Assyrians in Iraq

Assyrians in Iraq
ܐܬܘܪܝܐ ܕܥܝܪܩ
Aketo Festival (Assyrian New Year) in April 2018 in Nohaadra (Duhok) 14.jpg
Assyrians celebrating the annual Assyrian New Year (Akitu) in Duhok
Total population
147,861 (2019 estimate)[1]

400,000 (pre 2014 Isis invasion) [2]

800,000 - 1,5 million (pre Assyrian exodus) [3] [4]
Regions with significant populations
Nineveh Plains, Dohuk Governorate, Arbil Governorate
Habbaniya (pre-1990s), Baghdad, Basra (pre-2003), Mosul (pre-2014)
Neo-Aramaic (Assyrian, Chaldean)
Mesopotamian Arabic
Mainly Christianity
(majority: Syriac Christianity; minority: Protestantism)
Related ethnic groups

Assyrians in Iraq (Syriac: ܐܬܘܪܝܐ ܕܥܝܪܩ‎, Arabic: الآشوريون في العراق‎) are an ethnic and linguistic minority group, indigenous to Upper Mesopotamia. Assyrians in Iraq are those Assyrians still residing in the country of Iraq, and those in the Assyrian diaspora who are of Iraqi-Assyrian heritage.


Ancient history[edit]

The Assyrians are typically Syriac-speaking Christians who claim descent from Assyria, one of the oldest civilizations in the world, dating back to 2500 BC in ancient Mesopotamia.[5] Assyria itself existed as an independent state (and often imperial power) in what is today northern Iraq, north eastern Syria, south eastern Turkey and the north western fringe of Iran from the 25th century BC to the beginning of the sixth century BC, and remained a geopolitical entity until the mid seventh century AD.[citation needed]

The Assyrians were an integral part of the Akkadian Empire (2335–2154 BC) which united the Akkadian-speaking peoples under one rule, and after its dissolution Assyria rose to prominence with the Old Assyrian Empire (c.2025–1750 BC), Middle Assyrian Empire (1365–1020 BC) and Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-605 BC), the latter two of these empires made Assyria the most powerful nation in the world at the time. At its height the Assyrians ruled a vast empire from their homeland in what is today northern Iraq, north east Syria and south east Turkey, an empire stretching from the Caucasus Mountains in the north to Egypt, Libya and the Arabian peninsula in the south, and from Cyprus and Antioch in the west to western Iran and the Caspian Sea in the east.[citation needed]

After the Assyrian empire fell between 612 and 599 BC, Assyria endured mostly as an occupied but named geo-political entity as; Athura, Achaemenid Assyria, Asuristan, Assyria, although during the Parthian Empire and early Sassanid Empire (c.160 BC – 260 AD) there was an Assyrian revival, and a number of independent Assyrian states arose in northern Iraq and north east Syria, including; Adiabene, Osroene, Beth Nuhadra, Beth Garmai, ancient Assur itself, and to some degree Hatra.[citation needed]

Scholars have said that Kurds also fought against Christians because they feared that Armenians or their European allies could take control of the area. Both Arabs and Kurds thought of the Assyrians as foreigners and as allies of colonial Britain. Kurdish tribes were plundering Armenian and other Christian villages and "took possession of land".[6][7]

Persecution of Assyrians has a long and bitter history. In 1895 in Diyarbakır Kurdish and Turkish militia began attacking Christians, plundering Assyrian villages. In 1915 Kurds and Turks plundered villages, about 7000 Assyrians were killed. In 1915 Turkish troops "with Kurdish detachments" committed mass slaughters of Assyrians in Iran. In the Assyrian village of Haftvan almost 1000 people were beheaded and 5000 Assyrian women were taken to Kurdish harems.[8]

