Who are Christians of Iraq and Syria?
by William Warda
“...Kurds, and Arabs, undermine the Assyrian identity, by referring to them, respectively, as Christian Kurds, and Arab Christians, to deny their Assyrian identity, because it indicates that they are the indigenous inhabitant of Iraq.
...there were no Kurds and Arabs settlements in the Plain of Nineveh before 1912 AD.”
On Thursday March 17, 2016, US secretary of state, John Kerry, announced that Islamic State has been committing genocide against Christians and other minorities in Iraq. While this was greatly appreciated by the Christian Assyrians, they were disappointed that their ethnic identity was not mentioned. In addition to committing atrocities against Christians of Iraq and Syria, ISIS also destroyed more than 100 Assyrian churches and monasteries in Mosul, and The Plain of Nineveh, some of them were constructed by Assyrian monks in the early centuries of Christianity. The Monastery of St Elijah, located on a hill near the northern city of Mosul; was constructed, by Assyrian monks in the late 6th Century AD. The Mar Behnam monastery, near the Assyrian city of Nimrud, according to one tradition was built by a 4th century Assyrian ruler in the Plain of Nineveh, known as Sencharib, as penance for killing his son Behnam and daughter Sarah, after they converted to Christianity. Excavations of a tiny tell next to the monastery revealed remains dating back over 8,000 years ago to the Neolithic, along with later Assyrian remains.
The Mar Mattay Monastery that dated back to the fifth century AD was located 20 miles northeast of Nineveh.
Other Assyrian monasteries destroyed by ISIS included the monasteries of Mar Gabriel and Mar Abraham. ISIS also destroyed remnants of the pre-Christian history of the Christian Assyrians by bulldozing the site of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, in northern Iraq. It destroyed The Nirgal Gate of the ancient city of Nineveh, and smashed the ancient sculptures that were housed in the Mosul’s Museum. It wanted to make sure that no one would remember that Assyrians ever existed in that country. In doing so, ISIS was following in the footsteps of Saddam Husain’s who revised the history text books in Iraq, to claim that the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians were Arabs. He also forced Kurds and Assyrians to renounce their ethnic identity and declare themselves to be Arabs.
Christian Assyrians also want their ethnic identity to be acknowledged, because, as one website put it, most people in the West assume that inhabitants of Iraq and the Middle East are predominantly Muslims, and Christianity must be a recent European importation in that region. But that is far from the case. According to the Church Historian Mofett,
“Before the end of the first century, the Christian faith broke out across the borders of Rome into ‘Asia’. Its roots may have been as far away as India or as near as Edessa in the tiny semi-independent principality of Osrhoene just across the Euphrates. From Edessa, according to tradition, the faith spread to another small three hundred miles further east, across the Tigris River, in the Assyrian Kingdom of Adiabene, with its capital at Arbela, near ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh.” (Moffett op cit., pp xiv-xv.)
In antiquity, whatever settlement or fortification existed on the site of the center of modern Mosul was overshadowed by Nineveh, the old Assyrian capital. It had an important bishop by 554, when its bishop was one of the signatories to a council of the Church of the East, at that time, the bishop was under the authority of the metropolitan archbishop of Arbela, modern Erbil to the east of Nineveh, and the patriarchate seat was in the capital of the Sasanian Persian Empire, 224-651 AD, at south of modern Baghdad. By the early seventh century, there were also Syriac Orthodox Christians in the region we know of as Iraq, with their regional headquarters in Tagrit modern Tikrit, and an important monastery of MOR Matay outside Mosul. Ibid. Also were destroyed important monasteries of the Church of the East, outside Mosul, the monastery of Mar Gabriel and Mar Abraham, which later became important centers for liturgical reform in the Church of the East. It is important to note that Christian Assyrians belong to three different Christian denominations, i.e. the Church of the East, the Chaldean Church, and the Syrian Orthodox Church. ISIS intends to destroy not only the Christian heritage of the Assyrians in Iraq, it also wanted to wipe out the pre-Christian Assyrian history in that country, by bulldozing the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, wrecking the ancient walls of Nineveh and smashing the ancient Assyrian artifacts in the museum of Mosul.
Another reason that compels Christian Assyrians to ask that their ethnicity to be acknowledged is because, often Kurds, and Arabs, undermine their Assyrian identity, by referring to them, respectively, as Christian Kurds, and Arab Christians, to deny their Assyrian identity, because it indicates that they are the indigenous inhabitant of Iraq.
When Arab Geographer Al-Masudi visited Nineveh in 943 A.D., he described it as a complex of ruins in the middle of which there are several villages and farms.” He also noted that: “It was to these settlements that God sent Jonah." (Brian M. Fagan, Return to Babylon, Little, Brown & Co., Canada p.18.) This implies that the inhabitants of these settlements believed that they were the descendants of the ancient Assyrians whom Jonah visited, according to the Old Testament.
Almost a thousand years after Al-masudi’s visit to the Plain of Nineveh, the British Major, Soane Ely Banister, visited Mesopotamia, he wrote: “Under the shadow of Nabil Yunis mound… we were upon the ground of ancient Assyria proper. To our left ran a range of low hills, and in their folds were many villages, dull, collections of mud huts, half-buried in the ground. But they contain two races whose history is full of interest. “No Mussulmen (Muslims) inhabit this plain”; there are but Chaldeans; (Catholic Assyrians), and Yezidis.” (To Mesopotamia and Kurdistan in Disguise, London, J. Mury 1912 P.100) He also wrote: “The Mosul people, especially the Christians, are vey proud of their city and the antiquity of their surrounding. The Christians, regarding themselves as direct descendants of the great rulers of Assyria.” (Ibid-P. 92) This statement indicates that there were no Kurds and Arabs settlements in the Plain of Nineveh before 1912 AD.
Who are Christians of Iraq and Syria?