Christian History Home > 2005 > Losing Jesus' Language
Losing Jesus' Language
The Assyrians, Iraq's main Christian population, struggle to keep their heritage and their ancient language.
The Assyrians are the major Christian group in Iraq, where they participated, with some hindrances, in last week's election. A native Assyrian herself, cultural historian Dr. Eden Naby has a great concern for the survival of her community, which has suffered from persecution throughout the 20th century. She has published extensively on the Assyrians, as well as the Afghans, Turkmens, Uighurs and Kurds, and has conducted NEH seminars for teachers at Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst on religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East. She is currently editing a book about the Assyrian diaspora worldwide and preparing a monograph on Assyrians in the Middle East.
CT Online Assistant Editor Rob Moll spoke and e-mailed with Dr. Naby about the Assyrians and their struggle to maintain their heritage.
ROB MOLL: Assyrians have been in Iraq for a long time. Could you tell us about their history in the region?
EDEN NABY: Iraq is a recent term. Assyrians were in the region long before the British, the Ottomans, the Arabs, and the Kurds. For Assyrians, the term Mesopotamia makes better sense since that Greek word—meaning "land between the rivers"—expresses where they have lived historically, between the Tigris and the Euphrates. The combination of an increasingly minority ethnicity and language plus the problem of being Christian under Muslim rule has driven Assyrians into the hinterlands of Iraq—the natural refuge areas of the marginalized (either deserts or mountains). The Assyrians went into the mountains, captionhough significant numbers remained on the Nineveh plains where churches date to the 4th and 5th centuries or earlier.
When Iraq was cobbled together through conquest and negotiations with the successors to the Ottomans, many Assyrians ended up in Iraq. Others lived in Turkey, Iran and Syria. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Assyrians left Iran in such numbers that only about 15 percent of the post-World War II community remains.
What forces caused Assyrians to emigrate?
Persecution of Assyrians during the past several centuries has centered around their Christianity, not their ethnicity. It is only in the 19th and 20th centuries that ethnicity has come to play a role in the Middle East as a source of friction.
Records from the 19th century are plentiful and clear: Islamic governments treated all "people of the Book" as tolerated second-class citizens. The Assyrians were subjected to poll taxes levied against non-Muslims and the oppressive feudal system prevalent in the Middle East, which combined to keep the Assyrians poor and starving.
But more immediately, they were the victims of Kurdish tribes often appointed as "tax farmers" for the Ottoman rulers in the areas where Assyrians lived. Kurds therefore became accustomed to abusing Assyrians both as a different, non-Kurdish speaking minority, and as Christians with no recourse to authority. Most egregious was the regular abduction of Assyrian girls and women.
The opportunity to emigrate came with the advance of Tsarist Russia southward and the entry of Western diplomats and missionaries. The first big emigration was to Russia, which is still a thriving and educated community that has retained its Aramaic languages since 1828.
The second emigration was to America, the Christian-friendly land that was able and willing to take a hardworking laborer or a good student. In the late 19th century, men began coming to work in cities with industrial jobs.
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