In 1894, Paul Cambon described the creation of Kurdish Hamidies regiments as "the official organisation for pillage at the expense of Armenian Christians". In these places "the system of persecutions and extorsions became intolerable to populations who had become accustomed to their slavery". According to Cambon, the Porte refused reforms and persisted in "maintaining a veritable regime of terror, arrests, assasinations and rape.".[9] In 1925 the Muslim Kurds "rose in revolt against the "atheist government of Ankara" and demanded autonomy, the restoration of religious laws and of the sultanate".[10] In 1932 Iraqi forces commanded by Kurdish general Bakr Sidki killed 600 Assyrians at Simel, near Mosul. Kurds committed the slaughter "in which 65 Nestorian villages in northern Iraq were plundered and burned down, priests were tortured and Christians were forced to renounce their religion while others in Dohuk were deported and about a 100 were shot".[11] In 1843 Nestorians in the Tauris region refused to pay Kurds the jizya, and "by way of reprisal 4350 Nestroians were slaughtered, about 400 women and children were reduced to slavery and all their houses and churches destroyed".[12] Historians have noted that in "Kurdistan Jews, Nestorians and Armenians were subject to tallage and corvees at whim of authorities".[13]

Historians have noted that "Bedirhan Bey the Ruler "called the Kurdish Muslims to fight a sacred war against Christian Syriac, Nestorian, Chaldean and Armenian people and ordered to massacre and annihilate them". Kurdish writers have recounted that "the Kurdish troops attacked the Assyrians and started slaughters. Consequently, a few Assyrians were killed, their villages were destroyed and set into fire... For the second time, in 1846, the Assyrians residing at the Thuma region have been massacred...." British writer William Eagleton said that "in 1843 and 1846, Bedirhan started a massacre and booting campaign against the Christian Assyrians (Nestorians) he was anxious about whose getting stronger and independent through becoming able to rule themselves. It was intolerable for Bedirhan to see the Assyrians living on his own territories getting stronger. Thus he killed ten thousand Assyrians. Even though Bedirhan was a feudal tribal leader, he was expressing the aspirations of Kurdish nationalism." Kurdish and Arab attacks on Assyrians continued, culminating in the August 1933 Simele Massacres. About 3000 Assyrians were killed in that single month alone.[14]

Beginning in August 1933 Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish militia killed thousands of Assyrias in Simele (Iraq). The massacre had a big influence on Raphael Lemkin, the jurist who coined the word "genocide.[15] The Simmele Massacre is also commemorated yearly with the official Assyrian Martyrs Day on 7 August. The massacre was carried out by the Iraqi Army, led by Kurdish General Bakir Sidqi, and Kurdish and Arab irregulars. There were about 3,000 victims of the massacre.[16] Turks, with the cooperation of Kurdish groups, conducted systematic murder against the Christian population. Beginning in the first half of the 19th century, the Turks allied with Kurdish tribes. After the Kurds weregranted an emirate in Syriac Cizre in 1842, the Kurds launched brutal assaults against Christians under the command of Kurdish emir Bedr Khan, who murdered thousands of Assyrians in the region of Tur Abdin and Hakkari. Christian areas were subjected to the migration of Kurdish tribes. Many massacres were carried out against Christians in 1895 in Diyarbakir, Urfa, Mardin, Nusaybin, Meyafarkin, Tur Abdin and Viranshahr. Assyrians were eradicated from Tur Abdin, Mardin, Diyarbakir and Hakkari in Turkey and Urmia in Iran. The Syriac city of Mardin was captured by Turks and given over to Kurds who expelled its original population.[17] Only a few of the Christians of the Nineveh Plain remain after the repeated attacks by Arab and Kurdish fighters. Historically Christian cities like Erbil, Zakho, Dohuk, Kirkuk, and Mosul have been Kurdicized and Islamized. Suryanis emigrated from Syria after the Amuda massacre of August 1937. The massacre was carried out by Kurdish general Saeed Agha and emptied the city of its Suryani population. Malikiya, Darbasiya and Amuda have since become completely Kurdish. Also the historically Christian city of Nusaybin has become Kurdish. Christians fled to Qamishly which became a Christian city until the immigration of Kurds beginning in 1926.[17]

