmed the council is working on a town hall set to take place next week.

Assyrians host Trump’s son in bid to promote untapped constituency

October 2020 | By Yasmeen Altaji | Photo from @EricTrump on Twitter

CHICAGO — Assyrians for Trump, a political call-to-action group, hosted the son of US President Donald Trump in Phoenix on Sep. 23, less than two months outside of November’s presidential election, in a bid to raise the national profile of Assyrians during an election season.

“The significance of having Eric Trump come to Arizona wasn’t just for Arizona, and it wasn’t just [for] the Assyrians here,” said Mona Oshana, the Arizona-based co-chair of Assyrians for Trump. “It was a validation that Assyrians are, in fact, a vital and significant electoral. We wanted to showcase that the Assyrians are active voters and we are, in fact, an untapped constituency that needed to be approached.” 

The event preceded this year’s first presidential debate, which took place Sep. 29. Organizers provided hand sanitizer and temperature checks as well as provided face coverings, but did not require them, per Arizona state guidelines.

Events like this one help bring the Assyrian name to the forefront of national politics, Oshana said, and it’s something which proves that attempts at becoming “seen and heard” are successful.

“[Assyrians] are a stateless nation that has been broken, that has been scattered, that has been persecuted…in our own ancestral homelands,” she said. “Here we are, in an adopted country of America, having the son of the President of the United States of America come close to us and hug us and say we matter.”

Part of Trump’s appeal to many Assyrian-Americans is his commitment toward preserving religious freedom, Oshana said. In December of 2018, the President signed a resolution “to assist religious and ethnic groups targeted by ISIS for mass murder and genocide in Syria and Iraq.” 

But following Iraq’s agreement to accept deportees in 2017, the Trump administration ramped up Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids around the country.

Steve Oshana, executive director of A Demand for Action, said it appeared that ICE raids ordered by the Trump administration have deliberately targeted Iraqi Christians. 

“ICE had been keeping tabs on [Iraqi immigrants],” Steve Oshana said. “It was a little too ironic to think that it wasn’t deliberate. Why Sunday? Why outside of the church? This is where we’re always targeted.”

Organizers behind Assyrians for Trump plan to continue rallying efforts during the election and beyond the next four years. The non-profit, which operates alongside similar organizations directly under the Trump campaign, aims to capitalize on the momentum sparked by events such as Eric Trump’s visit to Phoenix, according to Mona Oshana.

“Our job is just now beginning,” she said. “We need to unify and take advantage of this newfound unity, this newfound zeal. Now that we have the validation that the Assyrians are a force to be reckoned with, what we need to do is build on that. Now, we’re standing on a platform. Now, we have the voice of the President of the United States. So this doesn’t end with Donald Trump; it starts with Donald Trump.”

After decades of underrepresentation, Assyrians find their place in the polls

May 2020 | By Yasmeen Altaji | Photos by Yasmeen Altaji

Steve Oshana said that when he began his work in the American government, members of his family warned him of the dangers that would no doubt ensue. 

Oshana is an Assyrian-American political advocate and the executive director of A Demand For Action, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. that “advocates for the protection of…minorities in the Middle East.” Despite the generational fear associated with government affairs, he said, Assyrians have made significant progress in the political realm.

“[Assyrian immigrants] came from a world where their relationship with their government was very different than the way the relationship of the American citizen is with their government,” Oshana said.

For Assyrians, like Oshana’s family members, who lived under regimes like that of Saddam Hussein and his contemporaries, government has long represented fear and oppression; it was an entity to be avoided. Now, however, many first-generation Assyrian-Americans, like Oshana, are immersing themselves in government work and the establishment of policy- and leadership-oriented organizations, dedicating their service to the advocacy of political action within the minority community.

Civic engagement advocacy group Vote Assyrian has registered more than 5,000 voters – most of whom are Assyrian – over the course of the past two election seasons, according to Vote Assyrian executive board member Ashur Shiba. 

An audience listens as local, state and federal representatives address Assyrian-American affairs at the Democratic Candidates’ Forum. Vote Assyrian has reported registering more than 5,000 voters at such events. Photo by Yasmeen Altaji

“You’re starting to see the Assyrians realize that they must vote and be involved in the political process,” Dan Shomon, an Assyrian-American government relations consultant, said. 

