The world is consumed by fears that Iraq is degenerating into a civil war between Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. But in this looming war of all against all, it is Iraq’s small community of Assyrian Christians that is at risk of annihilation.
Iraq’s Christian communities are among the world’s most ancient, practicing their faith in Mesopotamia almost since the time of Christ. The Assyrian Apostolic Church, for instance, traces its foundation back to 34 A.D. and St. Peter. Likewise, the Assyrian Church of the East dates to 33 A.D. and St. Thomas. The Aramaic that many of Iraq’s Christians still speak is the language of those apostles – and of Christ.
When tolerated by their Muslim rulers, Assyrian Christians contributed much to the societies in which they lived. Their scholars helped usher in the “Golden Age” of the Arab world by translating important works into Arabic from Greek and Syriac. But in recent times, toleration has scarcely existed. In the Armenian Genocide of 1914-1918, 750,000 Assyrians – roughly two-thirds of their number at the time – were massacred by the Ottoman Turks with the help of the Kurds.
Under the Iraqi Hashemite monarchy, the Assyrians faced persecution for co-operating with the British during the First World War. Many fled to the West, among them the Church’s Patriarch. During Saddam’s wars with the Kurds, hundreds of Assyrian villages were destroyed, their inhabitants rendered homeless, and dozens of ancient churches were bombed. The teaching of the Syriac language was prohibited and Assyrians were forced to give their children Arabic names in an effort to undermine their Christian identity. Those who wished to hold government jobs had to declare Arab ethnicity.