Assyrians - the Forgotten People - Part I
Posted: Monday, June 19, 2000 at 09:09 AM UT
Assyrians, who are they? One often hears this question from non-Assyrians. Have you ever stopped to think why? Whether deliberately or out of ignorance, people mistake the Assyrians for Syrians and sometimes the media refer to them as Kurds. Also, Assyria is oftentimes mistaken for Syria. Syria is an existing Arab state that borders Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. Assyria is the historical name of an ancient kingdom that once thrived in what is now known as Iraq. A landlocked region, Assyria bordered Urmia province, part of north western Persia; Hakkari region, south eastern Turkey; Khabur-Hasitcha province, north eastern Syria; and Mosul, Erbil and Kirkuk, provinces of present-day northern Iraq. Their kingdom covered an area roughly about 350 miles long by 350 miles wide. The name of their oldest capital city was Assur. The capital Assur was named after the second grandson of Noah’s eldest son Shem. The name Assur applied to the whole country, hence Assyria. The Capital Assur still stands as an historic site, south of the ruins of their last capital city Ninveh in northern Iraq. Assyrians are, therefore, the indigenous and original dwellers of ancient Mesopotamia (the homeland of the two rivers, Tigris and Euphrates) of present-day Iraq. Assyria was defeated by the Medians in collaboration with the Babylonians. The Assyrians are Semite in race. There are only three Semitic races in the Middle East: Assyrians, Jews and Arabs, chronologically.
Being one of the main base roots of Mesopotamia, the Assyrian kingdom encouraged urbanization, building of permanent dwellings and cities. They developed agriculture, improved methods of irrigation and systems of canals and aqueducts. They enhanced their language that served as a unifying force in writing, trade and business transaction. They encouraged trade, established and developed safe routes, protecting citizens and property by written law. They excelled in administration, documented their performance and royal achievements, depicting their culture in different art forms. They built libraries and archived their recorded deeds for prosperity. They accumulated wealth and knowledge; raised armies in disciplined formation of infantry, cavalry and war-chariot troops with logistics; and built a strong kingdom, an unique civilization and the first world empire.
Assyrians, in and around Beth Nahrain, throughout the ages, had always advanced learning and extended it beyond their realm. Since early history, their unquenchable thirst for knowledge broke formidable barriers and entered new frontiers. While the Disciples proclaimed the New Testament westward and established Christian congregations around the Mediterranean basin, through Anatolia (present-day Turkey), Greece and the Roman Empire, the (Nestorian) Assyrian missionaries preached the Word throughout the East - the Arab Peninsula, Persia, Afghanistan, India (Kerala), China, Mongolia and beyond. Thus Assyria, playing the leading role in contributing knowledge, throughout the centuries, led the world to recognize Mesopotamia as the cradle of civilization from which succeeding nations drew their sources and increased their knowledge and expanded further, emulating Assyria for its unique civilization, like the Persians, Greeks, Romans and Arabs.
After its collapse, in 612 BC, Assyria became a vassalage and lost its importance as a world power. It became a bargaining chip that was exchanged between subsequent empires and conquerors. It gradually diminished in importance as a trade centre and was reduced to a satrapy. In the latter half of the 1st century AD, the Assyrians embraced Christianity. Henceforth, they diverted their attention to evangelism. They devoted their time and energy to preaching the Gospel and spreading the teachings of Christ. They built churches, monasteries and learning centres. Being skilled tradesmen, the Assyrians also engaged in business and revamped trade. They strengthened their business and social relations with many countries and along the Silk Road to China and Mongolia. The Assyrian Church of the East (misnomer Nestorian) expanded its missionary work and continued to prosper. Likewise, Assyrian trade links increased and business flourished. Christianity had mellowed them. They abandoned their bellicosity and were no longer described as warlike people. They became peaceful and courteous in their dealings and attitude yet remained sharp in business. They maintained peaceful coexistence with their neighbours, building friendly relations with surrounding countries. Assyria remained under the Roman sphere of influence until the Arab conquests of Mesopotamia in the mid-7th century AD. With the emergence of the new religion of Islam and the rise of hostility, resistance waned against the successive waves of the Islamic invading armies. Islam focused on spreading its religion. It diverted its forces and energy against the ‘unbeliever’, the infidel and the polytheist - the non-Muslim. Many countries were overwhelmed. The Assyrian people suffered great losses, persecution and humiliation for not recanting their Christian faith and converting to Islam. They were isolated and languished in poverty. True, the kingdom of Assyria may have been vanquished, yet its people have miraculously survived the onslaught and trampling of past and present invaders. After the triumph and rise of Islam, the evangelistic activity of the Assyrian Church of the East was curtailed and finally dwindled to a halt. The Assyrian Church weakened under the direct control of the Islamic Khilaphates. It shrank and lost its influence and thereon was restricted in its movement and activity and confined to within its own locality.