Kurdish-Christian Armenian relations were bitter at the turn of the 19th century and land conflicts were a major problem. Many Christians and Europeans regarded the Kurds as barbarians and a major threat, the French consul at Erzurum describing them as a blood-thirsty savage population which is used to plundering and a nomadic life. Kurds also played a major part in the Ottoman army, also through the Hamidiye.[18] The Kurdish chieftain Bedr Khan during his rise to power massacred about 10,000 Assyrians in 1842. Nestorian tribes were massacred by Kurds in 1843. In 1915 Kurds massacred more than 27,000 Assyrians in Urmia region alone and destroyed more than 100 villages Assyrian villages in March 1915 alone.[19] In 1916 Kurds and Turks massacred Assyrians in Bohtan region.[19] Both Kurdish and Turkish nationalists deny the fact that Assyrians were the original inhabitants of south-eastern Turkey and northern Iraq.[20] The Assyrian population was so small in the aftermath of the genocide that the region called Assyria in ancient times came to be known as "Kurdistan".[20] The Kurds and Turks cynically resisted Assyrian and Armenian efforts to attain statehood after World War II.[20] While the Kurdish population doubled from two million in 1970 to four million in 2002, the Christian population decreased.[20]

Modern history[edit]

From 1914, Assyrians suffered genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire and certain Kurdish tribes in what is known as the Assyrian genocide. This led to an exodus of Assyrians from the mountains of Hakkari and the plains of Urmia to a British-led refugee camp in Baqubah.

British Mandate[edit]

In 1918, Britain resettled 20,000 Assyrian people from south east Turkey in Iraqi refugee camps in Baquba and Mandan after the Ottoman Empire instigated the Assyrian Genocide and a subsequent British and Russian-inspired Assyrian rebellion (see Assyrian struggle for independence), which although having success against overwhelming odds 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, Mosul and Erbil with their own long-established ancient Assyrian communities, and to Habbaniya, (as well as to other areas in the north such as the Nineveh plains with age old existing indigenous Assyrian populations) where they were indispensable in the administration of the oil and military projects.[citation needed]

As a result, approximately three-fourths of the Assyrians who had sided with the British during World War I found themselves living in by now Kurdish dominated areas of Iraq, where their ancestors had existed for over 5000 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 Turkish and Iranian borders of British Mesopotamia. Pro-British, they had been apprehensive of Iraqi independence. Many of those thus resettled by the British have gradually been forced into exile, although by the end of the 20th century, almost all of those who remain were born in Iraq.

Assyrians living in northern Iraq today are those whose ancient ancestry lies in the north originally, an area roughly corresponding with Ancient Assyria. Many of these, however, in places like Berwari, have been forcibly displaced by Kurds and Arabs since the genocides of World War I. This process has continued throughout the 20th century: as Kurds and Arabs 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)

The Assyrians, previously from Hakkari and form Iran, had been settled by the British administration in Iraq. However, their problems and absorption in the new country was far from flawless. In 1932, the British decision to hand over the mandate over Iraq was taken and the Assyrians insisted that they would not be safe after the British left. When the end of the mandate became a certainty, Browne calls it 'political mutiny,' when Assyrian officers and men of the Levies acknowledged that they wished to be disbanded in a month from 1 June 1932. Browne states the British point of view:

At the same time, the Assyrian Patriarch Mar Shimon went to Geneva to address the League of Nations the concerns and worries of the Assyrian people who he represented. There were no results for his efforts, and the mandated over Iraq was transferred without the Assyrian problem being resolved. The British administration appointed a settlement officer, Major Thompson, to work under the Iraq government, and his work began in 1933. "Then matters began to move rapidly to a crisis," according to Browne. Concerns of the Assyrians that were not addressed, military men annoyed, in a midst of a process that included resignation from the Levies and return to service in a hope that some solution will be provided to their concerns. Two former Levy officers, Yaqub Ismail of the Upper Tiyari tribe, and Loko Shlimun of the Tkhuma Tribe, "after figuring in a series of disturbing situations" north of Mosul marched off into Syria with between 400 and 500 men. They were all armed. Browne argues they had no intention of fighting, because they left their women and children in Iraq, an act "they would certainly not have done had they intended war." After deliberations and involvement of Great Britain, France and Iraq, in order to solve this delicate situation, the Assyrians decided to march back into Iraq, and arrived on the Tigris River near Deirabun (Dehrabun), a Christian village. However, they were faced with a force of 4,000 Iraqi soldiers who were keeping the line. "As it was, two groups of people, both armed, both disliking each other intensely, met on the river. It was only necessary for one rifle to go off for hostilities to begin, and that is what happened."

