A prominent theme in the global media as of late has been to question whether one of the world’s oldest cultures faces extinction in the Middle East. Assyrians have inhabited the Fertile Crescent since 2500 BCE and were one of the first peoples to convert to Christianity. After the Muslim conquest of the Middle East, the Assyrians have gradually become a marginalized minority in their homeland and have been subjugated to continuous persecution for over a millennium. They have survived to this day, though greatly diminished, and are once again facing a threat to their remaining presence in the form of the recent insurgency throughout the Middle East.
Assyrian heritage lies in the Fertile Crescent (roughly compromising modern day Iraq, Syria and south-eastern Turkey) and can be traced back to the late bronze age. Their language, Aramean, was once dominant throughout the Middle East and was the language that a historical Jesus would have spoken. They were one of the first nations to convert to Christianity and one of the first Christian churches to secede from the Roman church. In the 5th century the Assyrians branched off from the Roman church in two separate schisms forming two new churches: The Assyrian Church in the East, also called the Nestorian church, and the Syriac Orthodox church, part of the larger communion of Oriental Orthodox Churches.
The Assyrians lived a quite existence on the fringes of Muslim societies where they were subjected to massacres and persecution. By the 20th century, most of the Assyrian territory was held by the Ottoman Empire. A crumbling state at this time, the Ottomans joined the German side of WW1, proclaiming a Jihad. The Ottomans, suspicious of the Christian minorities within its borders and afraid they could destabilize the empire, launched campaigns of ethnic cleansing against Assyrians, Armenians and Greeks. To this day the debate rages on, whether the cleansing were genocides or not, with most countries in the world not recognizing them as such. The Turkish government has continuously denied these accusations. Today only 29 countries recognize the Armenian genocide, and four countries recognize the Assyrian genocide (with Sweden being included in both numbers).
After the collapse of the Ottoman empire, the Assyrians tried to raise demands for an independent Assyrian country, or at least an autonomous state. Proposed boundaries were presented but ultimately ignored by the WW1 victors. The Assyrians would go on to spend another century in insecurity. Their vulnerability since the genocide has led to mass emigration from the Middle East. Today it is estimated that more Assyrians live in diaspora than lives in their homelands.
Temple ruin in the ancient Assyrian city of Palmyra. (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)
The self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) has in recent years occupied large swaths of what has been Assyrian territory in Iraq and Syria. IS has particularly targeted the Assyrians and other ethnoreligious minorities for persecution, massacre, slavery, prostitution and destruction of their cultural heritage. Huge numbers of Assyrians have been forced to flee; those surviving in IS held territory have been forced into the Dhimmi contract. This contract stipulates extra taxes and bans on public display of their religion as well as being mandated to follow Sharia law.
In the face of unimaginable threat to their lives and heritage, many Assyrians have taken arms, both in Syria and Iraq, to fight of the insurgents. The demand for autonomy and self-determination has again been raised in Iraq and this time it has been answered. The Assyrians have found an unlikely ally in the Kurds; historically a group which has carried out massacres against Christians and Assyrians is now their most important ally. In Syria, Assyrians under their Syriac Union Party have joined the Kurdish led SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces). They are a recognized participant of the self-declared Rojava state of northern Syria that combats both IS and the Assad-regime. The future of Rojava is however uncertain, due to the further complication of Russia and Iran backing the Assad-regime and a recent intervention from the Kurdish-hostile Turkey. Turkey is not only fighting IS and Assad but also the SDF and Rojava, whom they brand as terrorists.
In Iraq Assyrians have found refuge and support in the Kurdish held areas. Kurdish political parties as well as Shia Muslim parties, including the governing party of Iraq, the Islamic Dawa Party, have heeded the call for an autonomous Assyrian governorate in the Nineveh plains (this area would be shared with Yazidis and Shabakis, two ethnoreligious groups of Kurdish ethnic affiliation), in the centre of their historical heartland. The former Iraqi president Jalal Talabi supports the creation of the Nineveh plains governorate and stated: ”We believe that attention should be focused on healing the wounded Christians […] we do not want to displace a dear part of the Iraqi population, especially since the Christians are the indigenous people of Iraq”. Through an open support for self-governance, the Iraqi government, the Iraqi Kurds, and the Syrian Kurds are reaching for reconciliation with- and support for the Assyrian people.
The tides of war in Iraq have been in favour of the Kurds and the Iraqi government. IS has lost more than half of its territory in the past two years. Slowly they’re pushed out of their last strongholds and soon their insurgence may finally be over. With that comes the tremendous task for Assyrians to rebuild a shattered and dispersed society. While the scattered diaspora might never again be united as a people in their ancestral homeland, the survivors in Iraq will for the first time since antiquity have self-determination again, with protection and right to their cultural heritage.