Under the Arab Khilaphate rule, land was awarded free of charge to converts or as a reward in appreciation for their conversion and loyal service to the Khilaphate. While under the Ottoman rule, conquered territory and unclaimed land became government property and fell under its jurisdiction. It could seize land and dispense with it in any manner it deemed fit. In some instances, the Ottoman Empire confiscated Christian farmlands and properties and leased them or sold them at nominal price to the Moslem Turkmen, Kurds and Arabs. During the occupation period heavy taxes were exacted on Christian adults which forced Christian landlords and proprietors to lose their property. Christians were squeezed out of their wealth. The Assyrians were forced to live a subservient life as retribution for their unshakable faith in their Christian religion and steadfast resistance to conversion or change of their national identity.
Thus, Assyria was trodden by invaders throughout the centuries, its treasures looted and its historic cities laid to waste and eventually forgotten and abandoned. Like a pack of hungry wolves, its territory was preyed upon and chiselled away by neighbouring countries, especially after the Islamic conquest of Mesopotamia and the brutal repression of its indigenous inhabitants. To complete the picture, at the end of the World War One of 1914-1918, the Mandatory Powers, England and France, abolished Mesopotamia and wiped it from the World Atlas. They struck off Assyria from the map, annulled the identity of its indigenous people and denied them the right of ownership of their traditional homeland.
During the First World War, in April 1916, on behalf of their governments, French Foreign Minister, Georges Picot, and his British counterpart, Mark Sykes, had developed and signed a secret agreement, namely, the Sykes-Picot Agreement to divide Mesopotamia between France and Britain after dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Western Powers, through the League of Nations, allied themselves against resettlement of the Assyrians in their traditional homeland. Britain failed to make good her promise in representing the Assyrians at the League. Acting as Judas Iscariot, Britain sold the Assyrians to their enemy Iraq, for 30 pieces of silver. The Western Allies had already predestined Assyria’s future. They refused to enter into any written negotiations with the Assyrian leaders for a political settlement. They blamed their unfortunate and hard circumstances on the changes to the Russian sphere of influence from which the Assyrians of Hakkari in Turkey and Urmia in Iran had been driven out. In the wake of the October 1917 Revolution, Russia withdrew from war and its zone of influence. It revoked certain agreements with the West and left many issues unsettled one of which was the rehabilitation of the displaced Assyrians. The territorial losses of the Assyrians were discounted and described as unfortunate by the Allied Powers, under the terms of Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations. To exploit the oil wealth of the Middle East, insure its access and safe flow throughout several borders and redrawn borderlines and maintain smooth relations, the colonial powers annexed the divided Assyrian homeland to exiting and newly created Islamic kingdoms and states.
Deliberately choosing not to heed the racial, ethnic and religious diversities and the demographic reality of the Middle East, the mandatory powers dismembered Mesopotamia. They partitioned Assyria and gave it away to its enemies. The Mandates vehemently rejected Assyrian claim to their ancestral homeland. They foiled their attempts to unite their ranks, hold on to their territory and declare themselves independent. The Allied Powers, mainly Britain and France, connived with the existing and newly created states to keep Assyria shattered under the yoke of foreign rule. To consolidate their hold on the Middle East and assert their authority, the mandates collaborated with the Islamic countries in restoring the archaic Millet Provision. To minimize their number and lessen their political weight, the mandatory powers supported the Islamic states in keeping the Assyrian people of the Middle East divided into several denominational groups. They based them on different Christian sects, rather than reunite them as one people of Assyrian nationality. They conspired against the Assyrians and prevented them from shaping their destiny to govern themselves in their traditional homeland, by keeping them divided and subjecting them to the millet provision. Under the authority of Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, a clear agenda had been set for the assimilation of the Assyrians into the Arab nations.
For the past twelve hundred years, or so, since the Islamic conquests the arbitrary rule of the Arab/Turkic governments has clamped down mercilessly on the Assyrians. Their high handed policy wreaked havoc with the whole Assyrian nation. They inflicted heavy loss of life and sever damage to the social fabric of their very existence. Their oppressive rule, under the millet provision, slummed the Assyrians deeper into deprivation and misery. It was not only a setback but a catastrophe that regressed the Assyrians to undignified life of subservience. In post World War One and after over 12 hundred years of dormancy (750 to early 20th century), the Assyrians woke up to see their Islamic neighbours, in connivance with the West, nibbling at the doorsteps of what was left of their Assyrian territory, situated in Urmia, Hakkari and the Mosul region. The Quartette (Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria) have since annexed the Assyrian territory to their states. They integrated it in its entirety, as an extension to the ever expanding Islamic (Umma) Nation, to encompass the whole of the Middle East. During that long period, hundreds of thousands of Assyrians, including neighbouring Armenians and also Greeks, men, women and children, were massacred and their villages pillaged. Yet, miraculously, the Assyrian people as a nation has survived the onslaught of Arab occupation, Turkish massacres and Mongol barbarity. The Assyrians looked up to the West and humanitarian organizations for deliverance from their chronic plight, but to no avail. The power brokers and policy makers reshaped the Middle East not in the interest of its local inhabitants but rather for their long term strategies and economic benefit. The interests of the Assyrians, Jews and other non-Arab ethnics were ignored and neglected.
