Assyrians are the original Syrians


The Christian Assyrian people currently live in the Middle East countries of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, as well as in western countries and overseas. The Assyrians are the descendants of the Christians of the Near East who, in contrast to the Byzantine imperial church, founded independent (autocephalic) churches since the 3rd century and did not use Greek, but Syriac (see below) as the language of liturgy and theology. They themselves trace their existence back to the ancient oriental peoples of the Assyrians, Babylonians and Arameans, who have existed since the 2nd half of the 3rd millennium BC. In Syria and Mesopotamia.

The Roman Empire, the rule of the New Persian Sasanids, Byzantium, the Arab Islamic caliphate, the Mongol storms and the rule of the Ottomans up to the beginning of the 20th century shaped the inhabitants of the changing state structures. A minority of Christians of the Middle East survived the melting into Islam and formed a small language and religious community in a closed settlement area of ​​Upper Mesopotamia until the First World War.

Five denominations

The Assyrians are committed to two independent (autocephalous) Syrian churches: the Old Apostolic Church of the East, which was built in the 3rd century, and the Church of Antioch and the whole East, which was built in the 5th century. In the centuries that followed, the Chaldean Church unified with Rome, the Syrian-Catholic Church, also unified with Rome, and the Evangelical Church split off from the two original churches. This resulted in a total of five denominations.

Today's Assyrians speak late forms of Aramaic, a cultural language belonging to the Semitic language family that has been used since the 1st millennium BC. It replaced the older languages ​​in Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine. The form of Aramaic used by the Christians is called Syriac. The ancient Syriac high-level language of the Christians of the Near East was formed in the 3rd century and has remained the liturgical and theological language of the ancient Syrian churches in two dialects (Eastern Syriac and Western Syriac) up to the present day. At the same time, New Aramaic or New Syrian folk dialects developed, e.g. West New Syrian or Turoyo, which in Tur Abdin became the vernacular of most of the Christians living there. In addition, the Urmia dialect emerged, which was developed as a written language and is used by most of the East Assyrian communities.

Settlement area: Mesopotamia


The original settlement area of ​​the Assyrians is largely in the Mesopotamian area, especially in Upper Mesopotamia and in the Armeno-Kurdish mountainous region (today's states of Iraq, Syria and Turkey). To the east it extends into Iranian territory as far as the plateau on Lake Urmia. By 1915, around one million Assyrians lived in a triangle that extends about 300 km on each side. The westernmost branch is the mountainous region of the Tur Abdin (to the west of it the cities of Mardin and Diyarbakir) in southeastern Turkey. To the south and southeast, the area is bounded by settlements in the northern Syrian plain near the Turkish border and in the Mosul plain, and to the northeast by the Hakkari Mountains (eastern Turkey, former main settlement area of ​​the members of the Old Apostolic Church of the East).

The Assyrian National Movement

With the emergence of the modern national idea in Europe in the 19th century and its spread in Asia and Africa, at the beginning of the 20th century there was also a national movement and gathering among the Christians of the Syrian churches. Large parts of Syrian Christians today call themselves Assyrians, regardless of their affiliation to the various denominations. It unites the common Christian religion with all its centuries-old traditions, customs, attitudes to life and cultural habits as well as the common settlement area, its history and its languages ​​(the Aramaic written language and the two language directions derived from it, West and East Aramaic or West and East Assyrian ).

Assyrians in the 20th century

During the First World War, not only the Christian Armenians, but also the members of the Syrian churches were victims of cruel persecution and displacement. The Assyrians lost over 50 percent of their total population in the northernmost areas of Upper Mesopotamia and Iran. With the exception of sparse remnants, they were driven from their old settlement areas and had to spend years under the most difficult conditions in camps that were under the supervision of the League of Nations. When the young nation states Iraq, Syria and modern Turkey were founded, the Assyrians' demand for self-determination and autonomy was not taken into account. Despite international promises, they could not return to their old residential areas. With the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, the definitive demarcation of the border and the settlement of the so-called Mosul question in 1925, their fate was sealed: they had no choice but to flee to the members of their people in the various new states of the Middle East.