Shomon, who has worked on a number of campaigns including that of Barack Obama on his run for senator, says that the sheer number of Assyrians in certain areas is driving a self-awareness that such populations are underrepresented.

Joseph Hermiz, a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, echoes similar sentiments.

An Assyrian-American himself, Hermiz said that Assyrians aren’t “very well represented at all” within their local communities, such as those concentrated in locales such as Skokie and the greater Chicagoland area. 

“We’re visible in the sense that we are people’s neighbors, we are teachers or people’s doctors,” said Hermiz. “But we’re invisible in the sense that…we don’t get to benefit from any of the sorts of set-asides that are put in place…for minority groups.”

Atour Sargon, a Trustee of the Village of Lincolnwood, said she never pictured herself running for public office. 

“I never thought I would be able to do it,” Sargon said.

The first-generation Assyrian-American, elected to Lincolnwood’s board of trustees in 2019, ran her campaign with the canvassing and outreach help of Vote Assyrian. She earned her seat on the board of trustees with 1,435 votes – a high number, she said, compared with the 1,167 votes of the incumbent mayor that same year.

Sargon said the engagement of the Assyrian community contributed to the outstandingly high number of votes she received. 

“Assyrian members of the general public…are motivated when they hear and see someone from their own community running,” Sargon said. “I think it ignites this optimism and hope.”

Steve Oshana says local representatives have also demonstrated an increased interest in the Assyrian community as it continues to grow. 

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky of the 9th District of Illinois is one such figure. 

“She has done more for the Assyrian community than anybody I know,” Oshana said. 

Jan Schakowsky (9th) addresses the crowd of about 200 attendees at the Democratic Candidates’ Forum. Schakowsky called the Assyrian community “one of the fastest growing communities in terms of political involvement.” Photo by Yasmeen Altaji

Leslie Combs, district director for Schakowsky, said that minority groups have the potential to utilize their voting and writing powers to benefit their community. 

“Oftentimes, elected officials might not know that issues exist until [constituents] tell them,” Combs said. “I think if a group like the Assyrian community realizes their power…, that will ultimately lead to getting what you need as a community,” Combs said. 

Mary Oshana, executive director of Vote Assyrian’s census project and daughter of the late Raman Oshana, who she says played a major role in pioneering the Assyrian-American political movement, recently began working at Vote Assyrian as a part of its new effort to ensure Assyrians to fill out the census. 

“How do you make your voices heard when it’s a disjointed group of people that are…not together?” she said. “[Assyrians] wanted to make a difference…they couldn’t.”

A U.S. Census Bureau survey conducted in 2017 says that there are more than 80,000 Assyrians residing in the United States. 

However, the Vote Assyrian executive board, Oshana says, along with much of the community, is convinced the number is not representative of the supposedly much larger Assyrian communities settled across the U.S.

According to Oshana, Vote Assyrian was able to identify an issue that could not be reduced to political apathy: the English illiteracy of many elderly Assyrian immigrants impairs their ability to complete the census and thus results in a misleadingly low count of the population. 

“Assyrians have become invisible in places like the United States,” Hermiz said.

Now, he said, political action is a part of a greater effort to “make ourselves visible.”


Correction: an earlier version of this article referred to Mary Oshana as a volunteer at Vote Assyrian. Oshana is a paid employee at Vote Assyrian.

New era for Assyrian leadership in Washington

May 3, 2020 | By Joe Snell

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA — The Assyrian Aid Society of America (AAS-A) has amplified their efforts in the country’s capital.

In April, the non-profit humanitarian organization selected four new officers to lead their District of Columbia chapter. The move increases its presence among non-governmental organizations (NGOs), political advocacy groups and representatives based in the country’s capital, said the chapter’s new President, Nirvana Habash.

“If you have a presence in D.C., you’ll have this access to political representatives,” Habash said. “Beyond that, having a presence in D.C. gives you an opportunity to reach other groups that are really prominent in the area and I’m talking religious groups, racial groups, and political groups.” 

A ten-year veteran of the country’s capital, Habash’s work has spanned United Way Worldwide, the British Embassy and the board of the Emergency Food and Shelter Program through FEMA. 

In January, Habash she put in touch with AAS board member Karmella Borashan. AAS wanted to take the chapter in a new direction and Habash was tasked with helping find a new slate of officers.

