Who Are Assyrians?

   Assyrians are the indigenous ethnic people of Mesopotamia and heirs to the Assyrian Empire, the last native civilization of Iraq. Assyrians speak a distinct Semitic language related to, but different from Arabic and Hebrew. In the late ancient and early medieval
period, Aramaic, the general family of languages to which the language of the modern Assyrians belongs, was used broadly as the lingua franca in those parts of the eastern Roman Empire where Greek was not in common use. At the time when Jesus lived, Jews and others in the area spoke an Aramaic dialect while they retained Hebrew for
liturgical purposes. Present day Assyrians recite or chant the Lord's Prayer in a language very close to that in which Jesus would have instructed his disciples in this paramount Christian prayer.

   There are approximately 400,000 Assyrians in the United States, a million and half in Iraq, and about five million world wide. Assyrians began immigrating to the United States and the West following the series of persecutions to which Kurdish tribesmen subjected them at the instigation of Ottoman regional rulers, documented since the 19th century. The largest departure from the homeland occurred when the emerging Turkish state attempted to
destroy all Christian communities and pursued and caused the death and loss of three quarters of the Assyrian population of the Middle East by 1923.

The Ancient World

   The name Assyrian harkens back to the beginnings of urban, literate civilization. In military, literary, musical, and visual arts, as well as in the molding of a multi-ethnic empire, the Assyrian contribution has been enormous. Today too, when allowed a level playing field, Assyrians excel in many fields, including medicine, sports and engineering, the arts and science. Trade and commerce have strengthened Assyrian economies from the ancient times to the present especially since other avenues of employment were closed to them as a minority living under Islamic law.

    Other ancient civilizations, such as the Israelis, Armenians, and Georgians, survived the vicissitudes of several millennia to emerge once more on the world stage as nation states, but the Assyrians continue to struggle. Their scattered geographical location, their Christian denominations, and the patterns of constant betrayal by allies, especially the British in World War I, have left the Assyrians with about an equal population in and out of the Middle
East. The Assyrians are increasingly targeted as Christians by fanatical Islamic fundamentalism abetted by chauvinistic states.

    Of all the contributions made by the Assyrian Empire to world civilization, perhaps the greatest is the promotion of the revolutionary system of writing that allowed the expansion of literacy across many languages. That revolution was the use of an alphabet system.

    The Assyrian Empire kept administrative annals, preserved epics (such as the Epic of Gilgamesh), recorded praise to their god Ashur, and mundane things such as sales slips, all in cuneiform. This system of writing had come to them from the Sumerians. Pax Assyriaca allowed for expansion of trade and culture, and with the latter came
the alphabet system developed by the Aramean tribes. This system, superior to cuneiform ideograms, came to be used in the Assyrian Empire for commerce and from then on it spread eastward as the main form of writing until the emergence of Arabic, considered the
language ³spoken² by God, and its later alphabet which diverged from the original Arabic alphabet style based on Aramaic.

   In their own language, Assyrians call themselves and their language suryaya or suryoyo. On the spoken level, the language is distinguished by an eastern (suryaya) and western (suryoyo) dialect although many sub-groups of dialects also exist today, remainders of
the rich dialect diversity of Assyrian rural life. Suryaya/suryoyo, in English, becomes Syriac/Syrian or Assyrian, which, as Herodotus explained 2500 years ago, is the same word. An initial A in ancient Greek and Aramaic is silent. On the eve of World War I Assyrians lived largely in a swath of land stretching from Aleppo eastward into
the uplands of the Taurus range and on into the northwestern Zagros, and down into the plains of northwestern Iran. These four contiguous locations share distinct socio-cultural patterns.

    The Assyrian claim to being the first Christian church is based on the story of the conversion of King Abgar of Edessa in the first century. Another tradition has it that Christianity came to the Assyrians through several of the group of seventy early Christians
who spread out to preach the Word after Pentecost. The diminished number of the Assyrians speaks to the adoption of Islam, chiefly after the full rigidity of Islamic law came into effect in the 10th century and Islam became strengthened further as the state religion,
especially after the decline of the Middle East from the 14th century onward.

Emergence of Modern Assyrian Consciousness

    For many years prior to the 19th century, the Assyrians hardly knew much about other Assyrians of the Middle East . Their transnational ethnic identity, like the identity of others since the advent of universalist religions (religions not tied to one ethnic group), had been submerged into a religious one. They divided institutionally along church communities, each hierarchically organized, and each headed by a Patriarch. While in some parts of the Middle East, one or the other of the Churches predominated, in Iraq all four ancient Syriac traditions are represented. By the 20th century, these Churches were as follows:

-The Assyrian Church of the East (pejoratively called Nestorian, "Assyrian" added to the official name in 1976)
-The Chaldean Catholic Church (16th century Uniate- off shoot of the above)
-The Assyrian or Syriac Orthodox Church (pejoratively called Jacobite)
-The Syriac Catholic Church (17th century Uniate off-shoot of the above)
-The Maronite Church, an early Uniate off-shoot of the Assyrian/Syriac
Orthodox Church. It joined other Assyrians in the US census in 2000

    As Assyrians became better educated, urbanized, and traveled beyond their own regions, they began to coalesce under a single, non-church, secular identity. The unearthing of the spectacular remains of the Assyrian Empire provided for increased interest in their own past. The Biblical stigma attached to the ancient Assyrians begins to fade with increased knowledge of the splendor of the pre-Christian past.

