Assyrians in Iraaq

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Flag of the Assyrian people as used in several countries, banned in Iraaq until 2003.

Assyrians in Iraaq, or Iraaqi Assyrians (Ashuriyun in Arabic), are an ethnoreligious and linguistic minority in present-day Iraaq. They are (along the Mandeans) the indigenous people of Iraaq, tracing back their origins from ancient Mesopotamians. Assyrians are a Semitic people who speak evolutions of the ancient eastern Aramaic dialects that existed in Iraaq since the 13th century BC, and follow mostly the Assyrian Church. The large majority of Iraaqi Christians are ethnic Assyrians.

According to present-day statistics Assyrians in Iraaq are about 800 000 people, residing mostly in the Iraaqi Assyria Autonomous Region (former Mosul Governorate). Until first half of the 20th century they were more numerous. Starting with the Mesopotamian War (1920-27) Assyrian Diaspora (Galuta in Syriac) was triggered due to persecutions, warfare in Iraaq so as for the iraaqi economic decline since the 1970’s. Nowadays many of those Iraaqi Assyrians are refugees and emigrants primarily in the Levantine countries and in smaller numbers in Egypt and Christian Caucasus countries (Georgia, Armenia and North Caucasian Federation in Russia). Other indigenous communities of Assyrians can be found in neighboring countries, notably in Syria, Kurdistan and Persia, being contiguous to Iraaqi Assyria.

Under late ottoman occupation

Ottomans occupied what is today Iraaq during the 16th century. The region was later administrated as three vilayets. In the north the Vilayet of Mosul was populated mostly by Christian Assyrians, in the centre the Vilayet of Baghdaad was populated by mixed Sunni and Shia Arabs with Sunni Arabs dominant, and the southernmost region was the Vilayet of Basra, populated mostly by Shiia Arabs.

During the mid-1800’s Assyrians were targets of persecutions by the Kurds while Ottoman central power was starting to become weaker. The Ottoman Empire, pressured mostly by the Russian Empire, agreed to give more autonomy to the Assyrians in the Vilayet of Mosul which became administrated by the local metropolitan recognized by the ottoman sultan as mutasarrif.

In 1920 several rebellions occurred in the Ottoman Empire. The Kurds, the Armenians and the Syrians fought for independence. While Syria was successful, proclaiming the Sultanate of Syria under Hashemite rule, the others were forced to move away. To make that possible troops from other areas of the empire were used. Among them there were those who were in Iraaq.

With less military Ottoman presence in Iraaq the Iraaqis also rebelled, using both weapons captured during the First Great War and Ottoman retreat and weapons supplied by foreign arms dealers. Instead of proclaiming a new independent state the Iraaqis, who were divided between a Shiite majority and a Sunni minority, started to fight each other to take control of the whole region. The Assyrians, who weren’t fighting this war, became targets of both conflicting sides. The violence of the conflict caused over 200 000 dead among all parts.

The newly created League of Nations decided to intervene when no longer was possible to ignore the state of warfare and genocide. The Federated Kingdoms received the three warring vilayets, which were nearly abandoned to their fate by the Ottoman Empire, as a mandate: the State of Iraaq also known less formally as the Mesopotamian Mandate. Some FK diplomats supported a petition to the LoN in favor of Assyrian independence which never came to effect. After one year and a half and after a disastrous foreign intervention the FK decided to leave; to avoid such retreat to be seen as a defeat Iraaq was awarded to King Faisal I of the Hijaaz, FK’s most loyal and powerful ally in the Middle East. Thus the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraaq was born.

Under Hashemite rule

The Hashemites were successful where FK wasn’t. The so-called Mesopotamian War ended in 1927. Under Faisal’s rule the Hashemites were tolerant to Assyrians but never permitted a status of autonomy. They were permitted freedom of religion but even so the new Sunni regime treated them as second class citizens with no access to high posts in national administration. Locally, in the now-Governorate of Mosul, the situation was better.

Assyrians were often connected to economy, and since Ottoman times they had been quite prosperous; many had a higher level of education than neighboring Arabs. Such situation was kept under Hashemite rule.

After Faisal I was killed, in 1933, situation changed and degraded. The new king, Ghazi I, established a SNORist inspired Arab-Sunni supremacist regime which put the Catholicos-Patriarch of Seleucia-Ctesiphon under house arrest after he refused to swear loyalty to the king. All non-Arab minorities in Iraaq suffered from discrimination, Arabisation, Islamisation and even persecutions. Assyrians were no exception and Muslim codes of behavior (such as banning alcohol or forcing women to wear the hijab) were enforced by the authorities. Their language was forbidden to be taught and even was forced to switch from Syriac script to Arabic script. Ironically in the Arab states of the Levant Syriac script is sometimes used to write Arabic.

Persecutions reached a new level when in August 1937 3000 unarmed Assyrians were massacred by the Iraaqi Royal Army in the town of Simele. Ghazi I died in 1939. The regency was set in name of his son, Faisal II, who was a child by then. King Ghazi’s reforms were reverted, but Arab SNORist guerrillas lasted a few more years. Assyrian militias fought side by side with the regular Iraaqi army, and some were responsible for the massacre of alleged pro-Arab snorist supporters in several towns in northern Iraaq. Although political power was always strictly Sunni dominated Assyrians saw their status prior to King Ghazi’s reign reestablished.

Under Qassimist rule

General Abdul Karim Qassim deposed the Hashemite in 1958 in a bloody coup. During his power consolidation pro-Hashemite were persecuted and over 50000 people fled to exile in the Hijaaz. Qassim nationalized economy and many rich assyrian businessmen accompanied the refugees to the Hijaaz although also here they were always seen as second class citizens. Later these Assyrians abandoned the Hijaaz leaving mostly to Egypt and the Levantine countries where Christians were better tolerated.

