It was 1989, and Juliana Taimoorazy’s family was desperate to escape Iran. Facing increasing persecution as Assyrian Christians, the family had already helped Taimoorazy’s brother escape to Europe. But getting an unmarried teenage girl out of the country without attracting the government’s attention was no easy feat.
One smuggler proposed hiding her in sheepskin, and driving her through Pakistan to India in the back of a truck. But her father thought the proposal raised red flags for human trafficking. Another smuggler proposed marrying the teenage girl, converting her to Islam, and taking her to Germany. But he was unwilling to promise that he would then divorce her and relinquish any claim to legal rights over her. If he liked her, he said, he would keep her.
After months of fasting and praying, the family found someone to smuggle Taimoorazy to Switzerland. She was granted asylum in the United States in 1990, at the age of 17.
Today, Taimoorazy runs the Iraqi Christian Relief Council (ICRC), which she founded in 2007 to raise awareness and humanitarian aid for persecuted Christians in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. She has served as a United Nations delegate and has spoken to lawmakers in the United States and Europe about policies that affect persecuted Christians.
Last month, she was nominated for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy work.
The Pillar spoke with Taimoorazy about her nomination, her background, and her work. Her remarks have been edited for length and clarity.
The Pillar: Much of your advocacy work has been carried out through the Iraqi Christian Relief Council. Tell us about the work the council does, and what you've accomplished in the last 15 years.
Taimoorazy: We started in 2007. We traveled the country a little bit, and we raised awareness. But until 2014, it was really tough to get the Church to be interested. I’m being very honest with you. They weren’t sure about Assyrian Christians.
The Evangelicals weren’t sure if we’re born again or not. And cultural Christians would say, “Well, aren’t you used to being persecuted in those countries? Just leave, just come to the West.” But Southern Turkey is our ancestral homeland. That's where ancient Assyria used to be.
But in 2014, I think what ISIS did is put a brutality on display, on social media for people to see what we have been going through, not just since 2003, but for the past 14 centuries. And it shocked the world. So I started getting a lot of [speaking] requests, and a lot of donations started pouring in. So we have been serving the community in Iraq, refugees who have been set up here in America, and also in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan.
In Iraq, before ISIS’ defeat, we were helping with food, shelter, medicine, towels, places to live, baby diapers, anything they needed. In the refugee settings, when they were coming here, we would pay some of their rent and we would help them get insurance or get connected to churches. And in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, we were paying their rent and their food and medication, which continues to today. So that’s what we do. We raise awareness. We ask for prayers and we ask for funding to deliver this. And what sets us apart is we create a relationship. If the donor would like to have a relationship with those that they’re helping, we create a strong bond between these two, where they can Skype with them, Zoom with them, and we organize all of that. And that does happen. So, that's what sets us apart from other ministries.
The Pillar: You were smuggled out of Iran as a teenager, right? How did your experience influence your desire to take action on this issue?
Taimoorazy: I was born and raised in Iran as an Assyrian, and I was six years old when the 1979 revolution happened. And at the time there was severe harassment and persecution of Christians. In my case, my classmates or the principals would tell me that I would burn in hell for my Christian name. My friends would corner me from time to time in the mornings and try to force me to convert to Islam by reciting the Shahada. And they would say ‘It’s not a big deal. It’s just one verse. Just say it, nothing’s going to happen to you.’ The religious teacher would try to debate me on the Holy Trinity. I was not a theologian, but as a 13-year-old, I would try to defend my faith, and I would be thrown out of class a lot. So, I have been a defender of Eastern Christianity for as long as I've known myself. And also as an Assyrian, my heritage and my language are extremely, extremely important to me. So I've always been a defender of the rights of the Assyrians, even as a child, by painting the Assyrian flags and just talking about the beauty of the Assyrian heritage and defending Christianity.
I was smuggled out in 1989. There was a mass exodus of Christians from Iran in the 1980s. So we looked for smugglers. We found a dual agent who worked for the government and he was also a smuggler on the side, if you will. And he created a fake passport for me, a fake visa for my mom and I to Switzerland. We went to Switzerland, along with my father. And then another smuggler came and took us over the border to Germany. We met up with my brother. We went to the city that we were in, Essen, and turned ourselves in to the police, took our mugshot, fingerprinted and we declared asylum. We wanted to come to America. And we came as a family in 1990. So that's my background a little bit, just so you know where this passion comes from.
The Pillar: How did you come to start the Iraqi Christian Relief Council?