Independent Kingdom of Iraq[edit]

In 1933, the Iraqi government held the Patriarch of the Church of the East, Shimun XXI Eshai, 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 ethnic and religious minorities, he was stripped of his citizenship and refused re-entry where he lived in Cyprus in exile.

Assyrians continued to serve the British in Iraq (who maintained a military presence until 1954), despite earlier betrayals. Assyrian levies played an important role in putting down the pro Nazi Iraqi movement in World War II, and served the British in the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern 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 Christia'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 Assyrians 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.

Simele Massacre[edit]

During July 1933, about 800 armed Assyrians headed for the Syrian border, where they were turned back by the French. 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 an Iraqi-Kurd, General Bakr Sidqi. After engaging in several unsuccessful clashes with armed Assyrian tribesmen, on 11 August 1933, Sidqi permitted his men to attack and kill about 3,000 unarmed Assyrian civilian 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 or allow the well-disciplined Assyrian Levies under their command to do so, and indeed helped whitewash 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 among the Muslim Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen population, 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.

Republic of Iraq[edit]

Recognition of the Syriac language by the Ba'thist regime[edit]

In the early 1970s, the secularist Ba'ath regime initially 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 recognize 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 programs 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.[21]

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.[22]

Pre-invasion Iraq[edit]

Reports from various sources "indicate a better human rights situation overall in the Kurdish-controlled areas of Northern Iraq than exists elsewhere in the country" (AI 2000, 135; U.K. Immigration & Nationality Directorate Sept. 1999; USDOS 25 Feb. 2000)[23] Also, according to the reports, "while freedom of speech, religion, movement, and press are strongly restricted throughout Iraq, these freedoms do exist to a certain extent in parts of the Kurd-controlled area "(USDOS 25 Feb. 2000). However, reports regarding isolated human rights abuses continued in 1999. The US State government reported that in 1999 Assyrian Christian Helena Aloun Sawa was murdered, and according to AINA, "the murder resembles a well-established pattern of complicity by Kurdish authorities in attacks against Assyrian Christians in the north". The murder was investigated by a commission appointed by the KDP but no results of the investigation were reported by year's end.[24][23] There were also incidents of mob violence by Muslims against Christians in northern Iraq. Christian Assyrians were also targeted in a series of bombings in Erbil in 1998 to 1999, and Assyrian groups have criticized the KRG for the lack of investigation. According to the AINA, the KDP blockaded Assyrian villages in 1999 and "later entered the villages and beat villagers". However, after invervention by the International Committee of the Red Cross the KDP left the villages again.

According to the UK Immigration & Nationality Directorate "despite Tariq Aziz's lofty position in the Baghdad regime, Christians have little political influence in the Ba'ath government" (Sept. 1999)[25]

Education in any language other than Arabic and Kurdish was prohibited by the government in Baghdad. Therefore, Assyrians were not permitted to attend classes in Syriac. In the Kurdish-controlled northern areas, classes in Syriac have been permitted since 1991. However, according to some Assyrian sources "regional Kurdish authorities refused to allow the classes to begin." However, details of this practice were not available, and Kurdish authorities denied the accusations. In 1999, the Kurdistan Observer claimed that "the Central Government had warned the administration in the Kurdish region against allowing Turkoman, Assyrian, or Yazidi minority schools."[25]

According to the UK Immigration & Nationality Directorate, "the Central Government has engaged various abuses against the Assyrian Christians, and has often suspected them of 'collaborating' with Kurds" (Sept. 1999). According to a report by The World Directory of Minorities "Assyrians were unable to avoid the Kurdish conflict. As with the Kurds, some supported the government, others allied themselves with the Kurdish nationalist movement" (Minority Rights Group International 1997, 346).[25][26]

Post-invasion Iraq[edit]

Iraqi Christians have been victims of executions, forced displacement campaigns, torture, violence and the target of Islamist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. Since the 2003 Iraq War, Iraqi Christians have fled from the country and their population has collapsed under the Government of Iraq.[27][28] The Majority of Christians have either fled to the Iraqi Kurdistan or abroad.

