An ancient people rooted in empire and Christ
Most of Iraq’s Christians call themselves Assyrians, Chaldeans or Syriac, different names for an ethnicity rooted in ancient Mesopotamia which began to practice Christianity in the first century. The Christians of Iraq have long called Iraq and Syria their home, and their history dates back more than 6,700 years, appearing prominently in the Old Testament. The Christian faith came to Assyria in the first century with St. Thomas, St. Thaddeus, and Mar Mari, which makes Iraq home to some of the oldest followers of Christianity in the world for some 2,000 years.
Iraq is a country full of biblical significance: the Garden of Eden described in Genesis was in Iraq; Abraham came from Ur of the Chaldees, a city in Iraq; the city of Nineveh that the prophet Jonah visited after being spit out by a giant fish was in northern Iraq and is now known as Mosul.
Ethnically Assyrians are not Arabs, Kurds or Turks. The Assyrian religion is not Islam. Their faith is grounded in the emergence of Christianity in ancient Mesopotamia with a unique language shared by Jesus Christ. Although the empires are not in existence, history is replete with recorded details of the continuous presence of the indigenous Assyrian people until the present time.
Whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.
– Isaiah 19:25
Assyrians are predominately Christian, mostly adhering to the East and West Syrian rites of Christianity. The churches that constitute the East Syrian rite include the Assyrian Church of the East, Ancient Church of the East, and Chaldean Catholic Church, whose followers mostly speak the Northeastern branch of East Aramaic, whereas the churches of the West Syrian rite, the Syriac Orthodox Church and Syriac Catholic Church, mostly speak the Central branch.
Most Assyrians speak a Neo-Aramaic language, including Northeastern, Central, and Western Neo-Aramaic, as well as second or third language, such as Arabic, Farsi or Kurdish, dependent on their current nation state.
Assyria and Babylonia
The history of these indigenous Aramaic-speakers spans back to more than 6,700 years before the arrival of Christianity when Mesopotamian kingdoms flourished between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers. Modern day Assyrian Christians are descendants of the two great empires, Assyria and Babylonia, which rose to power and prosperity in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.
The contributions of these empires to civilization and innovation throughout history are unparalleled. The Assyrian Empire itself is considered one of the greatest of the Mesopotamian empires due to its expanse and the development of the bureaucracy and military strategies which allowed it to grow and flourish.
Some of the major Assyrian contributions include:
- Revolutionized transportation through the invention of the wheel and chariot
- Division of the circle into 360 degrees
- Development of the writing system
- Founded the first library known as Ashurbanipal Library
- Discovery of The Pythagorean Theorem and the concept of zero
- Developed the arch, column, and dome in architecture
- Recorded the very first code of laws by King Hammurabi
Due to the fall of the Assyrian empire in 612 B.C., the inhabitants of the empire were reduced to a small nation living at the mercy of their overlords in scattered lands in the Middle East. Assyrians now live the countries of Iraq, Syria and Iran, and elsewhere, today.
Homeland and diaspora
The Assyrian kingdom was conquered in 612 B.C.E., and never again enjoyed independence. The Assyrians suffered ethnic cleansing and religious persecution at the hands of the Persian Empire—and later on conquered Arab Muslim kingdoms, who subjugated them for some 1,400 years. In the early 20th century, Assyrians were victims in the same genocide that was aimed at Armenians, and suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties. In the face of all this, the Assyrians still hold on to their faith, their Aramaic language (the tongue which Jesus spoke), and their cultural heritage.
The areas that form the Assyrian homeland are present-day northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran and northeastern Syria. The majority of Assyrians have migrated to other regions of the world, including the U.S., Australia, Europe, the Levant (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon), Russia and Argentina during the past century or so. This displacement is a direct result of tragedies such as the Assyrian Genocide by the Ottoman Empire during World War I, the Simele Massacre in Iraq (1933), the Iranian Revolution (1979), Arab Nationalist Ba’athist policies in Iraq and Syria, Saddam Hussein’s al-Anfal campaign, the U.S. invasion (2003), and the ISIS takeover of large swaths of Iraq and Syria (2014).
After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq was afflicted by powerful, armed, Islamic radical groups such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq—which began another ethnic and religious cleansing of 1.4 million Assyrians. These Islamists drove more than 1 million unarmed civilians out of their homeland. In 2014, with the withdrawl of American troops from Iraq, this already vulnerable community came under yet another genocidal attack, which forced more than 200,000 Christians from their homes and into parking structures, un-winterized tents, and parks. They lack access to heat, air-conditioning, and reliable food and water. Hundreds of thousands of Assyrians in exile in Middle Eastern countries are denied work permits and access to schools for their children.
The world has largely ignored this ongoing human rights crisis.