“AAS-A had one member in D.C., however we have always been interested in strengthening and activating the chapter more than what it was,” Borashan said. “Due to the presence of many NGO hubs in D.C. and the political engine residing in D.C., we have a strong need as Assyrians to have presence there either for the fundraising aspect of our job or to be a voice for our people with our representatives.”

Habash reached out to younger Assyrians in the community that each brought different strengths. Eventually she also agreed to serve as an officer, and together the four new officers met to decide who would fill each leadership in each role.

On April 23, new officers were announced:

Nirvana Habash – President
Jamie Cernek – Vice President
Julia Rodgers – Treasurer
Nora Matti – Secretary

“Our Executive Committee has worked very hard to get this team in place,” said AAS-A President Dr. Antoine Varani in a release. “We worked the conference calls and the Zoom video meetings until we knew we had the right people in the right place.”

The Assyrian Aid Society of America was founded in San Francisco in 1991. The non-profit has raised over $14 million in donations and grants and collaborates with the Assyrian Aid Society-Iraq to fund reconstruction, educational and medical projects. According to their website, their immediate focus is on the thousands of Assyrian families displaced by ISIS terrorism in both Iraq and Syria. 

In D.C., there are about 100 Assyrians that live in or around the area, Habash estimates. The number is hard to know for sure because she admitted the nature of the community is transient.

“We have people who come here for a couple of years and then we have people who stay here for half of their lifetimes,” she said. “Once you’re brought into the D.C. Assyrian community, though…those roots are extended back to D.C. Even though if you count us up we might be small, it feels like the D.C. Assyrian reach is hundreds.”

For now, Habash said the chapter is building a foundation that starts with creating a handbook, writing job descriptions and forming a governance structure. Officers are also developing their messaging and branding strategy in tandem with the national organization. 

“We will not be taking meetings early on with NGOs or on the Hill because we are not necessarily ready for that,” Habash said. “We really entrust the national board to continue managing relationships with NGOs and political representatives because that’s their area of expertise.”

Early events will instead concentrate on fundraising and letting the wider community know that the chapter is heading in a new direction.

One of the first events Habash would like to organize is an art show modeled after last year’s ‘Diaspora in Bloom’ show organized by Akadina Yadegar and Nardin Sarkis in San Jose. 

“That’s a no brainer because people love to learn about different cultures and heritages through art,” she said. “An art show would really open the doors to non-Assyrians to come learn more about us in the D.C. region.”

Habash sees the opportunity to engage with non-Assyrians as a strength of the D.C. chapter.

“Everyone in DC, for the most part that I’ve encountered, really cares about learning about other people and their identities beyond their own experiences,” she said. “We’re an indigenous group and people want to help us preserve our culture and our heritage.”

Online census event highlights importance of Assyrian visibility

April 11, 2020 | By Yasmeen Altaji

CHICAGO — Vote Assyrian took to Facebook Live Thursday evening to answer questions from an audience of about 40 viewers.

Mary Oshana, executive director of Vote Assyrian’s census project, and Joseph Hermiz, a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, co-hosted the session. 

The pair spoke about elements related to the census, such as confidentiality of census responses and the large-scale impact on the Assyrian community and its subsections within the U.S. 

Hermiz, who specializes in Assyrian history, addressed the argument that Assyrians should mark “white” on the census. 

He said that the decision by many Assyrians to mark “white” instead of “other” stems from national quotas, a practice utilized in the early 20th century to limit the number of immigrants allowed annually into the United States. Marking “white” increased immigrants’ chances of being able to enter the country, according to Hermiz.

Now, Hermiz said, today’s reality is different. 

“Many [Assyrians] have done very well for themselves, and that’s terrific,” Hermiz said. “But…that doesn’t mean that there aren’t services that our community could definitely use.” 

Such services, including job training and language training, are geared toward minority communities, Hermiz said. The low number of Assyrians in the United States that the 2010 census reflects has inhibited the Assyrian community from obtaining minority status. 

Many Assyrians have cited an unwillingness to publicize personal information, such as immigration status and employment history, as reasons not to complete the census, according to Oshana.

“Thankfully,” Oshana said, “the census is very confidential. The Census Bureau takes [confidentiality] very seriously.”

