Christians of Iraq



Iraqi Assyrians: Barometer of Pluralism
by Jonathan Eric Lewis

The Middle East Quarterly SUMMER 2003 · VOLUME X: NUMBER 3

In "Seventy Thousand Assyrians," a short story penned in 1934, Armenian-American writer William Saroyan's fictional character, Theodore Badal, painted a stark portrait of Assyrian identity:

We're washed up as a race, we're through, it's all over, why should I learn to read the language? We have no writers, we have no news-well, there is a little news: once in a while the English encourage the Arabs to massacre us, that is all. It's an old story, we know all about it.[1]

Despite his paean to the Assyrian people, Saroyan's tone in the piece belied his skepticism that this ancient Christian people, who had just survived not only the Ottoman massacres but also a massive anti-Christian jihad in northern Iraq in 1933, would retain a strong national identity decades into the future.

Saroyan would thus perhaps be stunned to realize that the Assyrian people not only continue to eke out an existence in their traditional homeland of northern Iraq, but that they are thriving in diaspora centers, are politically organized, and are working for a pluralistic Iraq.

Much as in 1933 when the modern Iraqi state was created out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, the Assyrians once again find themselves at the center of the storm. Those Assyrians living both in northern Iraq, as well as in the cities of Baghdad and Mosul, once again have an opportunity to reassert their rights within the framework of the new Iraqi polity. It thus behooves policymakers and activists interested in creating a more democratic, pluralistic, and religiously tolerant Iraq to take the plight of the Assyrian people seriously.
Indeed, the status of the Assyrians in a post-Baathist Iraq will be an accurate barometer of the success of the United States and its allies in creating an Iraq freed from the shackles of its violent and troubled past.

Assyrian Identity

The Assyrians are a non-Arab, Semitic, and Christian people whose ancestral homeland includes parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. They constitute some 3 to 5 percent of the Iraqi population although some estimates range up to 10 percent. The most oft-cited statistic is that there are 1.5 million Assyrians in Iraq with population centers in Baghdad, Mosul, and villages in northwest Iraq.

Modern Assyrians trace their heritage to the ancient Assyrians, Mesopotamians, and Aramaeans who converted from Ashurism to Eastern Christianity in the three centuries after Christ. Iraqi Assyrians primarily belong to the Assyrian Church of the East (Nestorian) and to the Chaldean Church (Catholic), the latter the result of a 1551 church schism when a segment of the Nestorian Assyrians adopted Catholicism. Catholic Assyrians are thus sometimes referred to as Assyro-Chaldeans and as Chaldeans. The patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, Mar Raphael, has stated, however, that "Assyrian" is an ethnic identity, with the implication that "Chaldean" is a religious rather than an ethnic identity.[2]

Religious factionalism has been a hindrance to those Assyrians who advocate an Assyrian national identity that transcends these cleavages, particularly the differences between those who belong to the Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean Catholic Church. Prior to the 1940s and 1950s, class divisions and tribal affiliations were quite strong among Assyrians and limited the ability of the community to unite in a more cohesive manner. Today, sectarian differences account for the fragmentation of the Assyrian community, a topic that is much discussed among Assyrian intellectuals and political activists.

The vernacular of Assyrians is neo-Aramaic, a language also referred to as neo-Syriac and Assyrian. It is a point of pride for Assyrians that they speak the language of Jesus.[3] Following the Islamization of Iraq in the seventh century C.E., Assyrians continued to live as Christians in the mountainous region between what is today the Turkish Republic and Iraq. For much of their history after the advent of Islam, the Assyrians were referred to as either "Syrians" or as part of the Nestorian millet, or religious community, a category officially recognized by the sultan in 1845. Unlike some other ethno-religious groups, the Assyrians were able to maintain an identity separate from that of the Arab-Muslim majority and resisted assimilation into the broader Muslim society.[4] Both their language and strong Christian identity fortified them in this regard. Indeed, Syriac Christianity has been a uniting force for Assyrians, particularly in the period before there was a collective Assyrian national consciousness.

Assyrians have long had to distinguish themselves as Assyrians rather than as "Arab Christians," the term of choice used by Arab nationalists who deny the existence of a distinct Assyrian identity. Indeed, there is not one member state of the Arab League that recognizes Assyrians as a distinct ethnic and cultural group. The Islamic Republic of Iran, incidentally, is the only Islamic country to recognize Assyrians officially and to allow for their participation as minorities in parliament.