As far as the Arab/Islamic states was concerned, the native inhabitants of the Middle East, were considered minority ‘millet’ groups. They were divided into religious groups based on their denomination and not their racial identity. They were and still are, to a certain extent, recognized as a millet - a term used to granting such groups of people protection and freedom of worship only, after invading and occupying their country in the name of Jihad. This recognition was granted by the first Khaliphate Abu Bakr, in the early invasion of Mesopotamia. It was later extended by the 2nd Khaliphate Umar and other succeeding Khulapha’a. Millet provision became part of the governing system of the Islamic state policy. The Assyrians were identified by the sect of their Christian religion and not by the racial identity of their Assyrian nationality. Millets are obliged to abide by the law of the land under the Islamic Shari’ah (religious) law of the government of the Abode of Peace. Thus, Assyria and Assyrian, both terms, noun and adjective, were invalidated. In collusion with the World Body, Mesopotamia was wiped from the map and Assyria abolished. The ultimate aim was to erode the Assyrian identity to extinction, considering natives of the Middle East as ancient history. This unethical and divisive millet provision is still being practiced by the Islamic states heedlessly. The disappearance of Assyria and breakup of its national inhabitants into smaller sectarian communities in the name of religious tolerance and freedom of worship, is no more than a farcical ploy to deny the Assyrian people their heritage. Reinforcement of the millet provision was a continuation of Dar-Al-Silm advocates to perpetuate the end of Assyria and seal its fate. The government implied that the old nationality to which the natives had belonged no longer applied. In due course, they expected them to renounce it and accept the State’s current nationality as a gesture of good will and pledge of loyalty to their newly adopted national identification and country. This implication is extended to all the non-Muslim native inhabitants of the Islamic world - Jews, Christians, Bhaie’s etc. This millet provision is still being widely used in many Islamic countries, regardless of their political systems.
The Islamic government adopted the system of identifying the Assyrians by their village and tribal name and or sectarian name - never by their nationality. Assyrian nationals were forced to assume Christian sectarian identity. They were identified as such outside the church as a substitute for their Assyrian nationality. Sectarian names replaced the Assyrian nationality. They became a falsified form of name change with which the Assyrians were identified. These nationality substitutes have since stayed with the Assyrians until today. Rather than being recognized, collectively, as one people of (Syriac) Assyrian nationality, the Islamic government abolished and disallowed its mention. It ceased calling the indigenous inhabitants of Assyria by their nationality and country name. Some were identified by the name of its religious leader or the country to which its church was affiliated. The Islamic state reinforced the policy of change to the Assyrian nationality in a bid to wipe out their racial identity. They were no longer recognized as indigenous Assyrians. This change was officially endorsed by the World Body, after World War One, by abolishing Mesopotamia and wiping Assyria from the map. Under the sectarian names, the Assyrians were treated as foreigners - groups of millets. They were dealt with in any manner the invaders deemed fit. The government treated the Assyrian inhabitants at their absolute discretion and with cruelty to suppress their national consciousness. They became known as Nestorian, Chaldean, Jacobite, Syriani, Suroyo, Maronite, Rumi and Masihi-Arabi. They were treated as mere residents, required to conform to the majority rule of the Islamic Shari’ah law.. Their social customs, secular celebrations and traditional festivities were restricted to within their localities. Their dress had to conform to Islamic rule. Assyrians were pressured to give their children Arabic names when christened. Their social activities were gradually curtailed and with the passage of time disallowed. They lost freedom of expression, of assembly, of association and travel. Generations of repression dulled the Assyrian communities into forgetfulness, weariness and misery. Ignored to the point of utter neglect, they led the life of impoverished peasantry. Except for their Assyrian language which they kept alive through their liturgy, conditions deteriorated and life, in general, became meager. Illiteracy and ignorance became widespread. Their life was lulled into a laze of inactivity that receded into drowsiness. They lapsed into despair as if slipping into a different time zone of deep freeze. After centuries of persecution, untold suffering and isolation, they woke up to the rampages of the First World War to see themselves still surrounded by the same hostile elements. The imposition of the millet provision had taken its heavy toll. The Assyrians expected the Western Powers to abolish the millet provision, to free the Assyrian people from the yoke of Islamic rule, to restore Assyria to its traditional owners and grant them statehood in accordance with the Geneva Convention for Human Rights. But this was not to be. The Mandated Powers had other hideous plans.
© Frederick P. Isaac. All Rights Reserved.