Hermiz said that the various geographical concentrations of Assyrians within Illinois, such as those in Skokie, Niles and Morton Grove, can also have an impact on census data, saying it will definitely make Assyrians “more visible.”

“There’s a much deeper meaning behind the census and what it does,” Oshana said. “We need to make sure we get counted.”


Following this article’s publication, Joseph Hermiz issued the following clarification of his statement about the origins of some Assyrians’ decisions to mark “white” on the census:

“The path to naturalization at the beginning of the twentieth century was limited only to white persons and aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent. This left immigrants from Asia and other parts of the world in an ambiguous situation as to their ‘race’ and ultimately racialized communities that had no such categorizations before. As a result, immigrants had to demonstrate their ‘whiteness’ before district courts of the United States.

Iraqi Constitution fails to provide security for Assyrians, Yazidis, study finds

January 2020 | By Joe Snell | Featured photo by Hussain Al Alie

WASHINGTON — The Iraqi Constitution lacks basic protections for marginalized communities including the Assyrians and Yazidis, according to a report released Thursday, Jan. 2 by the Assyrian Policy Institute.

The study was released in the wake of massive anti-government protests in Iraq that began in October and have pressured government leaders to form a new committee to draft constitutional amendments. Assyrians and Yazidis are ethnic communities indigenous to parts of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran and make up nearly two percent of Iraq’s total population.

“Iraq’s most vulnerable communities were not involved in the constitution drafting process in a meaningful way,” said API Director Reine Hanna. “The priorities for Assyrians, Yazidis and other marginalized communities were not given serious consideration. That reality is reflected not only in the constitution itself, but also in the collective experience of these peoples since its adoption in 2005.”

The Iraqi Constitution is progressive, the report found, but “lacks protection measures” for Assyrians and Yazidis such as democratic governance and individual freedoms. The report also cited the constitution containing vague and conflicting articles that makes implementation of legislation difficult.

Michael Youash, the Secretary for the Nineveh Plain Defense Fund who received his PhD in Political Science from the University of Toronto, has followed Iraq’s constitutional process since 2004. He applauded the draft’s strong stance on decentralization and carving a space for Assyrians and Yazidis within Iraq’s federal framework, including a mention of Assyrians in Article 125, but said the constitution’s position is only seen at “30,000 feet” and seldom enforced.

Article 125 calls for the guarantee of rights of “various nationalities, such as Turkomen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and all other constituents”; however Youash said the text lacks specific legislation to realize these rights.

Youash also pointed to the constitution’s preamble, which points out crimes committed against Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen among other Muslim groups but fails to mention the Assyrians and Yazidis. 

“Preambles capture the context but also establish the spirit of a constitution,” Youash said. “What Iraq’s constitutional preamble says is that… those groups without power, regardless of the truth of their experience, have no capacity to have their claims heard.”


The country’s constitution was drafted in 2005 by a 55-member committee led by Islamic cleric Humam Hamoudi, leader of the Shia political party Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. The United Nations and a group of global experts counseled the group. 

Yonadam Kanna of the Assyrian Democratic Movement party was selected to represent Assyrians on the committee. No Yazidis participated in the drafting of the text.

Iraqi politicians have long voiced their support for the nation’s religious minorities, although that support has not translated into political influence.

At an Islamic-Christian conference in 2008, Iraq’s prime minister at the time Nouri al Maliki praised the country’s marginalized communities.

“Iraq should remain the country that lives peacefully together among religions, ethnicities and sects,” Maliki said. “We should benefit from the mixed populations that we have that give us the power, strength and steadiness to spread the culture of dialogue in the face of strife and challenges.”

In a bid to provide more minority representation in parliament, the Iraqi government approved in 2008 legislation to allocate six seats to small ethnic and religious communities; however, ADM argued this was the smallest of three quotas presented to parliament and has yet to be effectively enforced.

“Getting nothing is better than this insult,” Kanna told McClatchy Newspapers in 2008.


Pressured by anti-government protests in early October that called for an overhaul of the political system, a 28-member committee of Iraqi MPs was later formed to amend the draft. The amendment committee includes an Assyrian and Yazidi representative.

“Assyrians and Yazidis are not guaranteed that any of the recommendations from the report are going to be seriously heard,” Youash said, “but at least they know there is somebody there that has an opportunity to present them.”