Some Arab-American groups have imported this denial of Assyrian identity to the United States. In 2001, a coalition of Assyrian and Assyrian-Chaldean organizations, along with their Maronite counterparts, wrote to the Washington-based Arab-American Institute, to reprimand them for claiming that Assyrians were Arabs. In a terse letter signed by seven organizations and copied to the White House, they asked the Arab-American Institute "to cease and desist from portraying Assyrians and Maronites of past and present as Arabs, and from speaking on behalf of Assyrians and Maronites." In a press release of that same year, the Assyrian International News Agency wrote that the Arab-American Institute's "perpetuation of Arabist ideology represents an egregious, willful, and deliberate mischaracterization of Assyrian identity." They likewise pointed out that Arab nationalist groups have wrongly included Assyrian-Americans in their head count of Arab Americans, in order to bolster their political clout in Washington.[5]

Turkism and Arabism

The advent of nationalism in the Middle East was unkind to the Assyrians. After 1909, the Young Turk regime in Istanbul promoted an aggressive Turkish nationalism, and with the entry of the Ottoman Empire into World War I, the Assyrians found themselves swept into a violent genocidal whirlwind. In 1915, up to two-thirds of the Assyrian community of southeastern Turkey and northern Iran was physically decimated in a matter of months.[6] Survivors of the massacres sought refuge in the territories that now constitute Lebanon, particularly around Zahle, and in northern Iraq. Approximately 50,000 Assyrian refugees arrived in northern Iraq and were housed in British-run refugee camps.[7] Similar upheavals in1918 in Iran forced more Assyrian refugees into Mesopotamia, where already-established Assyrian communities had existed for centuries. This combined influx of Assyrian Christian refugees into heavily Kurdish and Turkmen-populated northern Iraq altered the fragile demographic balance of the region and laid the groundwork for decades of ethnic conflict and revolt.

Although Assyrians had lived as a distinct Christian community for centuries and were the indigenous people of Iraq, it was not until the twentieth century that Assyrian intellectuals formulated a modern Assyrian nationalism. This nationalism went to great lengths to distinguish Assyrian identity from Arab identity. Indeed, Assyrians, like other pre-Arab peoples in the Middle East such as the Berbers, Copts, Jews, and Maronites, drew upon their ancient past as a way of resurrecting their national identity in the present. But despite appeals by the Patriarch Mar Shimun, the victorious powers did not regard the Assyrians as worthy of an autonomous or independent state. Unlike the Jews, they had no great power patron or an equivalent of the Balfour Declaration. After the postwar settlement, Assyrians found themselves once again a small, vulnerable minority in the modern states of Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey.

Following the mass displacement of Assyrians from Turkey and Iran and their resettlement in northern Iraq, the British authorities decided to employ Assyrian men as protectors of the crown's interests in Iraq. Under the British mandate for Iraq (1920-32), the Assyrians were organized into militia groups-the Assyrian Levies-modeled on the Indian army. They were used to put down revolts and support the British military presence in Iraq. This relationship between Assyrian refugees and the British colonial power would prove to be a disaster for the Assyrians who, just a few years earlier, had survived massacre and genocide. Once Iraq became an independent state and the Levies were no longer needed, the British abandoned their former partners to their fate.

During the mandate, some Assyrians had been resettled into villages in northern Iraq. Nevertheless, there remained many refugees and survivors, particularly of the Tiari and Tkhuma tribes from the Hakkari Mountains in Turkey, who had not yet found a place to call home. Various plans for the resettlement of Assyrians in France and South America came to naught. Neither did Atatürk's newly formed Turkish Republic want to take in Assyrians.

These circumstances led to the creation of an Assyrian political movement that sought international support for Assyrian political autonomy in northern Iraq. The leader of this movement, the aforementioned Mar Shimun, was by no means universally loved among Assyrians and had his detractors who hoped to stay on good terms with the Iraqi authorities. Nevertheless, he did his best to engage the League of Nations on behalf of the displaced Assyrians. He argued that the Assyrians should be granted millet status and that Assyrians from around the world should have the right to resettle in and around Amadiya, Dohuk, and Zakho.

This struggle between Assyrians and the newly independent Iraqi government came to a head in late summer of 1933 when an armed group of some 800 Assyrians crossed from Iraq into Syria in order to assert what they perceived as their legitimate national rights. The migration was a disaster. The French authorities in Syria forced the Assyrians back into Iraq where they were attacked by the Iraqi military. The Assyrian nationalist movement, small and never a threat to Iraqi independence, was finally crushed in August 1933 when the Iraqi army and Kurdish irregulars, with genuine popular support, committed a massacre at Simele. Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya wryly calls the massacre "the first genuine expression of national independence in a former Arab province of the Ottoman Empire."[8] Assyrian sources put the number of dead at 3,000.

