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[casi] Iraqi Assyrians: Barometer of Pluralism



Iraqi Assyrians: Barometer of Pluralism

by Jonathan Eric Lewis

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 in 1918 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

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
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

The Assyrian Opposition

Historically, a good number of Assyrians joined the Iraqi Communist Party
(ICP) as a means of challenging the regime. Assyrians rose within the ranks
of the ICP and took on important positions within the movement. One of its
veterans is particularly well known. Just weeks before launching "Operation
Iraqi Freedom," President Bush spent twenty minutes meeting with Katrin
Michael, an Assyrian-Chaldean who survived the Baathist regime's 1988
chemical attack in Halabja. Michael, a former member of the Iraqi Communist
Party resistance movement, hails from an Assyro-Chaldean village in northern
Iraq and has come to be a prominent activist for Assyrian rights.[11]

Assyrians also have formed a number of ethnic-based opposition movements
that both challenged the Baathist regime and advocated a set of guiding
principles for the Assyrian people in the diaspora. These parties are the
Assyrian counterparts to the Iraqi Turkmen Front, the Kurdish Democratic
Party, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

The first Assyrian political party, the Assyrian Democratic Organization
(Mtakasta Demoqrateta Atureta, ADO), was formed not in Iraq but in
neighboring Syria. The ADO, a tiny movement created by Assyrian
intellectuals and political activists in 1957 in response to that
government's aggressive Arab nationalism, eventually established a presence
in Chicago.

Another Assyrian opposition movement, the Bet-Nahrain Democratic Party
(BNDP), advocates an autonomous state for Assyrians in Iraq. It is perhaps
one of the most nationalistic of all Assyrian organizations and has its
American base in Modesto, California. Its founding tenets include the
negation of geographical and religious cleavages among Assyrians. It is
affiliated with the Assyrian National Congress (ANC), an organization that
unsuccessfully attempted to gain nongovernmental organization affiliation at
the United Nations. In 2000, the regime rounded up and questioned Assyrians
in Baghdad and Mosul after it was discovered that they had obtained copies
of the BNDP's periodical.

The most successful Assyrian political movement has been the Assyrian
Democratic Movement (Zowaa Demoqrataya Aturaya, ADM). Formed in 1979, the
ADM has a fifteen-member central committee and is led by its general
secretary, Yonadam Y. Kanna, who was sentenced to death in absentia by the
Baath regime.[12] As of this writing, he is one of five Assyrian members of
the Kurdish regional parliament. According to its website, the ADM advocates
a "free, democratic Iraq" and "recognition of the national Assyrian rights"
and has worked with other Iraqi opposition movements. The ADM, like the
BNDP, calls for unity among Assyrians, but unlike the BNDP, does not call
for an autonomous Assyrian state. According to the ADM, Assyrians
are the children of one indivisible nation and inheritors of the
Mesopotamian civilization be it Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and
inheritors of the Syriac Christian culture united by one ancient language
and a history filled with human achievements and gifts.[13]
Kanna has described his people as being the "children of Babylon and
Nineveh," a romantic and politically powerful sentiment and one which echoes
the nationalistic rhetoric of other pre-Islamic minority groups throughout
the Middle East. In 1989 the ADO formed the Assyrian Coalition with the ADM
although there remain tensions between these groups.

At a September 2002 rally in Modesto, home to some 20,000
Assyrian-Americans, Kanna urged the United States to take on Saddam Hussein:

If you don't attack, then you are contributing to the suffering of the Iraqi
people . It would lead to the building of terrorism and the threat of future

Due to successful lobbying from influential Assyrian-Americans and from
Congressman Henry Hyde (Republican-Illinois), President George W. Bush
designated the ADM an officially recognized Iraqi opposition movement. In a
December 9, 2002 memorandum, President Bush invoked both articles four and
five of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 as a means of allowing the United
States government to provide financial resources to the ADM. Kanna himself
participated in a September 2002 meeting of Iraqi opposition leaders in New
York and addressed the London conference of Iraqi opposition leaders in
December 2002. In February 2003, Kanna addressed both Iraqi opposition
leaders and U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad at a conference in northern Iraq.
Just hours prior to the American-led war against Iraq in March 2003, Kanna
stressed the importance of the coming war for the history of the Assyrian
people. He noted that some Assyrians were leaving the cities for the
villages and urged diaspora Assyrians to provide humanitarian aid to their

Although the final declaration from the Iraqi opposition leaders contained a
reference to Islam as the religion of the Iraqi state, an entire paragraph
was devoted to Assyrian rights. It called for the equality of Assyrians
among all other Iraqis and advocated for the protection of Assyrian ethnic,
cultural, and administrative rights within a constitutionally protected
legal framework. Similar protections for the Turkmen were likewise
promulgated. There was no mention of political autonomy for either of these
two ethnic minority groups, a point of contention for some Assyrian
activists who had hoped to carve out a territorial unit in northern Iraq for
an autonomous state and future Assyrian homeland. At the final prewar
meeting of the Iraqi opposition movements in Ankara on March 19, 2003,
representatives from various groups, including the ADM, called for the
protection of the rights and freedoms for all people in Iraq.

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
[11] Assyrian International News Agency, Mar. 19, 2003.
[12] The Assyrian Star (Worcester, Mass.), Winter 2002, p. 6.
[13] Assyrian Democratic Movement (Zowaa), at
[14] The Modesto Bee, Sept. 28, 2002.

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