A few years ago, I conducted this interview with Juliana Taimoorazy, founder of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council. Since it was not previously published, but contains many worthwhile remarks about why cultural preservation is an important aspect to human dignity, I now post it here.
Amanda: You were once interviewed on CBN about the Iraqi elections and Iraqi Christians. In that clip you said, “In addition to building communities in terms of brick and mortar, their homes, their streets, and churches… there must be real attention paid to building the human person.” What does it mean to build up the human person, in general and in Iraq specifically?
Juliana: Let me focus on Iraq specifically. First, these people are traumatized and not only traumatized since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but since the 1980s when the Iran-Iraq war began. The people of Iraq have experienced heavy sanctions, sectarian violence, and religious war. Throughout the last forty years, these generations have seen war. They have been completely traumatized, which has different facets and levels. Someone who has been in a refugee camp for four years is different from someone who has lived in one for ten. Trauma inflicted on children is different than that on grandparents. The human person needs to be healed mentally and emotionally in order for them to be productive and healthy citizens of the country. That healing can come through very serious programs that have been customized for the people of the Middle East because, traditionally, Middle Easterners do not believe in therapy. As we engage, the Iraqi Christian Relief Council is consulting organizations that have this experience offering therapeutic programs to people from war-torn countries who are not used to it. Such therapy happens through conversation, through art, through gardening, through documentation, and through reconciliation. That’s also why we’re establishing a Nineveh Centre for Education and Reconciliation.
Amanda: How does a Christian understanding of the person inform your practical humanitarian work through the Iraqi Christian Relief Council?
Juliana: We’re not an evangelistic organization, but with every form of aid we provide, we live and breathe the gospel because we’re commanded to love the persecuted and to help those in need. The Lord Jesus came and gave himself completely to humanity, regardless of creed and colour and that’s why the Iraqi Christian Relief Council serves all communities, not just Christians. By looking at the person respectfully, by connecting with the person individually, by knowing their personal stories, and by knowing that they’re people with dignity who have come into hardship, we make them feel important. We encourage them, but we actually receive even more courage from them. Their steadfast faith gives us the courage to move forward. We see Christ in their faces. We see His suffering in their faces. And we know that by providing food, we’re giving hope and showing the love of Christ. By providing them with the necessities, we reveal that He has not forgotten them. But that’s not where it ends. We have to empower them, too. We want to be a symbol of hope for the Nineveh Plain, for Iraq, and for the whole region. Through Christ, we seek to bring reconciliation. Historically, the Christian community in the Middle East has been held in high regard. We’ve been looked at as peacemakers. But radical Islam has sought to destroy and undermine that capacity and reputation. We must not let ISIS win. We need to empower Iraqi Christians to not only stand on their own feet but to be a bridge of understanding between the Islamic east and the Christian west.
Amanda: John Paul II said that the fundamental problem of ideologies is anthropological in nature, meaning that they get the human person wrong. What are some ways that incorrect views of the human person are detrimental to building up the human person, especially in Iraq? How can we oppose these with a more humanizing and affirming vision?
Juliana: First, this situation that has befallen them can happen to anyone. It can happen to any established person. Keep in mind that we’re talking about people who were dignified, successful citizens of Iraq. They absolutely hate being viewed as mere victims. Those who are living in refugee camps want to be viewed as resilient individuals who refuse to renounce Christ. They’re resilient in their faith and in their fate. Today I received a message from someone in a camp in northern Iraq who said, “We’re tired of living here. We need jobs and lives.” This is the message coming from them. They are screaming that they don’t want to remain victims. We need to be in touch with this sentiment and spirit and be their advocates. We need to be their loudspeaker to bring this message to the West.
Amanda: You often speak about the Plains of Nineveh as your ancestral homeland. In the exhortation, “Gaudete et Exsultate,” Pope Francis says, “In salvation history, the Lord saved one people. We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual. Rather, God draws us to himself, taking into account the complex fabric of interpersonal relationships present in a human community. God wanted to enter into the life and history of a people.” You seem to have a special sensitivity to what it means to belong to a people. How does this reflection resonate for you?
Juliana: Let’s look at the different tragedies throughout the world and throughout history. In fact, let’s take the Jewish tragedy – the Holocaust – into consideration. People who are Jewish understood and continue to understand this tragedy and to feel the pain of it. Even those who were not personally affected can identify with this suffering very profoundly. The flaw in the Church is that we do not connect with other Christians throughout the world. Eastern Christianity has been largely ignored by the rest of the Church. It’s an abomination that Western Christians don’t see any Middle Eastern dimension of their faith. This has ushered in an era of apathy and silence. I burn for my Assyrian nation because we have given civilization to the world. From the Cuneiform script to the ancient Library of Ashurbanipal and on and on… now, we’re being silenced and our lands are being taken away. The Nineveh Plain is only a small part of the ancestral homeland of the Assyrians which used to include northern Iraq, southern Turkey, and northeast Syria. Now, all we’re asking for is a small piece of land that still has the majority of Assyrians, also known as Chaldeans and Syriacs, living there. Consider the unique problems for Middle Eastern Christians living the diaspora experience. We were the original evangelists helping the early spread of the gospel from the Middle East to the ends of the earth, but now because of our Christianity, we automatically get absorbed into the fiber of the West when we leave our homelands, losing our language and culture. And so, we need to work on two tracks: 1) remaining true to our heritage and culture in the West and, in tandem, 2) maintaining our political activities and humanitarian aid for our brothers and sisters on the ground in Iraq.
Amanda: Why is it important for indigenous communities and languages to survive and flourish? How does promoting pluralism contribute to the defense of human dignity?
Juliana: If you’re absorbed by and assimilated to another country, do you care or do you not care? It might be hard to imagine, but imagine losing your English language and American name, the story of the American founding, the whole set of American ideals. If Americans are absorbed by China, for example, and forget their ancestries and lose their names and traditions and, in effect, become Chinese, does it make a difference? I think we are each unique individuals and that it’s worth preserving, cherishing, and celebrating this uniqueness. Plurality is extremely important. Iraq used to be a beautiful mosaic. It’s what made Iraq and Mesopotamia so beautiful. We had such a plurality of cultures and, in every culture, bring our own characteristics from clothing to cuisine to wedding traditions. We all love Persian rugs, but if a Persian rug was only one color, it’d be boring. But we all love multicolored ones because of the variety; the plurality of colors is what makes it beautiful.
Photo: Juliana receiving a blessing from a priest at St. Mark’s Syriac Church in Jerusalem via the Iraqi Christian Relief Council Facebook page