API is a nonprofit organization established in 2018 that reviews U.S. policy on issues affecting Assyrians. Read the full report here.

Assyrians press Congress on genocide resolution

October 2019 | By Joe Snell | Photos and Video by Joe Snell

WASHINGTON — Assyrian Americans from across the country pressured members of Congress Thursday to support a House resolution that would recognize the Assyrian genocide in World War I, a longstanding goal of the Assyrian community.

Led by the Assyrian American National Federation, the lobbyists tried to get additional sponsors for a bill introduced by California Democratic Rep. Josh Harder in August that calls for the recognition of the Assyrian genocide that took place during the First World War when the Ottoman Empire killed about 300,000 Assyrians after declaring a holy war on Christians.

“We see history repeating itself with Turkey’s incursion into Syria,” Harder said. “We see it being repeated with the potential rise back of ISIS. Things like this resolution are the growing awareness that we need to build which can only be created by hearing stories first-hand from folks that actually have a sense of the effects on the ground.”

Harder was joined by Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky, also a Democrat, who has been active within her district’s Assyrian community and her recent support of Atour Sargon, an Assyrian from Lincolnwood, in her successful bid for a local Board of Trustee position.

“The [Assyrian] community has gotten very politically involved and understanding the need to be present,” she said.

The advocated also pushed members of Congress to join the Assyrian Congressional Caucus, led by Harder to promote Assyrian issues both domestically and in the Middle East.

Today’s action is the fourth annual session by Assyrians on Capitol Hill. Last year, the Assyrian American National Federation organized a three-day national policy conference in DC.

In conjunction with

U.S. sees only “modest success” in return of refugees to northern Iraq, USAID official says

USCIRF hearing reviews religious freedom in Iraq, calls on Iraqi government to resolve security concerns

By Joe Snell, September 2019

WASHINGTON – Despite a significant increase in dollars and manpower, the U.S. has had only “modest success” in encouraging the return of refugees to Iraq’s Nineveh Plain and Western Nineveh, according to an official with the U.S. Agency for International Development.

In the two years since Vice President Mike Pence called on the U.S. government to offer more support in Iraq, USAID and the Department of State have provided $380 million for rebuilding efforts and expanded their partners to include 57 local, 13 faith-based and 35 international organizations.

But so far, those efforts have not encouraged displaced communities to return, particularly those targeted by ISIS, said Hallam Ferguson, USAID’s senior deputy assistant administrator of the Middle East Bureau, at a hearing held by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“We are struggling against tectonic forces in Iraq in which the ISIS genocide is only the latest factor contributing to the declining size of the country’s religious and ethnic minority populations,” Ferguson said.

Over 900,000 people from the Nineveh Plains, an area in northern Iraq with a large number of Assyrians, are still displaced. The Assyrian population in Iraq prior to 2003 was approximately 1.5 million, according to Reine Hanna, director of the Assyrian Policy Institute. Today, it is less than 200,000.

This decline has prompted Assyrians to form a security force called the Nineveh Plain Protection Units. Since 2014, the NPU has worked alongside U.S. armed forces to liberate the Nineveh Plain from ISIS and provide regional security.

“In the NPU, the United States now has a security partner in the defense of religious freedom,” she told the commissioners.

Today, security in the Nineveh Plain is divided between KRG Peshmerga forces, largely Iranian-backed militias known as Brigade 30 and Brigade 50, Iraqi Army forces and the NPU.

A new threat of Iranian influence has expanded into the region as largely Shia Muslim militia units, known as Popular Mobilization Forces, entered Iraq to fight ISIS but have since lingered.

The Iraqi government has pledged to rein in these militias; however, just this week the U.S. government learned that Brigade 30 has assumed the role of registering NGOs implementing U.S. projects in the area, according to Ferguson.

“Until the Iraqi government resolves these security concerns, it will be extremely difficult for members of persecuted minority groups to return home,” he said.

Assyrians join global Christian leaders on Capitol Hill to advocate for religious freedom

In Defense of Christians National Leadership Conference promotes security, equality across Middle East

September 2019 | By Joe Snell | Photos by Joe Snell

WASHINGTON – In front of nearly one hundred of the world’s leading religious freedom advocates — including ambassadors and task force representatives from Armenia, Lebanon, and Egypt — Nahren Anweya, Assyrian activist and Director of Special Projects at the Middle Eastern Women’s Coalition, warned attendees of a “silent genocide” taking place among Assyrians in the Middle East.