In some states in the Middle East they have been denied the status of a recognized national or religious minority with consequent cultural rights. Iraq and Turkey forbid the people's name Assyrians and try with all available means not only to suppress the national movement of the Assyrians, but also the religious life of the Christian denominations. It is similar in Iran, even if the term Assyrian is not forbidden there. With the takeover of power by the Ayatollahs in 1979, a phase of intolerance and persecution of non-Muslim religious members began there. The hostile attitude of the strengthened Muslim movement resulted in a mass emigration of the Assyrians from Iran. Overall, the last twenty years have been one of the cruelest periods in their history for the Assyrians in the Middle East after the genocide crimes of 1914 to 1922.

Turkey: Assyrians between the fronts

In Turkey, since 1984, the Assyrians have been increasingly caught between the fronts of the bitter war of the Turkish military against the supporters of the radical Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK). Assyrians are harassed and put under pressure to varying degrees by the PKK as well as by the Turkish government troops, by special forces and the police, as well as by Islamic fundamentalist forces and by Kurdish Agas. The anti-terrorist units of the Turkish military repeatedly accuse them of cooperating with the Kurdish resistance. On the other hand, the PKK suspects them of collaborating with the Turkish oppressors. There are repeated attacks on Assyrian families. In 1993, for example, Assyrians were abducted from their villages, minibuses carrying Assyrian and Yezidi passengers were attacked and an Assyrian village was evacuated. Under such constant threat, tens of thousands of Assyrians have left their Turkish homeland in the past ten years. Today only a maximum of 12,000 Assyrians live in Turkey, around 500 families in Tur Abdin and a few thousand in Istanbul.

A new home in exile

Around 35,000 Assyrians have found a new home in the Federal Republic. Many live here as foreign workers, others as refugees with long-term right to stay. The basis for this is the so-called Christian Decree, which sets December 31, 1989 as the entry date. Most courts now also recognize religious group persecution. However, some assume that there will be a domestic escape alternative in Istanbul. The Istanbul Assyrian communities are hopelessly overwhelmed with the support and care of all refugees from Tur Abdin: Overcrowded apartments and widespread unemployment lead to massive livelihood problems.

Persecution of the Assyrians in Iraq

In Iraq, the Assyrians form the third largest population group after the Arabs and Kurds, with more than a million people. After the Ba'ath Party came to power under Saddam Hussein (1968), a special period of suffering began for them: Time and again, larger groups were arrested and people were executed. Numerous Assyrian intellectuals "disappeared" - there is still some uncertainty about their fate to this day. Systematically about 200 Assyrian villages were destroyed by the army under Saddam Hussein. 150 churches and monasteries were razed to the ground. Many Assyrians, like the Kurds, were deported to so-called "model villages", which resemble internment camps.

The first Gulf War between Iran and Iraq already claimed many lives among the male Assyrian population. About 40,000 Assyrians were victims of genocide. These include 2,000 Assyrian victims of the poison gas attacks carried out by the Saddam regime in 1988 against Kurdish and Assyrian settlements and cities in northern Iraq (Halabdja). Tens of thousands of Assyrians were among the refugees from Northern Iraq who fled to neighboring Turkey and Iran in the spring of 1991 after the Second Gulf War. After the Allies had set up a protection zone north of the 36th parallel in northern Iraq, the majority of these refugees decided to return to their destroyed villages. Under the protection of the Allies, Iraqi Kurdistan was able to develop into an autonomous, self-governing federal state in which Kurds and Assyrians could live together on an equal footing. But the conflict between the two major Kurdish parties, the occupation of Assyrian villages by Kurds and attacks on Assyrian politicians have dashed many of these hopes. In any case, the threat from Saddam Hussein's Baath regime hangs like a sword of Damocles over northern Iraq, its weal and woe still depends on the existence of the Allied protection zone.

Technical advice: Prof. Dr. Dr. Gernot Wiessner