No event has shaped Iraqi Assyrian collective identity more than the August 7, 1933 massacre of Assyrian civilians and mass destruction of Assyrian villages by the Iraqi army and Kurdish irregulars in and around Simele. Assyrians consider the anniversary of August 7 to be a national day of mourning.

Assyrians under Baathism

For the next several decades, Assyrians did their best to survive and maintain their heritage. Compared with the period from 1915 to 1933, the years of the Iraqi monarchy were good years indeed. The regime of Brigadier 'Abd al-Karim Qasim (1958-63) also favored the Assyrians. But Baathist domination (1968-2003) was nothing short of a nightmare for those Assyrians who wanted to retain their distinct ethnic identity.

As Baathist power increased, Assyrian influence and rights within Iraq decreased. Fear and intimidation became the rule as the regime attempted to divide families and communities; religious schisms among the Assyrians were manipulated in order to weaken their power. For example, in 1970, the regime succeeded in luring back to Iraq the venerable Mar Shimun, once the Assyrian nationalist firebrand who had sought millet status for the Assyrians some thirty-seven years before. Back in Iraq, he gave fulsome praise to the "leadership of the revolution."[9] Under the divide-and-rule policies of the Baath, some individual Assyrians enjoyed privileges. But Assyrian national and cultural life in Iraq virtually ended. Those Assyrians who held official positions under the Baath did so at the price of discarding their unique identity and native language. In short they had to cease being Assyrians.

By the time of the 1977 census, the regime referred to Assyrians as being either Arabs or Kurds. Assyrians were thus forced to deny their identity as Assyrians and became, in the parlance of the regime, "Arab Christians." Speaking Assyrian in public became a crime, and Assyrian nationalism was harshly punished. One extreme example of this "Arabization" program was Iraqi deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, an Assyrian-Chaldean Christian who changed his surname from Youkhana upon joining the Baath. Yet, despite Aziz's prominence in Iraqi politics and Saddam Hussein's use of Christian chefs to cook his meals, it was a shibboleth that Saddam was especially tolerant toward Christians. Although regime propaganda claimed that Iraqis enjoyed religious freedom, this applied only to ritual. The Baath prohibited all religious activities that linked Iraqi Christians to co-religionists abroad. For example, in 1978, the regime imprisoned more than 500 Assyrian members of the Bible Study Committee.

In the Iran-Iraq war, many Assyrians were drafted and sent to fight on the front lines. This resulted in a disproportionately high casualty rate. Soon thereafter, numerous Assyrians left for Kuwait, Lebanon, and other countries. Some families remained relatively secure for a while longer and hoped for the best. By 1990, however, Assyrian national identity in Iraq had all but been erased, to the point where foreign journalists unfamiliar with Iraqi history completely missed this hidden community and reported instead on the presence of Arab Christians (rather than Assyrians or Assyro-Chaldeans) in Baghdad. In the 1990s, the regime manipulated the United Nations Oil-for-Food program in order to further persecute the Assyrians, by stipulating that only "Arab Christians," and not Assyrians, could use ration cards.

Around this time and shortly after the 1991 Kuwait war, many Iraqi Assyrians left for Australia, Canada, and the United States. Indeed, since 1991, some 50 percent of Iraq's Christians have left the country. Some 400,000 Assyrians are now living in North America, particularly Detroit, Phoenix, San Jose, Toronto, and Windsor. Community life in North America is vibrant. In addition to churches, Assyrian-Americans have a multitude of websites, chat rooms, and message boards that allow for Assyrians throughout the world to communicate and share ideas. There are likewise several radio shows devoted to Assyrian concerns.[10] Sargon Dadesho, a staunch Assyrian nationalist who survived an assassination attempt by Iraqi agents in California, founded an Assyrian satellite television station that broadcasts into Assyrian homes in the diaspora.

Those Assyrians fortunate enough to live in the Kurdish autonomous area since 1991 have been subject to occasional discrimination by their Kurdish neighbors. Still, Assyrian cultural and religious life has flourished in this enclave in a way unimaginable under Saddam Hussein. This cultural effervescence has been fertile ground for oppositional politics.


Assyrian Future

The future of Iraq now hangs in the balance. Should a postwar Iraq blossom into a democratic or quasi-democratic state, no one would welcome this more than the Assyrians. It would allow them to assert their cultural and religious rights within the context of the new Iraqi polity and relieve them of the fear of being persecuted as Christians or non-Arabs. This means assuring that Assyrians have a place in a post-Saddam Iraqi state and that their concerns about the role of Islam in the new polity are addressed. While Assyrians have demonstrated their willingness and desire for an Iraq for all Iraqis, they would not fare well in a state constitutionally influenced by shari'a (Islamic law). This is a point that policymakers interested in promoting democracy in the Middle East would be well advised to consider.

