Assyrians in Northern Iraq
Indigenous Persistence despite Government and Religious Persecution
By Katelyn Kelley
A single letter symbolizes the present terror felt by Christians in contemporary Northern Iraq. The letter “N,” which stands for “Nazarene,” is a derogatory Arabic word for Christian and is currently used by the Islamic State to mark and shame the homes and businesses of Christians1. The large majority of these targets are Assyrians who as a community are not alien to being the subject of violence and degradation. Although having strong native claim to the region, Assyrians have long been legally unrecognized as the indigenous peoples of Iraq. A complex history of marginalization by the Iraqi Government has drastically weakened the Assyrian community, and recent increasing regional violence undermines their chances of survival in their homeland.
Assyrians originated in and are historically, culturally, and spiritually tied to ancient Mesopotamian land, located east of the Mediterranean between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. While they are not legally recognized, many scholars and more importantly the Assyrian community, acknowledge Assyrians as one of the indigenous populations in Iraq. They are decedents of the Assyrian Empire that ruled from 912-612 BCE in regions of modern day Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq2. Assyrians today, who are also known as Syriacs and Chaldeans, make up about three percent of the total Iraqi population, the majority being overwhelmingly Christian3. In Iraq they are concentrated in the Northern Province of Nineveh, which is home to their ancestral capital city, of the same name4. Throughout the last several decades the Nineveh Province and surrounding areas have become highly politicized. The region is home to many other minority groups such as Kurds, Turkmen, and Armenians. Assyrians have endured generations of human rights violations on both the individual and community levels. This paper focuses on the ways in which the Iraqi government has marginalized the Assyrian people through various state policies and a lack of legal recognition, ultimately leaving them a vulnerable community in the wake of extreme regional violence.
Assyrians have struggled for equality and recognition since the creation of modern day Iraq. After years of resistance to foreign influence by Iraqi Nationalists, the British terminated their Mandate of Mesopotamia, forming the Kingdom of Iraq in 1932. Under the mandate Assyrians were relatively protected as they aided the British in World War I and shared a common religion. However, many Assyrians were concerned that under Iraqi rule this would not continue5. Assyrian leaders submitted five separate petitions to the League of Nations that requested a variety of solutions to help protect Assyrians during the transition. One such petition bade the creation of a separate Assyrian state, an idea that still remains popular with Assyrians today6. While none of these ideas came to fruition, these concerns could not be ignored; before given full independence the Iraqi government had to concede to these apprehensions and added Article 4.3 to the Declaration of the Kingdom of Iraq. This states, “[d]ifferences of race, language or religion shall not prejudice any Iraqi national in matters relating to the enjoyment of civil or political rights”7. In reality, this addition, intended to protect the individual rights of Iraqi minorities, did very little to protect Assyrians as the Declaration did not provide a reference to any indigenous community in Iraq.
Violence against Assyrians started almost immediately after Independence. It began with the Simele Massacre in August 1933 where an estimated three hundred to six thousand Assyrians were murdered during a government ordered ethnic cleansing8. The subsequent years brought more tragedy and with it political instability that still plagues the state of Iraq today. The fall of authoritarian leader Saddam Hussein left Assyrians and minorities alike in an uncertain state where the creation of a new constitution and government had the potential to change their lack of recognition and protection under the law9. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
The new Iraqi Constitution, ratified in 2005, continues to define Assyrians as an ethno-religious minority. Article 125 guarantees fundamental rights to “various nationalities, such as Turkmen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and all other constituents”10. Similarly to the Declaration of the Kingdom of Iraq, the document provides safeguards for minority rights in Iraq but, again, in reality this does little to provide any real security. The legal recognition of Assyrians as indigenous would provide their community a legitimate platform to argue for rights to their ancestral lands and autonomy over those lands11. As a signer of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (a resolution adopted in 2007 designating specific protections to indigenous communities around the world) the Iraqi government would be under heightened international scrutiny of the treatment of Assyrians as an indigenous population and liable to additional UN sanctions if not compliant. The past actions of the Iraqi police force demonstrate their attempt to extinguish the Assyrian community which highlights the need for Assyrian recognition as indigenous under the law.
Assyrians have faced decades of persecution by the Iraqi government. An important tactic the government has used in marginalizing their population regards their internal displacement through “arabization” policies. For the past half-century the government in Iraq has attempted -and has succeeded, in several instances- to force Assyrians and other non-Arab minorities from their lands and replaced them with Arabs from different parts of Iraq. It is estimated that the combined number of internal and regionally displaced Assyrian refugees is over 250,000. This number only continues to grow. Regimes use both violence (e.g. Simele Massacre) and discriminatory policy to weaken these communities13. In September 2001 the Revolutionary Command Council, the ultimate authority in Iraq, at the time still overseen by Saddam Hussein, issued a decree of “nationality correction”14 which the BBC explained as “[a]ny non-Arab who needs to have any official dealings with the Iraqi government . . . has to fill in a form that says: ‘I wish to correct my ethnic origin into Arabic’”14. Those who refused were forcibly removed by the RCC. This allowed the government to redistribute Assyrian and Kurdish lands to Arabs and weaken their respective communities by displacing them without compensation14.
In addition to physical displacement, the Iraqi policy of arabization has weakened aspects of Assyrian culture. Throughout the 1970s Assyrians were commonly arrested and accused of treason for singing Assyrian national songs16. The use of the Assyrian language, known as Syriac or Assyrian, was greatly reduced when Saddam Hussein revoked a previous Presidential decree that had protected minority linguistic rights. This resulted in many Assyrian schools switching from teaching in their indigenous language to teaching in the national language of Arabic17. These tactics to stamp out a native culture are common among imperialist regimes and result in weakened indigenous identity and with it the community’s chance of survival.
These discriminatory policies have undermined the strength of the Assyrian community in Iraq. This has created a vacancy for the Islamic State, a radically violent regime, to move in. While the depth of the regional conflict cannot be overlooked, the absence of political and legal protection for Assyrians has played a major role in the Islamic State’s takeover. The lack of Assyrian political representation has left them seemingly helpless to organize and fend off their aggressors, and without the infrastructure or funding to defend themselves the few Assyrians remaining in Northern Iraq are forced to flee18. As the Islamic State advances in Northern Iraq the odds of Assyrians remaining on their ancestral homelands grow slim.
The Assyrian community has endured many years of persecution and violence by both their national government and, more recently, the Islamic State. The two are not mutually exclusive as the former marginalized the Assyrians and created a vulnerable target for the Islamic State. However bleak the situation may seem, the Assyrians diaspora remains a strong and vocal advocate for their people. In response to the Islamic State marking of Assyrian doors a recent social-media campaign has been launched proclaiming “we are N” as a symbol of Assyrian solidarity19. This kind of resilience and international response provides optimism that even while struggling to hold onto their native lands the Assyrian culture can and will survive.
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14. "Iraqi Kurds Story of Expulsion." BBC News. November 30, 2001. Accessed November 20, 2014. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/1614239.stm.
15. UNPO, “Iraq: The Situation of Ethnic and Religious Minorities.” (Briefing paper presented at D-IQ Meeting, European Parliament, June 20, 2013), 3.
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19. Sisto, "A Christian Genocide Symbolized by One Letter."