In 2003, Iraqi Christians were the primary target of extremist Sunni Islamists. Many kidnapped Christians were forced to leave Christianity or be tortured.

On 1 August 2004 a series of car bomb attacks took place during the Sunday evening Mass in churches of two Iraqi cities, Baghdad and Mosul, killing and wounding a large number of Christians. Jordanian jihadist and 1st emir of Al-Qaeda in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was blamed for the attacks.

In 2006, an Orthodox priest, Boulos Iskander, was snatched off the streets of Mosul by a Sunni Arab group that demanded a ransom. His body was later found, with his arms and legs having been cut off.

In 2007, there were reports of a push to drive Christians out of the historically Christian suburb of Dora in southern Baghdad, with some Sunni extremists accusing the Christians of being allies of the Americans. A total number of 239 similar cases were registered by police between 2007 and 2009.[29]

In 2008, a priest called Ragheed Ganni, was shot dead in his church along with three of his companions. In the same year, there were reports that Christian students were being harassed.

In 2008, the charity Barnabas conducted research into 250 Iraqi Christian IDPs who had fled to the north of the country (Iraqi Kurdistan) to seek refugee status and found nearly half had witnessed attacks on churches or Christians, or been personally targeted by violence.

In 2009, the Kurdistan Regional Government reported that more than 40,000 Christians had moved from Baghdad, Basra and Mosul to the Iraqi Kurdistan cities. The reports also stated that the number of Christian families moving to Iraqi Kurdistan is growing and they were providing support and financial assistance for 11,000 of those families, and some are employed by the KRG.[30]

In 2010, Sunni Islamist groups attacked a Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad during Sunday evening Mass on 31 October, killing more than 60 and wounding 78 Iraqi Christians.[31]

In 2011, Islamist extremists assassinated Christians randomly using sniper rifles.[32] Two months before the incident, two Christians had been shot for unknown reasons in Baghdad and two other Christians had been shot by Jihadis in Mosul. Human rights organizations have recorded 66 assault cases on churches and monasteries until 2012, as well as about 200 kidnappings. On 30 May 2011, a Christian man was beheaded by a Salafi extremist in Mosul.[33]

On 2 August 2011 a Catholic church was bombed by Sunni extremists in the Turkmen area of Kirkuk, wounding more than 23 Christians.

On 15 August 2011 a church was bombed by al-Qaeda in the center of Kirkuk.[34]

In 2014, during the 2014 Northern Iraq offensive, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS) ordered all Christians in the area of its control, where the Iraqi Army had collapsed, to pay a special tax of approximately $470 per family, convert to Islam, or be killed. Many of them took refuge in nearby Kurdish-controlled regions of 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 armed 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 a high rate of persecution by fundamentalist Islamists 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.[35] The violence against the community has led to the exodus of perhaps as much as half of the community. While Assyrians made up only 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.[36][37][38]

A large number of Assyrians have found refuge in ancient Assyrian Christian villages in Nineveh plains and Kurdistan Region.[39][40] This led some Assyrians and Iraqi and foreign politicians to call for an Assyrian Christian autonomous region in those areas.[41]

In 2008 the Assyrians formed their own militia, the Qaraqosh Protection Committee[42] to protect Assyrian towns, villages and regions in the north. In 2008 the Assyrian Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Mosul was assassinated by some Kurds while some have claimed assassins were hired by local Arab tribes. Rahho was a defender of Assyrian self-administration. Some observers have claimed that Kurdish KDP forces often used to practice their shooting on important Assyrian cultural heritage sites.[43]

