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Assyrian Church of the East

Assyrians share the Syriac language and much of a common history with Chaldeans. The two groups were divided over the last 500 years by the Chaldeans' reunification with the Roman Catholic Church in 1552. Assyrians are a Syriac-speaking people of Christian faith and of mixed Semitic, Aramaean, Assyrian, Persian, and Kurdish descent. Contemporary Assyrians, influenced in the 19th century by Western nationalism, now identify themselves as a single ethnic group, united by the Syriac language, the Christian Church of the East, and a common cultural heritage of the ancient Assyrian civilization.

The Assyrians emerged as a distinct Christian group in 431 A.D. when their religious leader, the Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople, broke away from the Byzantine Orthodox Church during the Third Ecumenical Council when his teachings were declared heretical. The Assyrians became pejoratively known as followers of the Nestorian Church, although Assyrians traditionally referred to themselves as "Suraya," or as followers of the "Church of the East." Assyrians do not believe that the teachings of Nestorius are in violation of Christian teachings.

There are about 200,000 Assyrians in Iraq who constitute approximately one-sixth of Iraqi Christians. Assyrians are located mostly in the large cities of Baghdad, Mosul, Arbil, Kirkuk, and Basra. Rural Assyrians are located primarily in towns on the Mosul plain in northern Iraq. Most Assyrians live in the northern governorates, and the Baath Government often has suspected them of "collaborating" with Iraqi Kurds. In the north, Kurdish groups often refer to Assyrians as Kurdish Christians. Military forces destroyed numerous Assyrian churches during the 1988 Anfal Campaign and reportedly executed and tortured many Assyrians. Both major Kurdish political parties have indicated that the Baath Government occasionally targeted Assyrians as well as ethnic Kurds and Turkomen as a part of its Arabization campaign of ethnic cleansing designed to harass and expel non-Arabs from government-controlled areas in the north.

Assyrians resist attempts by the Iraqi government to deny them their language and culture by giving them labels such as "ancient Iraqis" and "Iraqi Christians." They also oppose government policies that attempt to force Arabic and Arab culture upon them. Likewise, Assyrians in northern Iraq resist attempts by Kurds to assimilate them into Kurdish culture, language, and political parties. Assyrians did not fare well under Saddam Hussein, who destroyed Assyrian churches. Saddam Hussein's emphasis on tribal identity alienated contemporary Assyrians, who are excluded from Arab tribes and tribal customs.

Assyrians have been in close proximity to political power in a number of empires of which they have been a part, despite their small numbers. As leaders of the Church of the East traditionally emphasized learning, their political success was often due to their high degree of education.

The patriarch of the non-Uniate Nestorians, always termed Simeon, lived in the almost inaccessible valley of Kochannes in the Kurdish mountains on the boundary between Persia and Turkey. In 1833 the number of these Nestorians, living in the Kurdish mountains and on the shores of the Lake of Urumiah, and constituting, except for the scanty communities in India, the sole remnants of this once powerful sect, were estimated at 70,000 souls.

They did not, however, call themselves Nestorians - a term now employed only for the Nestorian Uniates - but Chaldeans, Meshihaye ("followers of the Messiah"), Nasrani (Arab., "Christians"), Syrians, Assyrians, and Madenhaye ("Orientals"), declaring that Nestorius, whose language they did not know, was not their patriarch, and that he followed them rather than they him.

Since 1834 American missionaries worked among the non-Uniates, not only keeping them from being absorbed by the Roman Catholic missions surrounding them - especially the Dominicans stationed at Mosul to counteract the American Protestant influence - but also raising their moral and intellectual status, a task the more difficult since they are unstable and inclined to sensuality and superstition. The American missionaries, moreover, have preserved the modern Syriac dialect of the Nestorians and developed it into a literary language, into which they have translated the Bible and written or translated an abundance of religious literature.

Although the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Iraq, was allied with Germany during World War I, the Assyrians sided with Britain and were later protected by the British during the British Mandate that ruled Iraq after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Assyrians joined the British imperial troops, known as Levies. The Levies were notoriously used as an instrument of internal security, particularly to suppress Kurdish revolts in northern Iraq. Considered haughty by other Iraqis, the Assyrians earned bitter resentment among Iraqi Kurds and Arabs during this period.

In 1933, as several hundred Assyrians attempted to cross the Tigris River into the French mandate of Syria, fighting erupted with Iraqi border troops. Within a few days, thousands of unarmed Assyrians were summarily executed in their villages while the Iraqi government stood aside. The Assyrian patriarch fled to exile in Cyprus and Britain, eventually reestablishing his seat in Chicago in 1939 along with approximately 15,000 Assyrians.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:50:14 ZULU