Taimoorazy: In 2006, I started volunteering for Catholic Charities as a translator. In 2007, I used to go attend Holy Name Cathedral in downtown Chicago. And one Sunday, I was there and Cardinal [Francis] George was greeting people in the back, in the courtyard.
And I walked up to him and I said, “Cardinal, I want to express my concern for Christians in Iraq. What is the Vatican doing to help the Christians in Iraq?”
And he said, “Who are you?”
And I gave him my name. He said, “Give your information to my chancellor, and we'll see about what you're requesting.” And the next day, the chancellor emailed me, invited me to a meeting. I met with some individuals from the diocese, and they encouraged me with the possibility to tell the world, to tell Americans who we are as a people, what is it that we need, and really to raise awareness.
That day I wrote a letter to God. And I said to God, “Look Father, I don't know what you're expecting of me. I've never done this before, but if you stay with me and if you help me, I will do this for you and for your greater glory.” And this was what we did.
The Pillar: What is the current situation for Christians in Iraq? It's been five years since the U.S. recognized the genocide that was taking place against Christians under ISIS. Do you think enough has been done to help them since then?
Taimoorazy: [After the genocide was recognized], millions of dollars came in, not just to the UN, but to small NGOs and churches on the ground in Iraq. Some of it came to our community. So, some good things had begun happening for my people, after the devastation that ISIS caused, and prior to that, that Al Qaeda had caused. Remember this has been going on, back to the Iraq-Iran war in 1980. The calamity that has befallen the community in Iraq had begun not just in 2003, but really started in 1988. And then there was the embargo, there was the first Gulf war, there were more embargoes and sanctions on Iraq. And then it was 2003, the nation of Iraq, Al Qaeda found a safe haven then, and then came ISIS when the troops pulled out in 2011.
So have there been some things that have been good? Yes, but not nearly enough - unemployment is skyrocketing. Education is infrequent. It's not as good as it should be. Covid has devastated our community. A lot of infrastructure is still missing, the medical care is awful, and the list goes on from there. So is it enough? No.
The Pillar: What steps should the Biden administration and the international community take, both immediately and in the long-term? And how does the situation in Afghanistan change the dynamic?
Taimoorazy: With the tragedy in Afghanistan, I just cowrote a letter to [U.S. President Joe] Biden, along with Hadi Pir, vice president of the Yazda Organization. We asked Biden not to withdraw troops from Iraq. He has said he intends to pull the troops out of Iraq by the end of this year, but if they pull the troops out, there's going to be yet another calamity, because ISIS has been active since 2019 again, regrouping. And for the past three months, they've been very active. Setting up fake checkpoints, destroying the real checkpoints, beheading people, killing police officers. And now with the tragedy in Afghanistan, they've been emboldened. Not just in Iraq, in Syria they've been emboldened. And we're hearing a little bit of murmur in Egypt that Christians are getting nervous.
So, our main request of the Biden administration, first and foremost, is not to withdraw the troops. We're not asking for more troop deployments - we have about 2,500 strategically placed members of armed services forces. We want to keep them there, because if the troops pull out, the Iranians will have an even deeper hand in Iraq geopolitics than they already have. And that will directly affect national security for the U.S. and for Israel, because where the majority of us live - in the middle of a plane, which is a 1600 square mile area around Mosul - the Iranians are looking at it as a corridor all the way to the Mediterranean.
The second thing is NGOs like mine are not endowed. So, we are able to do the work only through people's donations, foundation donations or church donations. And what I would ask the Christian and the Catholic community is if they want us to be invited to come speak in their churches, we will be more than happy to do so, to bring awareness to the realities of what is happening to our brethren in Iraq. And I was born in Iran, so I'm able to speak a little bit on the Iranian issue too. I work in Turkey and Jordan, so I can talk about their issues there - what's happening to the refugees. And I was in Lebanon right after the [August 2020 Beirut port] blast. We helped 25 Maronites after the blast. So, I'm very much involved with these countries. I can bring accurate reports from each country about what's happening.
The Pillar: Do Christians in the United States have enough awareness about what's going on with Christians in the Middle East?
Taimoorazy: No, because there is so much calamity in the world. There are Christian Nigerians that are being hacked to death by Boko Haram. There are Christians in North Korea. There are Muslims that are in concentration camps in China. There are Christian Afghans that are persecuted today. There's a real threat against the Syrian and Iraqi Christians. The Church in Iran is under attack. The persecution is so massive.