Kurdish KDP security forces have been criticized for human rights abuses, abuses "ranged from threats and intimidation to detention in undisclosed locations without due process." In 2015, the local KDP security forces arrested and detained political activist Kamal Said Kadir, for having written articles on the Internet critical of the KDP. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Some activists have claimed that membership in Kurdish parties is necessary to obtain "employment and educational opportunities" in Iraqi Kurdistan. The US State department report said that "Kurdish authorities abused and discriminated against minorities in the North, including Turcomen, Arabs, Christians, and Shabak", and that Kurdish authorities "denied services to some villages, arrested minorities without due process and took them to undisclosed locations for detention, and pressured minority schools to teach in the Kurdish language". Christian minorities in Kirkuk also "charged that Kurdish security forces targeted Arabs and Turcomen".[44]

Assyrians have criticized the kurdification of the school curricula, and have complained about the confiscation and occupation of Assyrian lands, and "that the Kurds invent new and impossible laws when the legitimate owners ask for their lands".[45] Assyrians have criticized that while Kurds are very well funded, the Assyrian Christians receive almost no funding for their schools. Assyrians have also said that Kurds have modified and falsified school textbooks (kurdification) and changed traditional Christian names to Kurdish names. In textbooks it was even claimed that some biblical figures were Kurdish.[46] It was reported that the man accused of killing the Christian politician Francis Yousif Shabo in 1993 is "allowed to walk around freely" in Kurdistan. The impunity for those who attacked or killed Assyrians in the Kurdistan region was criticized.[47] Assyrian Christian David Jindo was one of many murdered Christian politicians. Other prominent Assyrian leaders who were killed by Kurdish nationalists include Patriarch Mar Shimun, Franso Hariri, Margaret George (one of the first female Peshmerga) and Francis Shabo. Many of these figures were killed "in spite of their attempts to engage with, or work under, Kurds".[48][48][49]

In April 2015 David Jendo was killed, he was leader of the Assyrian Khabour guards. YPG members were sentenced to 12 and 20 years in prison for the crime.[50] Qamilshi has been designated as the Kurdish capital in Syria, but Assyrians believe the town was founded by their ancestors.[50] A report "‘We had nowhere else to go’: Forced displacement and demolitions in northern Syria" by Amnesty International documented many cases of forced displacement and home demolitions amounting to war crimes carried out by the Autonomous Administration led by the Syrian Kurdish PYD party. The report also documented cases of "deliberate displacement of thousands of civilians and the razing of entire villages in areas under the control of the PYD.[51] The Aramean politician Johny Messo stated that the last attack by the YPG "on an Aramean Christian self-defense unit in Qamishli had killed one Aramean. Messo also criticized that Syria’s minorities "were not allowed to participate as an independent voice in the Geneva peace talks". He said that "there are thousands of Aramean Christians living in northern Syria, and the PYD is trying to intimidate and threaten them".[52] Assyrians lack many democratic rights compared to Kurds, with all important decisions being taken by Kurdish politicians of the PYD.[46]

The US State government also reported that in Kurdish controlled areas Assyrian schools and classes Syriac were not permitted or prevented in some cases.[25][53] There were also incidents of mob violence by Kurdistan Workers party (KWP) against Christians in northern Iraq.[25][53] Christian Assyrians were also targeted in a series of bombings in Erbil in 1998 to 1999, and Assyrian groups have criticized the KRG for the lack of investigation.[25][53] According to the US Department of State the KDP blockaded Assyrian villages in 1999 and "later entered the villages and beat villagers". However, after invervention by the International Committee of the Red Cross the KDP left the villages again.[25]

An example of Kurdification is the attack on the Assyrian town Rabatki in2013 by General Aref al-Zebari and his brother Habib al-Hares Zabari, reportedly by Kurdish peshmerga soldiers. It has been reported that many Assyrian girls are forced into prostitution by Kurdish criminal organizations, and the families of these girls have also been threatened.[43]

Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons[edit]

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

On 29 January, 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 was 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."[54] 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."[54]

Also on 29 January, 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."[55] It has been reported that Muslim students beat up a Christian student at Mosul University in response to the fatwa on the same day.[55]

On 6 February, leaflets were distributed in Ramadi, Iraq, by the militant group "The Military Wing for the Army of Justice" demanding that Christians "halt their religious rituals in churches and other worship places because they insulted Islam and Muslims."[56][57]

Pope Benedict XVI Islam controversy[edit]

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,[58][59] contained in the quotation by the Pope of the following passage:

After the Pope's comments were 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.[60] Christian Leaders in Iraq have asked their parishioners not to leave their homes, after two Assyrians were stabbed and killed in Baghdad.[61]

There have been reports of writing on Assyrian church doors stating "If the Pope does not apologise, we will bomb all churches, kill more Christians and steal their property and money."[62]

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."[63]

Despite the Pope's comments dying down in the media, attacks on Assyrian Christians continued and on 9 October 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.[64] The relatives of the Christian priest who was beheaded three 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.[65] Ancient Assyrian objects and buildings have been labeled by Kurdish authorities as Kurdish. Also many names of places and towns have been changed to Kurdish names. Observers have also reported that Kurdish forces often used to practice their shooting on important Assyrian cultural heritage sites.[43]

Massacres and harassment since 2003[edit]

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.[66][67] [68]

On 6 January 2008 (the Feast of Epiphany) five Assyrian churches, one Armenian church, and a monastery in Mosul and Baghdad were coordinately attacked with multiple car bombs.[69][70] 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".[71] Two days later, on 8 January, two more churches were bombed in the city of Kirkuk; the Chaldean Cathedral of Kirkuk and the ACOE Maar Afram Church, wounding three bystanders.[72] Since the start of the Iraq War, there have been at least 46 churches and monasteries bombed.[73]

Threats on population[edit]

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 US-led invasion in 2003. While exact numbers are unknown, reports suggest that whole neighborhoods of Christians have left the cities of Baghdad and Al-Basrah, and that both Sunni and Shiite insurgent groups and militias have threatened Christians. [74]

Religious official targets[edit]

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, a Syriac Orthodox priest with Saint Peter's Church in Baghdad's Karada neighbourhood, was killed by gunmen while travelling in a car on 5 April 2008.[75] On 11 April, President Bush was interviewed by Cliff Kincaid of the EWTN Global Catholic Network; after being informed about the deteriorating situation of the Assyrians; 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."[76]

Growth of Assyrian security forces[edit]

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.[77]

2009–2010 violence[edit]

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 fleeing Mosul to the Nineveh plains where there is an Assyrian majority population.[78] 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 31 October 2010. The attack left at least 58 worshipers dead, including two 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.


The majority of the ancestral villages of the Assyrian population in Iraq lie in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where the bulk of the current Assyrian population is. 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 was claimed to have emerging as Kurdistan Regional Government attempt to allegedly rewrite the history of the region to give it a Kurdish flavor and diminish its historic and far older Assyrian heritage.[79]


A 1950 CIA numbers report on Iraq estimated 98,000 Chaldeans, 30,000 Nestorians, 25,000 Syriac Catholics and 12,000 Jacobites.[80] The report used the name Assyrians, in the ethnic sense, for Nestorians, and also noted that Assyrians may be members of the Chaldean and Protestant Churches.[80]

According to statistics gathered by the Roman Catholic Church when doing censuses of Chaldean Catholic diocese in Iraq in 2012 and 2013, Chaldo-Assyrians in Iraq numbered 230,071 people.[81]

A population project run by Shlama Foundation has determined the Assyrian population of Iraq to be at a total of 146,461 (as of 2019).[82]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ashbāl has been mistranslated in the media as Boy Scout. The Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic defines shibl (plural ashbāl اشبال) as meaning "lion cub; a capable young man, brave youth, young athlete." Compare with Ashbal Saddam (Saddam's Lion Cubs).


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External links[edit]