Arabic and Assyrian are the two Semitic languages spoken in Iran. The Assyrians are a Christian group that speaks modern dialects of Assyrian, an Aramaic language that evolved from old Syriac. Language and religion provide a strong cohesive force and give the Assyrians a sense of identity with their coreligionists in Iraq, in other parts of the Middle East, and also in the United States. Most Assyrians adhere to the Assyrian Church of the East (sometimes referred to as the Chaldean Church or Nestorian Church). Many theologians regard this church as the oldest in Christendom. In the nineteenth century, Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries proselytized among the Assyrians and converted many of them.
There were about 32,000 Assyrians in Iran at the time of the 1986 census. Many of them emigrated after the Revolution in 1979, but at least 20,000 were estimated to be still living in Iran in 1987. The traditional home of the Assyrians in Iran was along the western shore of Lake Urmia. During World War I virtually the entire Assyrian population fled the area, which had become a battleground for opposing Russian and Turkish armies. Thousands of Assyrians perished on the overland flight through the Zagros to the safety of British-controlled Iraq. Eventually, many of the Iranian Assyrians settled among the Assyrian population of Iraq or emigrated to the United States. During the reign of Reza Shah, Assyrians were invited back to Iran to repopulate their villages. A few thousand did return, but, since the 1940s, most young Assyrians had migrated to Tehran and other urban centers.
Iran's declaration of Assyrian Christianity as an official religious minority meant that they were alloted a single reserved seat in Iran's Parliament, the Majlis. Armenian Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians were also alloted seats based on their status. However, reports have persisted, especially since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, that various levels of discrimination exist for Assyrians, heavily based on their Christian faith.
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