According to the 2021 reports from Open Doors USA, 340 million Christians are persecuted throughout the world. The U.S. population is 320 million. So if you put it in context, more people than the U.S. population are being persecuted throughout the world for their Christian faith today. And all of these numbers are so massive. So a lot of people get desensitized. They're busy with their own lives. COVID has really changed our life forever, frankly, and people don't know what to do. If they hear about [Christian persecution in the Middle East], maybe they'll pray about it, God willing, but they don't know what else to do. So it is my responsibility as an advocate to give them a path to help.
We're members of one body, and we have to live by that. It's not just lip service. Because that persecution has already come our way. We see it. We read about it. Do we really feel it? Maybe not, but it's here already.
A lot of Middle Eastern Christians say, “Americans are failing us.” I tell them, you have to separate the U.S. policy from the people. Yes, U.S. policy fails people from time to time, but what is perpetual is the goodness of American people. I believe that when the American people know what actually happened and their hearts are moved and they know they're given a tool to be able to serve, even if it's through prayer, even if it's through candlelight vigils that they hold asking for a miracle for the persecuted, American people rise to the occasion. And I'm grateful.
The Pillar: You’ve also called for a Christian province in Iraq. Can you speak a little bit more about that?
Taimoorazy: So, our ancestral land is the Nineveh Plain, which is the 1600 square mile area where the majority of the devastation for Christians happened by ISIS. In 1991, the U.S. helped the Kurds by setting up a no-fly zone around the Kurdish area. They empowered them. They gave them weapons, they trained their military. They helped them economically. They helped them become a powerhouse in Northern Iraq. And my people, the Assyrians, are indigenous to the land. Our heritage is tied to our ancestral land in Northern Iraq. So for us, having a land that is our own - not seceding from Iraq, not as an independent state, but as a province within federated Iraq - we need that, in order for us to thrive and not lose our ethnicity, our heritage. And that's what I have been advocating for. A province that is within federated Iraq, that is self-governing with its own military that is made up of Christians, with the UN really watching and monitoring and making sure that we are safe and that we can exist on our own land.
The Pillar: Congratulations on your nomination for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. What was your response to being nominated?
I was shocked. I really wasn't expecting this, and I wept. It's most humbling, but I must tell you that for me, the way I feel about this nomination, this nomination does not belong to me alone. It belongs to all the church martyrs of Eastern churches. They have given and paid a heavy price for being Christian. It belongs to the Assyrian Christians and community. And I'm praying that God will open doors for us to get noticed by the world because our plight has been forgotten for so long. I'm praying that people will get to know who we are internationally through this nomination. And that they will understand our needs as a people. That we can really change the course of history for my people. So, this does not belong to me.
The Pillar: Is there religious freedom for women in Iraq?
Taimoorazy: There is a law in the Iraqi constitution that states, if a mother or father become Muslim, if the parents convert to Islam from Christianity, the children are automatically Muslim. That is not religious freedom, because the kids don't have religious freedom. They're automatically forced into it as well. We've talked about this. We’ve requested for the Iraqi government, through the U.S. government, to help change that, but nothing's happened. One woman [who is working with my ministry], her husband has become Muslim and her children are under threat. She's escaped, hiding. She doesn't have any income. So my ministry has been helping her, but we need to find out what we can do for her to extract her from Iraq, to take her somewhere in safety, because Muslims keep on knocking on their door saying, "You need to convert your children now that your husband has become a Muslim."
[But generally], if we keep our heads down, don't evangelize, we're sort of left alone, in Iraq. In the Kurdish area, there is soft discrimination. It’s getting better, God-willing, slowly, slowly, maybe changing because we have been so outspoken throughout the world. And we're informing the U.S. government about the oppressive policies against the Christians in the north. As a religious group, we're pretty safe in the north. Not 100%. There have been some instances, not a lot, but there have been some instances of oppression against Christians. But there is oppression against the Assyrian people in the north because there's the ethnic clash that happened. But in the north, Christians are [generally] safer, even with the evangelization going on in the north. And there are some Kurds that are becoming Christian.
It is a different story on the Nineveh Plain because of the Iranian influence - the Shabak Militia, the majority of it is backed by Iran. Not all Shabak people are oppressing the Christians in the areas that have been liberated, and people have been trying to move back, but there are sects within the Shabak community that are trying to change the demographic, meaning pushing Christians out, taking their land by force, beating the women, raping women. So, that's happening. There are places where they would rather have a Christian woman wear a hijab, so they make us feel uncomfortable, in the Southern part.
Is there religious freedom? I would say yes there is, but it has serious limitations. And this clause, this law that if a man or a woman convert, their children automatically convert, that's an absolute violation of religious freedom. And it's very serious.