Assyrians in post-Saddam Iraq

Assyrians in Iraq are those Assyrians still residing in the country of Iraq. They are (along with the Mandeans) the indigenous people of Iraq, descending from the ancient Mesopotamians, in particular from the Akkadian peoples (Assyrians and Babylonians) and the Aramean tribes who intermingled with them from the 10th century BC onwards. Assyria existed as an independent state and sometimes empire in what is today Iraq from the 23rd century BC to the end of the 7th century BC, and then as an occupied but named entity (Athura, Asuristan, Assyria, Adiabene) until the late 7th century AD. Assyrians are a Semitic people who speak evolutions of the ancient eastern Aramaic dialects that have existed in Iraq since 1200 BC, and follow Eastern Rite Christianity which first appeared in the region in the 1st century AD, in particular the Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic Church, Syriac Orthodox Church and Ancient Church of the East. The vast majority of Iraqi Christians are ethnic Assyrians.

According to the Central Intelligence Agency, the Christians of Iraq or other religions (excluding Islam), including the Assyrian community, make up 3% of the Iraqi population.[1] The last Iraqi census, in 1987, counted 1.4 million Christians, including the Assyrian community, although many left the country during the 1990s when economic sanctions were imposed on the country.[2] Other indigenous Assyrian communities can be found just outside Iraq's borders in north east Syria, south east Turkey and north west Iran.

British Mandate

In 1918, Britain resettled 20,000 Assyrian people from Turkey in Iraqi refugee camps in Baquba and Mandan after the Ottoman Empire instigated the Assyrian Genocide and subsequently violently quelled a British and Russian-inspired Assyrian rebellion (see Assyrian struggle for independence), which although having success initially, floundered when the Russians withdrew from the war, leaving the Assyrian forces cut off and vastly outnumbered without supplies and armaments. From there, due to their higher level of education, many gravitated toward Kirkuk and Habbaniya, (as well as to areas in the north with age old existing indigenous Assyrian populations) where they were indispensable in the administration of the oil and military projects. As a result, approximately three-fourths of the Assyrians who had sided with the British during World War I found themselves living in now Kurdish dominated areas of Iraq where their ancestors had existed for many thousands of years. Thousands of Assyrian men had seen service in the Iraqi Levies (Assyrian Levies), a force under British officers separate from the regular Iraqi army. Excellent, disciplined and loyal soldiers, they were used by the British to help put down Arab and Kurdish insurrections against the British, and to help patrol the borders of British Mesopotamia. Pro-British, they had been apprehensive of Iraqi independence. Most of those thus resettled by the British have gone into exile, although by the end of the twentieth century, almost all of those who remain were born in Iraq. Assyrians living in northern Iraq today are those whose ancestry lies in the north originally, an area roughly corresponding with Ancient Assyria. Many of these, however, in places like Berwari, have been displaced by Kurds since World War I. This process has continued throughout the twentieth century: as Kurds have expanded in population, Assyrians have come under attack as in 1933 (Simele Massacre), and as a result have fled from Iraq. (Stafford, Tragedy of the Assyrians, 1935)

Unlike the Kurds, some Assyrians scarcely expected a nation-state of their own after World War I (despite promises by the British and Russians), but they did demand restitution from Turkey for the material and population losses they had suffered, especially in northwest Iran, a neutral party in WWI invaded by Turkish forces. Their pressure for some temporal authority in the north of Iraq under the Assyrian patriarch, the Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII, was flatly refused by British and Iraqis alike.

Independent Kingdom of Iraq

In 1933, the Iraqi government held the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, the Mar Shamun, under house arrest. When he left Iraq to appeal to the British with regard to how the Assyrians were being mistreated in Iraq contrary to the agreement at Iraq's independence to refrain from discrimination against minorities, he was stripped of his citizenship and refused reentry.

During July 1933, 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. After engaging in several clashes with the Assyrians, on 11 August 1933, Sidqi permitted his men to kill about 3,000 unarmed Assyrian villagers, including women, children and the elderly, at the Assyrian villages of Sumail (Simele) district, and later at Suryia. Having scapegoated the Assyrians as dangerous national traitors, this massacre of unarmed civilians became a symbol of national pride, and enhanced Sidqi's prestige. The British, though represented by a powerful military presence as provided by the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930, failed to intervene, and indeed helped white-wash the event at the League of Nations.

