- For the ancient Mesopotamian kingdom, see Assyria.
Christian Assyrians are the indigenous people of north Iraq. Assyrians have staunchly resisted assimilation by local hegemonies, whether Arabization, Turkification or Kurdification. They are divided among several churches, as members of the Assyrian Church of the East (Nestorian), the Chaldean Catholic Church of Babylon, and the Syrian Orthodox Church - who read and write Syriac, a Semitic language which is used in their religious observances. The Assyrians descend from the Assyrian nation that conquered ancient Syria, Israel and Mesopotamia in the 8th and 7th century BC ( Assyrian Identity) and have maintained their separate identity (Genetic Differentiation In Iranian Christian Communities).
In Iraq, a few churches dating back to the 5th Century still dot the northern countryside. Turkish nationalists in the Young Turk (or C.U.P.) ministry, in control of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, began their systematic elimination of Christian minorities, beginning with the deportation of Greeks from eastern Thrace in January 1914. As early as December 1914, the Assyrians were being forced from their homes. By the middle of 1915 the deportations and killings were in full swing. About 750,000 Assyrians, or about three-fourths of the entire Assyrian population, were killed during "Year of the Sword" (Shato d'Sayfo), bitterly recalled by minorities today.
At the turn of the century the Christian population in Ottoman regions had numbered about 5,000,000. When the massacres finally ended in 1923, about 20,000 Greeks, 10,000 Armenians, and 30,000 Assyrians remained. The Assyrian diaspora includes a community in Chicago that numbers as much as 80,000, more than in any other American city.
In 1915 the Assyrian Christians tried to throw off Ottoman rule, by throwing themselves into the protection of the British, who were active in Syria. This was publicized in Istanbul as confirmation of Christian treachery that justified the butchery. Thousands fled into exile. In 1918 Britain resettled 20,000 Assyrians in northern Iraq around Zakho and Dahuk, after Turkey violently quelled a British-inspired Assyrian rebellion. As a result, approximately three-fourths of the Assyrians who had sided with the British during World War I found themselves living in Kurdish areas of Iraq, which was a dangerous situation. Thousands of Assyrian men had seen service in the Iraqi Levies, a force under British officers separate from the regular Iraqi army. Pro-British, they had been apprehensive of Iraqi independence.
Unlike the Kurds, the Assyrians scarcely expected a nation-state of their own after World War I, but their pressure for some temporal authority in the north of Iraq for the Assyrian patriarch, the Mar Shamun, was flatly refused by British and Iraqis alike.
In 1933, the Iraqi government held the patriarch under house arrest. During July about 800 armed Assyrians headed for the Syrian border, where they were turned back. While King Faisal had briefly left the country for medical reasons, the Minister of Interior, Hikmat Sulayman, adopted a policy aimed at a final solution of the Assyrian "problem". This policy was implemented by a Kurd, General Bakr Sidqi, who, after engaging in several clashes with the Assyrians, permitted his men to kill about 3,000 Assyrians, including women and children, at the Assyrian villages of Simele (Sumayyil ) and later at Suryia .
The Assyrian clash marked the entrance into Iraqi politics of the military, offered an excuse for enlarging conscription, and the hugely popular Assyrian massacre also set the stage for the increased prominence of Bakr Sidqi. In October 1936 Bakr Sidqi staged the first military coup in the modern Arab world.
In modern times, the group, which today numbers about 3.5 million, has been doubly mistreated; first by their Kurds, then by Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime, which forbade them to teach Syriac. Assyrians were deprived of their cultural and national rights. There were only two nationalities in Saddam Hussein's Iraq — the Assyrians were not recognized in Iraqi censuses.
After Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003, the Assyrian Democratic Movement was one of the smaller political parties that emerged in the social chaos of the occupation. Its officials say that while members of the Assyrian Democratic Movement also took part in the liberation of the key oil cities of Kirkuk and Mosul in the north, the Assyrians were not invited to join the steering committee that was charged with defining Iraq's future.
Assyrians are not Arabs ethnically or culturally. Historically, they contributed to the rise of the Arabic civilization during the Abbasid period, and many scientists and scholars were in fact Assyrian (How Greek Science Passed To The Arabs). They have their own rich history which is distinct from the Arabs — in fact, the Assyrians were the first manufacturers of a sophisticated civilization in ancient times, and prior to the Islamic expansion they made several breakthroughs in the fields of astronomy, philosophy and medicine. They were builders of the first known world empire in antiquity under Sargon I, which encompassed what is now the western Iran, all of Syria and Mesopotamia (Iraq), Israel, the Armenian highlands and Egypt.
As recently as December 2000, a Syriac Orthodox priest, Fr. Yusuf Akbulut, stood before the Turkish public security court to answer for an interview in the newspaper Hurriyet, in which he reaffirmed the genocide of the Armenians in Turkey, which was under discussion at the time in the Congress of the United States. Additionally he said that in the "Year of the Sword" (1915), Assyrians were also murdered. The incident provoked a request in Sweden's parliament for an investigation, since Turkey is an applicant for membership in the European Union.
Many Assyrians currently have an apocalyptic belief in the future of their nation, based on the following passage from the Bible:
At that time there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will visit Egypt, and the Egyptians will visit Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. At that time Israel will be the third member of the group, along with Egypt and Assyria, and will be a recipient of blessing in the earth. The Lord who leads armies will pronounce a blessing over the earth, saying, "Blessed be my people, Egypt, and the work of my hands, Assyria, and my special possession, Israel!" (Isaiah 19:23-25)