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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Iraq : Assyrians

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date October 2014
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Iraq : Assyrians, October 2014, available at: [accessed 1 December 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Updated October 2014


An estimated 250,000 Assyrians [ACE Human Rights Report on Assyrians in Iraq 2011] comprise a distinct ethno- religious group in Iraq, although official Iraqi statistics consider them to be Arabs. Descendants of ancient Mesopotamian peoples, Assyrians speak Aramaic and live mainly in the major cities and in the rural areas of north-eastern Iraq where they tend to be professionals and businessmen or independent farmers. They are Christians, belonging to one of four churches: the Chaldean (Uniate), Nestorian, Jacobite or Syrian Orthodox, and the Syrian Catholic.

Assyrians form a distinct community, but with three origins: (1) those who inhabited Hakkari (in modern Turkey), who were predominantly tribal and whose leaders acknowledged the temporal as well as spiritual paramountcy of their patriarch, the Mar Shimun; (2) a peasant community in Urumiya (see Iran); and (3) a largely peasant community in Amadiya, Shaqlawa and Rawanduz in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Historical context

Because of its expulsion from the 'Orthodox' community at Ephesus in 431, the Assyrian Church operated entirely east (hence its title) of Byzantine Christendom, establishing communities over a wide area. But its heartlands were at the apex of the fertile crescent. The Mongol invasions, however, virtually wiped out the Assyrian Church except in limited areas.

On the whole the Assyrians co-existed successfully with the neighbouring Kurdish tribes. In Hakkari, Assyrian tribes held Kurdish as well as Assyrian peasantry in thrall, just as Kurdish tribes did, and rival Assyrian tribes would seek allies among neighbouring Kurdish tribes, and vice versa.

Religious tensions only developed in the 1840s, partly a result of European penetration and interest in Christian communities, partly the product of local rivalries, and partly because of growing Sunni-Armenian tensions. Sunni persecution of the Assyrians was a regular feature by the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1915 the Hakkari Assyrians were encouraged to revolt against the Ottomans (who had started massacring Armenians) by Russian forces, which then proved unable to support them. The community fought its way to Urumiya but with the collapse of Russia in 1917 was compelled to march southwards to the British occupied zone. The survivors, 25,000 or so, were settled in Iraq.

After the war several factors led to tragedy: it proved impossible for Assyrians to return to Hakkari as they wished; they were denied the kind of autonomy they had enjoyed in Hakkari; and growing mistrust existed between the community and the Arab government, partly because the British used the Assyrians' formidable fighting qualities in a specially raised force to guard British installations.

Assyrians viewed Iraqi independence in 1932 as a British betrayal. Growing tension led to a confrontation in 1933, followed by a series of massacres perpetrated by the Iraqi army, in which anything between 600 and 3,000 perished. Many Assyrians left for America, including the Mar Shimun, but the greater part remained and accommodated themselves within the Iraqi state. Many moved south to Baghdad.

Assyrians were unable to avoid the Kurdish conflict. As with the Kurds, some supported the government, others allied themselves with the Kurdish nationalist movement. In 1979 a number of smaller parties combined to form the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM), formally joining the Kurdish armed struggle in 1982. Assyrian villages and people were victims like the Kurds in the Anfal, 1987-8. ADM was part of the Kurdistan Front, and participated in the 1992 Kurdistan election, five seats being reserved for Assyrian representatives. ADM demands Assyrian recognition in the Iraqi constitution, full cultural rights and equal treatment. If the Kurds achieved a federal state, the Assyrians would demand autonomy within it, but there is a widespread desire to emigrate.

Assyrians, along with other Christian minorities, were especially affected by Saddam Hussein's genocide or Anfal campaign. Launched in 1988, the campaign resulted in the death or forced disappearance of some 100,000 people - mostly Kurds, but including many thousands of people from different minorities - and the policy of 'Arabization' that continued until 2003. As well as disappearances and murder, the Arabization policy officially forced minorities to change their ethnic identity. The 1987 and 1997 national censuses obliged all Assyrians to choose between an Arab or Kurdish nationality; those who insisted on identifying as Assyrian were struck off the list or arbitrarily registered as Arab or Kurd. In 2001, decree 199 proclaimed the 'right' of every Iraqi to change their ethnic identity and to choose an Arab one. Hundreds of thousands were also forcibly displaced, particularly in the economically significant region around Kirkuk.

Earlier in 2014, the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) reported that the Iraq Council of Ministers had approved a proposal to establish three new provinces in Iraq, one of which would be in the Nineveh Plain bordering the Kurdish areas, which has the largest population of Assyrians in Iraq. This represented a State attempt to curb the exodus of Christians from Iraq. If these plans were implemented, Assyrians and other Christians could gain some measure of political and economic autonomy. However, the details of how the plan will be implemented are yet to be disclosed. Meanwhile, the escalation of attacks on Assyrians and other non-Muslims by IS has since caused more Assyrians to flee Iraq and take refuge in neighbouring countries and southern Europe.

Current issues

As ethnic and religious minorities, Assyrians were doubly targeted during the ethnic and sectarian civil war that gripped Iraq since the March 2003 invasion. Assyrians form a disproportionate part of the millions of Iraqis displaced by the war. They have suffered from killings, bombings, kidnappings, torture, harassment, forced conversions, and dispossession. Although a dip in the level of violence in Iraq in the latter part of 2007 provided some measure of relief for all Iraqi communities, as violence rose again in 2008, Assyrians continued to be targeted. In April 2008, Assyrian Orthodox priest Father Adel Youssef was shot to death by unidentified militants in central Baghdad.

The years 2007 and 2008 saw a push for Assyrian autonomy, self-rule or self-administration in the Nineveh region of Iraq. Although such 'separation' could potentially expose Assyrians to further insecurity, the regional Kurdish government supported this move for a new province - possibly because it would reinforce the Kurdish wish to separate from Iraq. Meanwhile, the Kurdistan Regional Government confiscated Assyrian lands across the north.

Since 2003, Chaldo-Assyrian churches, businesses and homes have been targeted. People have been abducted or killed in attacks simply because they are in targeted Christian areas, work for foreign companies, or hold official or professional positions. These include civil servants, medical personnel and civic and religious leaders. Such attacks strike directly at the social infrastructure of communities, leaving a void of fear and disabling those who are left from carrying on their everyday lives.

Christians who work with people in high-profile positions and with the international community are particularly at risk. For example, on 22 September 2005, gunmen opened fire on a Nissan pickup truck carrying six Assyrian security guards assigned to protect Pascale Warda, an Assyrian activist and the former Iraqi Minister of Migration and Displacement. Four out of the six were killed. Two members of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, a Christian political party, were killed and two others wounded in November 2005 when gunmen opened fire in Mosul, according to a hospital official. CNN reported they were posting flyers for forthcoming regional parliamentary elections. Similarly in April 2008, Assyrian Orthodox priest Father Adel Youssef was shot to death by unidentified militants in central Baghdad.

These attacks have subsequently escalated, particularly with the recent offensive of IS in Northern Iraq. According to reports, thousands of Christians are fleeing to the Ninevah Plains after the IS group captured Qaraqosh and surrounding towns from Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in August 2014. Qaraqosh is home to around 50, 000 Christians, which includes Chaldo-Assyrian and Syriac Christians. In their ambition to create a Caliphate, or Islamic State, encompassing Iraq and Syria, IS continue to commit atrocities against Assyrian Christians. According to news reports, these systematic abuses include executing women who refuse to veil, desecrating churches, rape, kidnapping and forced conversion.

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