The Assyrian repression marked the entrance of the military into Iraqi politics, a pattern that has periodically re-emerged since 1958, and offered an excuse for enlarging conscription. The hugely popular Assyrian massacre, an indication of the latent anti-Christian atmosphere, 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.

Assyrians continued to serve the British in Iraq (who maintained a military presence until the mid-1950s), despite earlier betrayals. Assyrian levies played an important role in putting down the pro Nazi Iraqi movement in WW2, and served the British in the Mediterranean and North African campaigns during the war.

The World Directory of Minorities states that there are over 300,000 Assyrian followers of the Chaldean Catholic rite in Iraq and that they live mainly in Baghdad. Until the 1950s, Chaldean Catholics were mostly settled in Mosul — in 1932, 70 percent of Assyrian Christians of all denominations lived there, but by 1957, only 47 percent remained, as they migrated southward due in part to ethnic and religious violence and regional and political tensions. It was estimated that about half of Iraq's Assyrian Christian's lived in Baghdad by 1979, accounting for 14 percent of that city's population

This period also marks the intensification of denominational antagonism among Aramaic speakers in Iraq as some church institutions began to distance themselves from the members of the Assyrian Church of the East who were seen as magnets for Muslim antagonism. It is from this period that, as the new Mosul-born patriarch of the Assyrian Apostolic Church of Antioch and All the East (Jacobite) reached the pinnacle of this church's hierarchy, he began to move the Church away from the term Assyrian and toward the term "Syriac." Although the terms "Syrian" and "Syriac" are derivatives of the original term "Assyrian" historically. At the same time, this Church moved its See to Damascus, Syria.

Republic of Iraq

Recognition of the Syriac language by the Ba'thist regime

In the early 1970s, the Ba'ath regime tried to change the suppression of Assyrians in Iraq through different laws that were passed. On 20 February 1972, the government passed the law to recognized the cultural rights of Assyrians by allowing Aramaic be taught schools in which the majority of pupils spoke that language in addition to Arabic. Aramaic was also to be taught at intermediate and secondary schools in which the majority of students spoke that language in addition to Arabic, but it never happened. Special Assyrian programms were to be broadcast on public radio and television and three Syriac-language magazines were planned to be published in the capital. An Association of Syriac-Speaking Authors and Writers had also been established.[3]

The bill turned out to be a failure. The radio stations created as the result of this decree were closed after a few months. While the two magazines were allowed to be published, only 10 percent of their material was in Aramaic. No school was allowed to teach in Aramaic either.[4]


In modern times, Assyrians, for whom no reliable census figures exist in Iraq (as they do not for Kurds, Turkmen, Armenians, Yazidi, Shabaks or Mandeans), have been doubly mistreated; first by their Kurdish neighbours who outnumber them greatly, then by Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime. Assyrians were deprived of their ethnic, cultural and national rights while at the same time the Ba'athist regime tried to co-opt their history. In northern Iraq today, a similar pattern is emerging as Kurds attempt to rewrite the history of the region to give it a Kurdish flavor and diminish its historic and far older Assyrian heritage. As in Ba'athist Iraq, there is a strong tendency in Iraq today to recognize only two ethnic groups: Arab or Kurd. However, the Kurdish Autonomous Region has claimed that it has been instrumental in the renovation and support of Assyrian churches and schools.

Post-Saddam Iraq

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. The ethnic make-up of the Iraq Interim Governing Council briefly (September 2003 - June 2004) guiding Iraq after the invasion included a single Assyrian Christian, Younadem Kana, a leader of the Assyrian Democratic Movement and an opponent of Saddam Hussein since 1979.

