Ambrose Bierce wrote: “War is God's way of teaching Americans geography.” A quip too true to be entirely funny. The Iraq war has introduced us to the Assyrians, a people whom most Americans probably associate with the Bible and assume must have disappeared millennia ago. Yet there they are, on TV, with one of them, Younadem Kanna, taking a seat on Iraq's new governing council. Their precarious history speaks to the perils of the current moment.
Iraq's Assyrians claim direct descent from the original inhabitants of Iraq, who built the tower of Babel and enthusiastically received Jonah's grudging call for repentance at Nineveh. They have names like Sargon, the king described by Isaiah, or Nimrod, the “mighty hunter before the Lord” portrayed in Genesis. They are an ancient ethnic group distinct from the Arabs, who invaded their land in the seventh century.
In one respect, though, they are very different from their forebears: The large majority is now Christian (though there are also Sabean Mandeans, who believe that John the Baptist was the Messiah, and Yazidis, who put great stress on angels). According to tradition, they first became Christians through the mission of the apostle Thomas (“doubting Thomas”), and the church is old enough for it to be true. They continue to speak a version of Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.
Since many of them dissented from decisions by early church councils on the nature of Christ, they were pushed to the margins of the Christian world, often attacked by Byzantine Christians and, later, by Muslims, and forced into Persia and remote areas of Iraq.
The Ancient Church of the East, often called “Nestorian,” responded to this persecution by becoming one of the greatest missionary churches in history, establishing 250 dioceses and 1,000 monasteries from Iraq to India and China. In 1552, many members entered into communion with the Roman Catholic Church, which led to the formation of the Chaldean church, which now includes the majority of Iraq's Christians.
Since Assyrians are geographically hemmed in by Persians, Turks, Kurds and Arabs, they have suffered terrible persecution in the modern era. In 1915, many were slaughtered by the Ottomans and the Kurds. In 1919, they sought their own state. When the British took over Mesopotamia after World War I, they judged the Assyrians' situation so desperate that they considered moving them to Canada. In 1930, there were proposals to transfer them to South America, in 1932 to Syria. Following massacres by the Arabs in 1933, the British flew the patriarch to Cyprus for safety while the League of Nations debated moving them to Brazil or Niger(!). Under Saddam's censuses, they were not allowed to register as Assyrians, only as Arabs or Kurds. Now many Assyrians have fled to southern California and Chicago, and Chaldeans to Detroit.
Middle East scholar Mordechai Nisan has written that the “cutting edge of modern Middle Eastern statehood was a cruel portent for certain minority peoples, specifically Christian ones like Armenians in Turkey and Assyrians in Iraq.” The “tyranny of the majority” was, he notes, “a formula in the East for repression and loss on a grand scale.”
And today? Interviewing Assyrian leaders recently in Baghdad, I found the lessons of this history crystallized in their continuing fear of such a tyranny. They worry that America will yield to demands for Islamic law from the Islamist bloc in the new Iraqi governing council and that they will once more become a barely tolerated and often despised minority.
If the U.S. treats them as the British did, as one more inconvenient minority in the Middle East who must be sacrificed to the greater good of mollifying Arab and Muslim sentiment, then Chicago and Detroit, and America as a whole, will gain from these talented immigrants. But we will have presided over the demise of one of Iraq's, and the world's, most ancient religions and peoples.