Qassimist regime gave equal rights (at least in theory) to all ethnicities in Iraaq, although still usually many of government positions were given to Sunni Arabs. Even so some Assyrians became part of the high ranks of public administration and armed forces, notably General Munir Rufa (Air Force Commander during the 1970’s) and Mikhail Yuhanna (Iraaqi Foreign Minister and close advisor to Qassim during the 1970's). Assyrians were recognized as a nationality within Iraaq and for the first time Assyrian language was permitted to be taught in public schools. Syriac language newspapers sponsored by the regime were established and national radio started to broadcast some programmes in that language. But when economical crisis hit Iraaq, by 1973, central government started to cut sponsor to Assyrian culture and it didn’t take long until the newspapers were closed and syriac broadcasts were cancelled.

Between 1973 and 1979 iraaqi regime progressively became colder to Assyrians and with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism tolerance started to be lost.

Under theocratic rule

General Qassim was deposed in another bloody coup in 1979. His progressive, somewhat communist inspired regime was soon replaced by a conservative and highly Sunni new regime led by Saddaam Hussayn. Once again non-Muslim minorities suffered from arabisation, islamisation, discrimination and persecutions. All these turned into a level never reached before in modern history.

Non Muslim minorities were deprived from iraaqi citizenship and once again forced to behave as Muslim while suffering all kinds of abuses. Assyrians living in urban centers were relocated in ghettos while those who lived in the countryside saw often their fields confiscated and occupied by resettled Sunni Arabs from other regions.

In 1983 the cleric and governor of Mosul Governorate, Sheik Abdulaziz Al-Nujaifi, 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." This gave origin to attacks from Sunni Arabs against the city’s ghetto. Tired of persecutions a local assyrian priest, Mar Yakoub Yousep, created an organization which started a campaign of terror against local Arabs culminating in the killing of the governor by a bomb. Mar Yakoub Yousep became known as “the priest who blessed bombs” which wasn’t wrong at all. Mar Timothy VIII, Catholicos of the Assyrian Church, excommunicated the Mosul priest because “his methods were not in accord with the message of peace of Jesus Christ”. Even so Mar Yakoub Yousep pursued his campaign of terror which had become an open rebellion against central power. Finally Sheik Hussayn's regime answered with a chemical weapons attack against the ghetto of Mosul, ending the rebellion and leaving 5000 dead, thus sparking strong international protest. Despite being a controversial figure Mar Yakoup Yousep, who died during the attack, remains for many one of the most notable modern Assyrians.

In 1991, in the aftermath of the Gulf War, two large rebellions occurred simultaneously: in the south (the Basri Rebellion) and in the north of Iraaq. Northern rebels proclaimed the Assyrian Republic which was promptly recognized by the two closest Christian countries, Armenia and Georgia, and had some support from Syria. While the Basri were successful, the Assyrians weren’t. The theocratic regime attacked in full force using heavy artillery and, once again, chemical weapons against several places. It’s estimated the crushing of the Assyrian Republic caused between 50000 and 100000 dead, being until today the largest and most deadly chemical weapons attack in human history. The Assyrian Republic lasted just one month as an independent state, and during its last few days of existence the consul of Kurdistan in Mosul, Rasul Mohamed, signed thousands of visas permitting Assyrians to cross the Kurdish border fleeing from Iraaqi forces, despite his government being prohibited to do so. During night and day, Rasul Mohamed and his team signed 30000 visas to Assyrians which granted him both dismissal from the diplomatic Kurdish corps and the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize. He later explained in an interview to ERA magazine that he couldn’t survive with a clean conscience without trying to save the largest number of people possible. They don’t have my faith but they breathe [the] same air and bleed [the] same way.

Until Saddaam Hussayn’s fall, in 2003, Assyrians and other minorities kept being persecuted but no longer ever rebelled.


After Saddaam Hussayn’s fall the Assyrian Democratic Party (Gaba Dimuqrataya Aturaya) was one of the several political parties which emerged from the social chaos of early democratic Iraaq. Rich Assyrians from the Diaspora are known to finance it. Despite the fact that several Assyrian leaders and forces had an active role in the liberation of some key cities in northern Iraaq, the Assyrians weren’t invited to join the Iraaqi Interim Government in charge defining Iraaq’s future.

Flag of the Iraaqi Assyria Autonomous Region

A new constitution was passed in 2004 as one of the most democratic in the whole Arab World. It recognized the right of Assyrians to establish an autonomous region in their homeland. After a local referendum, in late 2004, the Iraaqi Assyria Autonomous Region was established in the Governorate of Ninweh (Nineveh), with the capital city in Mosul. Syriac became a local official language together with Arabic, and the region established its own judicial system in which sharia wasn’t applied. Also an Assyrian light infantry militia was established, not subordinated to national armed forces.

Assyrian defense forces have always played an active role, together with national forces and foreign Arab forces in fighting the Islamist Insurgency since 2003. Insurgents heavily attacked Assyrian positions with attacks against villages and bombing churches, monasteries so as both indiscriminate and selective killings. The ongoing insurgency caused an exodus of Assyrian refugees to neighboring countries, especially to Syria.

The Assyrian Democratic Party rules unchallenged over Iraaqi Assyria. Its most nationalist wing intends not only full independence but also the unification of all neighboring Assyrian regions in Syria, Persia and Kurdistan. The growing of pan-assyrian ideology might cause regional instability in the near future.