Assyrians in post-Saddam Iraq have faced high rate of persecution by Fundamentalist Islamist since the beginning of the Iraq war. By early August 2004 this persecution included church bombings, and fundamentalist groups' enforcement of Muslim codes of behavior upon Christians, e.g., banning alcohol, forcing women to wear hijab.[5] The violence against the community has led to the exodus of perhaps as much as half of the community. While Assyrians only made just over 5% of the total Iraqi population before the war, according to the United Nations, Assyrians are over-represented among the Iraqi refugees (as much as 13%) who are stranded in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.[6][7][8]

A large number of Assyrians have found refuge in Christian villages in Nineveh plains and the Kurdish Autonomous Region.[9][10] This led some Assyrians and Iraqi and foreign politicians to call for a Christian autonomous region in those areas.[11]

In 2008 the Assyrians formed their own militia, the Qaraqosh Protection Committee[12] to protect Assyrian towns, villages and regions in the north.

Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons

The publication of satirical cartoons of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on September 30, 2005 led to an increase in violence against the Assyrian community. In the beginning, the cartoons did not get much attention at the time of its original publish, but when the an Egyptian media picked up on the publication in late December 2005, violence and protests erupted around the world.

On January 29 six churches in the Iraqi cities of Baghdad and Kirkuk were targeted by car bombs, killing 13-year-old worshipper Fadi Raad Elias. No militants claimed to be retaliating for the pictures, nor is this the first time Iraqi churches have been bombed; but the bishop of the church stated "The church blasts were a reaction to the cartoons published in European papers. But Christians are not responsible for what is published in Europe."[13] Many Assyrians in Iraq now feel like "Westerners should not give wild statements [as] everyone can attack us [in response]" and "Today I'm afraid to walk the streets, because I'm Christian."[13]

Also on January 29, a Muslim Cleric in the Iraqi city of Mosul issued a fatwa stating, "Expel the (Assyrian) Crusaders and infidels from the streets, schools, and institutions because they have offended the person of the prophet."[14] It has been reported that Muslim students beat up a Christian student at Mosul University in response to the fatwa on the same day.[14]

On February 6, leaflets were distributed in Ramadi, Iraq by the militant group "The Military Wing for the Army of Justice" demanding Christians to "halt their religious rituals in churches and other worship places because they insulted Islam and Muslims."[15][16]

Pope Benedict XVI Islam controversy

The Pope Benedict XVI Islam controversy arose from a lecture delivered on 12 September 2006 by Pope Benedict XVI at the University of Regensburg in Germany. Many Islamic politicians and religious leaders registered protest against what they said was an insulting mischaracterization of Islam,[17][18] contained in the quotation by the Pope of the following passage:Template:Cquote After the Pope's comments where known throughout the Arab world, several churches were bombed by insurgent groups. A previously unknown Baghdad-based group, Kataab Ashbal Al-Islam Al-Salafi (Islamic Salafist Boy Scout Battalions)[Note 1] threatened to kill all Christians in Iraq if the Pope does not apologize to Muhammad within three days.[19] Christian Leaders in Iraq have asked their parishioners not to leave their homes, after two Assyrians were stabbed and killed in Baghdad.[20]

There have been reports of writing in Assyrian church doors stating "If the Pope does not apologise, we will bomb all churches, kill more Christians and steal their property and money." [21]

The Iraqi militia Jaish al-Mujahedin (Holy Warriors' Army) announced its intention to "destroy their cross in the heart of Rome… and to hit the Vatican."[22]

Despite the Pope's comments dying down in the media, attacks on Assyrian Christians continued and on October 9, Islamic extremist group kidnapped priest Paulos Iskander in Mosul. Iskander's church as well as several other churches placed 30 large posters around the city to distance themselves from the Pope's words.[23] The relatives of the Christian priest who was beheaded 3 days later in Mosul, have said that his Muslim captors had demanded his church condemn the pope's recent comments about Islam and pay a $350,000 ransom.[24]

Massacres and harassment since 2003

Massacres, ethnic cleansing, and harassment has increased since 2003, according to a 73 page report by the Assyrian International News Agency, released in Summer 2007.[25][26] [27]

On January 6, 2008 (Epiphany day,) five Assyrian Churches, one Armenian Church, and a monastery in Mosul and Baghdad were coordinately attacked with multiple car bombs.[28][29] Iraqi vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi expressed his "closeness to Christians", whom he called "brothers" in the face of this "attack that changed their joy to sadness and anxiety".[30] Two days later, on January 8, two more Churches were bombed in the city of Kirkuk; the Chaldean Cathedral of Kirkuk and the ACOE Maar Afram Church, wounding three bystandards.[31] Since the start of the Iraq war, there have been at least 46 Churches and Monasteries bombed.[32]

