They regard themselves as heirs to an ancient Mesopotamian tradition that produced early legends of creation, a great flood and a boy in a basket, set adrift in a river and rescued. But those traditions have virtually vanished from widespread public awareness, they say, eclipsed by later biblical stories.
Their history is rife with massacres -- including attacks by the Ottoman Turks and Kurds in the early 20th century that wiped out much of their population. But their problems have been overshadowed, they say, by the Armenians who suffered alongside them.
After losing their empire and wandering stateless for more than 2,600, years they were promised a homeland, they believe, by the League of Nations after World War I. But the promises were betrayed, they say, their interests cast aside.
Now many of the world's remaining Assyrian Christians, several thousand of whom live in Southern California, fear they will become an afterthought again as the United States prepares for a possible war against Iraq, where nearly half their compatriots live.
In the drive to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Assyrian spokesmen say, the United States must stay engaged long enough to ensure that whatever regime comes next protects the country's ethnic and religious minorities.
Otherwise, "at the end of the day, all of the other people in Iraq are Muslims, and they will discriminate against us and try to get rid of us," said Carlo Ganjeh, U.S. secretary for the Assyrian Universal Alliance. "This is the sad reality of the Mideast."
More than two millenniums ago, their ancestors created one of the world's great empires, covering much of what is now Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Among the earliest peoples to convert to Christianity, they claim inventions including the wheel, the Zodiac and fractions. But today, with their people scattered in 40 countries, Assyrians are one among many peoples who survive from the ancient days of the Middle East, half forgotten by the world.
"I don't know anybody who's ever heard of Assyrians," said Anil Varani, 20, youth group vice president of the Assyrian American Assn. of Southern California. In the 13 years since she emigrated from Iran, she has usually told others that she's Babylonian -- a related people at least vaguely familiar to more Americans, she says.
Some Assyrians say Jews are one group of people who seem to be more familiar with them. But because the Hebrew Bible describes Assyrians as cruel and ruthless conquerors, people such as the Rev. William Nissan say he is invariably challenged by Jewish rabbis and scholars about the misdeeds of his ancestors.
Asked whether many Jews still bear grudges against modern Assyrians, Yitzchok Adlerstein, an Orthodox rabbi who teaches at Loyola Law School, replied: "They still survive?"
The scant public awareness puts Assyrians in the position of frequently fighting to assert their proper identity, even among themselves. Some argue for a common Assyrian identity for all the non-Arab, Christian groups that trace their ancestries to ancient Mesopotamia and surrounding lands. Others who would fit into that blanket identity regard themselves as distinct from Assyrians, both ethnically and religiously. For example, some Chaldeans, most of whom are Roman Catholic, say they should be considered separate from Assyrians, who belong to the Church of the East, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syriac Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations.
The internal divisions are noted as one of the community's greatest challenges by both U.S. government officials and Assyrian leaders such as Ronald Michael, president of the Assyrian American League. "My greatest criticism and challenge" to fellow Assyrians, he said, "is to put aside personal differences and come together and coalesce."
At the same time, Assyrians say they must fend off efforts to "Arabize" them, both here and abroad. The Assyrian International News Agency, for instance, has chastised the Washington, D.C-based Arab American Institute for saying Assyrians, including Chaldeans and Syriacs, are Arab Christian minorities. The news agency called such attempts an "egregious, willful and deliberate mischaracterization of Assyrian identity" to enhance the Arab demographic "and, by extension, political clout in the U.S."
"Assyrians are not Arabs," the news agency wrote. "Assyrians, including the Chaldeans and Syriacs, are the indigenous Christian people of Mesopotamia and have a history, spanning 7,000 years, that predates the Arab conquest of the region."
After Sept. 11, 2001, in what the Assyrian news agency called "an erroneous association with the Arab identity," St. John's Assyrian Church in Chicago was set afire and another Assyrian church in a nearby town received a letter asking, "Are you with the U.S. or with the enemy?"