Beyond the constitutional question, the most contentious issue facing Assyrians in the near future is the status of land claims and confiscated property. From the mid-1970s on, the Baath regime made a point of expropriating Assyrian villages and property. There are Assyrian activists in the United States who would like to reclaim lost lands. Indeed, much like the Kurds and Turkmen, the Assyrians have legally viable claims to some oil-rich lands in northern Iraq, particularly in and around the Mosul vilayet, a former Ottoman territory that the council of the League of Nations annexed to Iraq in 1925.

In tandem with land claims, Assyrians will likewise find themselves in political competition with Kurdish parties in the months and years ahead. In particular, Assyrians have bitterly complained that the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) has been at best negligent and at worst hostile toward Assyrian rights and aspirations. There is great apprehension among Assyrians that those Kurdish militias that fought with the United States against Saddam Hussein will now impose autocratic rule in those areas now under nominal Kurdish control. As a result, there is a strong possibility that Assyrian parties will join with their Turkmen and Yazidi counterparts as a counterweight to Kurdish political power in a postwar Iraq.

To achieve their goals, Assyrians will rely very much on the Assyrian-American community. Before the war, support for the removal of Saddam Hussein was widespread among Assyrian-Americans. Many of them are now returning to visit their ancestral homeland and the relatives they left behind. Others from Jordan and Syria hope to return. Family reunification and the ability to restore Assyrian churches and villages now head the agendas of Assyrian-American aid organizations. The California-based Assyrian Aid Society has been conducting such projects in the Kurdish autonomous area since 1991. Assyrian-Americans, as demonstrated by their participation in the State Department's Future of Iraq Project, are likewise eager to work with all other Iraqi ethnic and religious groups in the rebuilding of Iraq. Assyrian communities in California, Illinois, and Michigan have engaged in an impressive degree of Assyrian political activity. Whether that activity can be translated into a guarantee of pluralism within Iraq will be the great test of Assyrian-American influence and cohesion. If they succeed, this might encourage greater diaspora activism by other Middle Eastern minorities, notably the Berbers and Copts.

Guaranteeing a pluralistic Iraq will also be the great test of U.S. influence and resolve. The British failed to guarantee the rights of the Assyrians, and that failure presaged the decline of Iraq into authoritarianism and, ultimately, Baathist dictatorship. The status of the Assyrians is a barometer of Iraqi pluralism, and it would behoove the United States to consider it at every step along the way in the reconstruction of Iraq. Their concerns about the possible rise of Shi'ite extremism should be given a fair hearing. Given the fact that Assyrians from the diaspora have been willing to work with the Americans for a free Iraq, Washington has a particular responsibility to ensure that Assyrian voices and concerns for a postwar Iraq are heard.

It is still the case, however, that most Americans have never heard of Assyrians, at least as a contemporary people. The American public assumes that Shi'ites, Sunnis, and Kurds constitute the population of Iraq; the Assyrian element is often overlooked. This makes it incumbent upon the Assyrians to vigorously promote their cause in the corridors of power. Washington should take heed. Assyrian freedom will be the most convincing proof of Iraqi freedom and the most demonstrable validation of the brilliant military campaign waged in its name.

Jonathan Eric Lewis is a political analyst and writer, specializing in the history of Middle Eastern minority groups and their political movements in the diaspora.

[1] William Saroyan, "Seventy Thousand Assyrians," in William Saroyan, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories (New York: New Directions, 1934).
[2] Interview with Mar Raphael I. BeDawid, Lebanese Broadcasting International Channel, Apr. 30, 2000.
[3] Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Feb. 27, 2003.
[4] Walid Phares, "Middle East Christians: The Captive Nations," in Malka Hillel Shulewitz, ed., The Forgotten Millions: The Modern Jewish Exodus from Arab Lands (London: Continuum, 1999), pp. 15-22.
[5] Assyrian International News Agency, Oct. 5, 27, 2001.
[6] Efraim Karsh and Inari Karsh, Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 160.
[7] Kanan Makiya, Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), p. 167.
[8] Ibid., p. 170.
[9] Ibid., p. 175
[10] For a particularly informative website, with a wide range of news reports, see Another useful source of information is the website of the Assyrian International News Agency, at Examples of radio and television programs include Qala d'Khoyada, Qala Kheera d'Abroyeh (Chicago/Detroit); Assyrian Star Radio Program (Phoenix); SBS Radio Interviews (Sydney); and KSBV AssyrianVision TV


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