WHO ARE THE ASSYRIANS?

Modern Assyrians are the direct descendants of the ancient Assyrians of Mesopotamia. Since the fall of the Assyrian empire in 612 BC, Assyrians have continued to maintain a separate identity, culture, and language in the lands of the former empire despite persistent invasions and persecution. While Assyrians continue to exist in modern Syria, Turkey, and Iran, the largest concentration of modern Assyrians remains in the heartland of their ancestral homelands in northern Iraq. In particular, many Assyrian villages are located in the Nineveh Plains, named after the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh. However, Assyrians can be found throughout Iraq.

Assyrians were some of the earliest converts to Christianity. Their practice of Christianity predates the spread of Islam in the Middle East by centuries. Over the years, Assyrians have embraced a variety of religious confessions within Christianity. Today, most Assyrians practice their faith in the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Assyrian Apostolic Church of the East, the Syriac Orthodox Church, and the Syriac Catholic Church. Due to modern missionaries, smaller numbers of Assyrians follow the Presbyterian Church.

World War I witnessed the first modern tragedy for the Assyrian nation. While no hard numbers exist, it is estimated that two-thirds of the Assyrian population living in Turkey died during the Assyrian Genocide of 1915-1918, along with Armenians and Greeks. Assyrians were forced from their villages by the Turks and Kurds, and either killed or forced to walk out of Turkey, into Iraq and Iran. Most died on the journey. The Assyrians settled with relatives or refugee camps and eventually joined the other Assyrians in Iraq and Iran.

In the years after World War I and the establishment of the Republic of Iraq, Assyrians in Iraq lobbied the League of Nations for protection and their own national state, especially as the end of the British Mandate in 1932 neared. Assyrian groups were rejected or ignored while the Iraqi government warned Assyrians to cease their efforts for foreign protection and land in Iraq. As the British Mandate ended in October of 1932, the Assyrians were left to fend for themselves. Less than one year later, the Assyrians were massacred in Simele, Iraq. Iraqi soldiers, under Kurdish general Bakkir Sidqi, murdered between three to five thousand Assyrian men, women, and children between August 11-16, 1933.

After World War II, Assyrians remained in Iraq, Syria, and Iran (with small populations still in Turkey). However, by this time, the persecution of the early 20th century had caused mass exodus from the Middle East, and Assyrian communities were by this time active in the United States, mainly in New England and Chicago, but also in other parts of the world. Under Ba'athism, Assyrians continued to be persecuted and began leaving for the West on a larger scale. The Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) took its toll on Assyrians in both countries as well. The Persian Gulf War in 1990-91 saw another mass exodus of Assyrians from Iraq, resettling in the United States, Canada, England, Jordan, and Australia.

Finally, with the Iraq War and the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the ensuing insurgency and the partitioning of a Kurdish north brought a new wave of persecution and cultural genocide upon Assyrians. Dozens of Assyrian churchs have been bombed. Priests have been murdured in vicious acts of intimidation. Thousands have been internally displaced, most fleeing Baghdad to return to their prior village homes in the north. But even more devastasting to the preservation of the Assyrian people, hundreds of thousands of Assyrians have been forced to flee their homes to live as refugees in Syria, Jordan and elsewhere. Although the war has forced millions to become refugees, the fact that Assyrians have suffered disporportionately suggests actively targeted persecution. The result is that today more Assyrians live in diaspora outside of their ancestral homelands for the first time in history.

Assyrians are now spread throughout the Middle East, Europe, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, and Brazil. In the United States, Assyrian communities can be found in Chicago, New England, as well as San Jose and surrounding communities in northern California. Larger communities of Chaldean Assyrians have developed over the last fifty years in Detroit, Michigan, and San Diego, California. More recently, many Assyrians within the United States have migrated to Phoenix, Arizona.

While a vibrant Assyrian diaspora continues, the survival of a unique Assyrian culture and identity cannot rely on communities in diaspora. Over time, assimilation for these communities is inevitable. Thus, the threat to Assyrians in their ancestral homelands threatens the very existence and preservation of the Assyrian culture.