More than two decades earlier, said Noray and Elgret Betbaba, who emigrated from Iran in 1969, their former sandwich shop and home in Oxnard were vandalized while Iran held U.S. hostages in the early 1980s. At one point, Noray Betbaba said, he and his friends were threatened in a North Hollywood bar by a man wielding a knife who told them: "You dirty Iranians. You leave here or I'll cut you up."
Assyrians say the assault on their identity is most pronounced, however, in their ancestral lands. Michael said Iraqi President Hussein has cleansed textbooks of Assyrian history and accomplishments, denied government benefits to those who refuse to use Arab or Muslim names, uprooted Assyrian villages and banned the Assyrian language from the workplace.
Many Assyrians say they fear even greater persecution in a post-Hussein Iraq if the United States withdraws too quickly and leaves the country to chaos.
Their fears of persecution are grounded in the living memories of many Assyrians. On a recent Sunday, several dozen Assyrians gathered to share their family stories at the Assyrian center in North Hollywood, a social hall decorated with the Assyrian flag, winged bull statues and portraits of ancient kings.
According to cultural anthropologist Arian Ishaya, Assyrians first came to California in 1910 as farmers in the Turlock area of the Central Valley. They have since moved into the "solid middle class" as small-business owners and professionals in computer science, law, engineering and medicine. The nation's largest Assyrian populations are in the Detroit and Chicago areas, but Assyrian spokesmen claim a population of 7,000 in Southern California.
For Assyrians like William Warda, a 62-year-old graphic designer, success in America has not diminished memories of a horrific past. At the recent Assyrian center gathering, Warda said he was a 4-year-old boy in the northwestern Iranian area of Urmia when he saw his village plundered, his father shot through the head and his 6-month-old sister bayoneted by Turks in 1946. Prevented from burying his father's corpse, Warda said, the family watched helplessly as dogs picked it apart.
"They said, because you are Christians, you are supposed to die," Warda said -- adding that Muslims in another village sheltered them and helped the rest of the family escape.
Manon Dooman, a 67-year-old artist and former nurse, said most of her family was massacred by the Ottomans in 1915, but her grandmother survived, escaped to Russia and passed down stories of seeing sword-wielding soldiers ruthlessly slaying Assyrian Christian boys and men.
Assyrians say they lost 750,000 people to the Ottomans; the Turkish government denies any atrocities, just as it rejects Armenian assertions of genocide. Assyrians commemorate the 1933 slaughter of 3,000 Assyrians in Iraq on their Aug. 7 "Martyr's Day," but that history, too, is little known outside their community.
Ever so slowly, however, Assyrians appear to be coming together -- and drawing more attention.
Ganjeh, of the Assyrian Universal Alliance, said a meeting in London last November for nine of 14 major Assyrian political organizations represented a milestone in unity efforts and that follow-up meetings are being organized. Though many Assyrians still dream of recovering a homeland or autonomous state, others say guarantees of democratic freedoms in a Muslim-ruled state may be the best they can hope for.
Signs of Hope
In the United States, Assyrians had been neglected by Washington policymakers crafting plans for a post-Hussein Iraq.
But that changed after intense lobbying by groups such as the Assyrian American League, which was established last year and has won the backing of some prominent politicians, including Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), who represents a district outside Chicago.
Assyrians are now formally mentioned in speeches by President Bush and included in Iraqi opposition meetings convened by the U.S. State Department. The Assyrian Democratic Movement has qualified for federal funds under the Iraq Liberation Act, which funnels federal money to Iraqi opposition groups.
"We basically got in the face of everyone," said Michael of the Assyrian American League. "Our rights, which have been trampled on for so long, need to be secured."
Meanwhile, Assyrians say other Christian groups are beginning to rally behind them. A worldwide day of prayer for the protection of Assyrian Christians was observed Sunday and supported by the Rev. Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network.
"Western Christians must show some interest in what's happening and help us out," said Shamiram Tabar, president of the Assyrian American Assn. of Southern California. "Otherwise, sooner or later the Mideast won't have any Christians left whatsoever."