    During the Ottoman period and in Islamic socio-political systems prior to that, the Assyrian communities were administered through their Patriarchs as "dhimmies, " i.e., barely tolerated religious minorities. This assured that they were always treated as second class citizens, like Jews who were also tolerated as "people of the book." While this system did not protect the Assyrians from periodic physical attack, forced conversion to Islam, and economic and social deprivation, it did allow them to maintain a religious structure which has jealously guarded its position as the only institution allowed under Islamic regimes.

Genocide and Diaspora

    In the Middle East of today, the Assyrians constitute a major group of the indigenous Christians. After the events of 1914 1923, many Assyrians live in Diaspora. There is real concern about whether they can survive in Diaspora alone without a nurturing, cohesive base in the Middle East.

    Knowledge about the fate of Assyrians during the period after the 14th century is sketchy until western travelers begin discovering the region opf Mesopotamia From the first accounts it is clear that the community lived in enclaves subject to constant harassment from their neighbors. The most egregious kind of outrage committed against Christians was the abduction of young females, some as young as thirteen. They entered Muslim households as wives or maid/concubines never to be seen by their families again. Under both Islamic law and common law practiced among Kurdish and Turkish communities where Assyrians lived, the life of an Assyrian is so cheaply valued that a family has little recourse in case of abduction unless it wishes to bring further harm to itself. The cheapness that the lives of Christians were held is apparent in the Genocide where learned Bishop, female college graduate, and a poor illiterate farmer were equally likely to be hacked to death.

    Witnessing to Genocide has not been easy for the victims. Shame and humiliation, lack of opportunity, lack of interested audience, and the lack of material proof have hampered efforts to make this precursor to the Holocaust against the Jews better understood. Unlike the Jews, the Assyrians have had no state apparatus to organize and disseminate information whereas the perpetrators of the murder, pillage and massacre are able to marshall institutional support for denial. This is true not just in Turkey, but also in Iran, and in Iraq with regard to the massacre at Semele (1933), and presently in northern Iraq as well where the rise of Islamic extremism adds further danger to the already existing Kurdish

    The Assyrians, both from Tur Abdin and the Hakkari, lost about three quarters of their numbers. Most villagers did not survive to return and their villages are now occupied by Kurds and Turks. Governments that formed in the region, from Iran to Iraq to Turkey, refused to allow the remaining Assyrians to return. Assyrians have not been settled in proximity to each other since the Genocide.

The Assyrians in Iraq

    From the period of the establishment of the Baathist in Iraq, a heavily enforced policy of Arabization against the Assyrians began. Step by step the Iraqi Baathist regime attempted to diminish the position of Assyrians in the following ways:

- in the Diaspora, Baghdad worked to divide Assyrians from Chaldeans.
- as of 1977 the Baathists dropped the designation "Assyrian" from
national censuses
- they prohibited the use of Assyrian names, a practice also demanded in
Syria, and widespread in Turkey.
- the enforced study of the Koran while denying Christian spiritual study,
- the lack of Assyrian language study,
- unpunished random crime against Assyrians

    The Iraqi Baathist regime worked continuously on the international scene to prevent Assyrian organizations from being heard. This action is an extension of counter assyrian operations within the country itself. The Iraqi regime assassinated international organizers since 1968, attempted to poison attendees at the 1978 Congress of the Assyrian Universal Alliance and has prevented Assyrian non-governmental agencies from being recognized at
the United Nations Economic and Social Council (UNECOSOC). Through its dreaded security network it has used church leaders to create dissent and spy on the community. It has spread rumors to create disunity.

    The Assyrian community has become alarmed, since the creation of a Kurdish dominated Northern No-Fly Zone, to see Kurdish attitude toward Assyrians begin to show similarities to that of the Baathists: depopulation of Assyrian villages, denial of identity as Assyrians by use of the term "Christian Kurds," and creation of artificial cleavages in the Assyrian community, by emphasizing political entities that do not exist in reality, in order to point to
disarray among Assyrians.

    The goals of the Assyrian community in Diaspora, while expressed through different organizations at different historical periods, nonetheless coalesce around the same basic theme: securing Assyrian rights in the Middle East.

    These are the uphill battles that the Assyrians of Iraq must fight in order to remain in their indigenous homeland. This oldest Christian community in the Middle East faces disenfranchisement and marginalization without attention from countries and organizations
that recognize the significance of the disaster wrought on this community through events that have transpired during the past century in Iraq and the Middle East.

Zinda Magazine