Threats on population
Main article: Assyrian exodus from Iraq

Leaders of Iraq's Christian community estimate that over two-thirds of the country's Christian population may have fled the country or been internally displaced since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. While exact numbers are unknown, reports suggest that whole neighborhoods of Christians have cleared out in the cities of Baghdad and Al-Basrah, and that both Sunni and Shiite insurgent groups and militias have threatened Christians. [33]

The gravity of the situation prompted Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to ask Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi to take steps to protect the Christian community. Sunni imams in Baghdad have made similar statements to their congregations in Friday Prayer sermons.

Religious official targets

Including those mentioned already, many other Assyrian religious officials have been targeted since 2003. Chaldean Catholic priest Ragheed Aziz Ganni was murdered together with subdeacons Basman Yousef Dawid, Wahid Hanna Isho, and Gassan Isam Bidawed after the Sunday evening Eucharist at Mosul's Holy Spirit Chaldean Church. Paulos Faraj Rahho, Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul, was found in a shallow grave in the northern city two weeks after he was kidnapped. Youssef Adel, an Syriac Orthodox priest with Saint Peter's Church in Baghdad's Karadda neighbourhood, was killed by gunmen while travelling on a car on April 5, 2008.[34] On April 11, President Bush was interviewed by Cliff Kincaid of the EWTN Global Catholic Network; after being informed about the detoriating situation of the Assyirians, President Bush was quoted as saying "This is a Muslim government that has failed to protect the Christians. In fact, it discriminates against them....It’s time to order U.S. troops to protect Christian churches and believers."[35]

Growth of Assyrian Security Forces

In October 2008, National Public Radio reported that a new phenomenon was spreading through the Assyrian Christian towns and villages of northern Iraq: Christian security forces, organized through their local churches, began manning checkpoints and working with the Iraqi police. Father Daoud Suleiman from the Assyrian town of Bartella testified that without the Christian militias, Bartella and other villages would be in much worse shape than they are now. A mysterious, media-shy, and wealthy Assyrian Sarkis Aghajan Mamendo was a key player in this apparently straightforward story of a small beleaguered minority learning to stand up for itself once more. He is the finance minister for the Kurdish regional government, and he is a member of the Kurdish Democratic Party believed to be close to Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. New churches are going up across the north, paid for, everyone says, by Sarkis. New schools, more than 300 new apartments for displaced Christian families from the south, an Assyrian cultural center in Bartella — the list goes on.[36]

2009-2010 Violence

Attacks against the community began again in December 2009 in Mosul and picked in February 2010. During this three-month period, over 20 Christians were assassinated and many churches of Mosul were targeted. The attacks led to 4,300 Assyrians flying Mosul to the Nineveh plains where there is an Assyrian majority population.[37] A report by the United Nations tracked the refugees and reported people fleeing to the following Assyrian towns and villages:

Arrival of displaced people
Bakhdida 1,668 Nimrud 210
Tel Esqof 558 Ankawa 138
Alqosh 504 Karamlesh 132
Bashiqa 396 Dohuk 102
Batnaya 378 Tel Keppe 96

The deadliest attack against Assyrians since the war began was the 2010 Baghdad church attack which occurred on October 31, 2010. The attack left at least 58 worshipers dead, including 2 priests. More than 100 had been taken hostage by an operation al-Qaeda-linked Sunni insurgent group the Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for.


A 1950 CIA report on Iraq showed that Assyrians comprised 4.9% of the Iraqi population during the 1940s.[38]

Total population Chaldean Catholic Syrian Catholic Jacobite Nestorian
165,000 98,000 25,000 12,000 30,000

The report goes on and states 20% of the Assyrians live in Baghdad and 60% in Mosul.

The Iraqi Minorities Council and the Minority Rights Group International estimated that Iraq's pre-war Assyrian population was 800,000.[39]

See also



External links

  • Assyrian Council of Europe Press Releases
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.