“It shouldn’t take this much paperwork to stop a mass slaughtering of Christians in Iraq and Syria,” she said.

Nahren Anweya, Assyrian activist and Director of Special Projects at the Middle Eastern Women’s Coalition, speaks to religious freedom advocates at the annual In Defense of Christians Leadership Conference.

Anweya’s words were part of the closing panel during the sixth annual In Defense of Christians (IDC) 2019 National Leadership Conference: Fighting for Equality, Freedom and Security, which took place on Sept. 10 and 11.

The two-day event, co-sponsored by the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), began with a “Solidarity Dinner” reception. Members of Congress, senior State Department and White House officials, members of diplomatic corps and religious community leaders were in attendance.

The White House shared messages of support, including a letter from President Donald Trump and video from Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.

“[IDC] amplifies the voices of those who otherwise would have no voice,” Pompeo said in video remarks. “You share invaluable insight with top U.S. policy makers. You truly do the Lord’s work.”

U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback was the evening’s keynote speaker and accepted the Charles Malik Human Rights award for his leadership efforts across the Middle East, including his support for the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 that established into law the promotion of religious freedom as part of U.S. foreign policy.

“There are millions of people right now praying in quiet corners and in little houses or huts that are persecuted throughout the world and they’re praying to God,” Brownback said. “That’s why you’re here, those prayers. They’re being heard.”

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-CA, received the Congressional Champion Award for her support of Christians and Yazidis targeted by ISIS and for her call to the U.S. government to recognize the Armenian Genocide. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-FL, also received the Congressional Champion Award for his efforts to defense Coptic Christians and other religious minorities in 2011.

The second day of the event included a panel to discuss religious freedom efforts in Lebanon, Iraq, Armenia and Egypt. The panel was a preface to meetings with members of Congress to discuss issues including security in Lebanon, Syrians safe return to Syria, equal rights for Coptic Christians in Egypt and the safe return of Assyrians to Iraq.

The number of Assyrians in Iraq prior to 2003 was estimated at 1.5 million, according to the Assyrian Policy Institute, a non-profit organization formed last year to increase public awareness about issues affecting Assyrians. Today, the institute says there are fewer than 300,000 Assyrians in Iraq.

“For Christians most of all in the region, ISIS has to be defeated,” said Edward Gabriel, President and CEO of the American Task Force for Lebanon, during a panel discussion on the second day of the event.

Gabriel, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Morocco, confirmed recent reports that ISIS is returning in parts of Syria. He warned that if the U.S. leaves Eastern Syria, it will lose leverage to dictate terms and conditions.  

Jeremy Barker, a Senior Program Officer and Director of the Middle East Action Team at the Religious Freedom Institute, said that many of the fundamental causes from ISIS are still present in Iraq. U.S. policy in Iraq, Barker said, should be a multi-tiered approach.

“Simply an ISIS-focused anti-terror campaign will not be sufficient,” Barker said. He pointed to governance issues such as the mishandling of providing basic services and failure to resolve disputes between religious communities as factors for escalating tensions across the country.

A major trust deficit exists between the Iraqi citizens and government, Barker said, and this leads to questions of who is really in charge.

“No one really feels [the government] as bearing the weight of responsibility of these communities,” he said.

Founded in 2014 as a response to the growing threat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, In Defense of Christians is a U.S. non-profit organization that works to protect and preserve Christianity and its culture across the Middle East. The organization operates through political advocacy campaigns, conferences, research reports and educational events for policy makers, public officials and global religious freedom leaders.

The Leadership Conference, said IDC’s Government Relations and Policy Director Peter Burns, is a catalyst to continue pushing conversations of religious security and freedom in the Middle East and forces policy makers to confront these issues.

“We want to leave our attendees with a renewed sense that they are not forgotten, that their voices are being heard,” Burns said. “This event gives those individuals the opportunity to advocate for themselves. There’s nothing as empowering as when you get to walk into an office of your member of Congress and say, ‘This is my story and this is the action I would like you to take.'”