March 25, 2008

Assyria

 

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STATISTICS

Status:  Unrecognised Indigenous Group
Population: The total Assyrian population, including the
Diaspora, is estimated at 3.3 million
Capital City: Nineveh, Ancient Assyrian Capital (Iraq)
Area: 37,323 km2 (Current Nineveh Governorate Area)
Language: Assyrian, which also is referred to as Neo-Aramaic,
Chaldean and Syriac.
Religion: Christianity (Orthodox and Catholic)

UNPO REPRESENTATION: Assyrian Universal Alliance

The Assyrians are represented in the UNPO by the Assyrian Universal Alliance (AUA). They were admitted to the UNPO as a member on 6 August 1991.

 

OVERVIEW

Assyrians are one of the indigenous populations of modern-day Iraq. The Assyrians’ ancestral homeland is spread over northern Iraq, northern Iran, south-eastern Turkey and southern Syria. The region from the Hakkari Mountains in Turkey to the Mosul district in northern Iraq is the Assyrian nation’s ancestral homeland, with Nineveh as its historic capital.

Assyrians are also referred to as Chaldeans, or Syriacs. The origin of these names is mainly related to the changing fortunes and identities of a people and their diasporas that have gone different ways over three millennia. However, it should be emphasized from the outset that all these names refer to essentially the same indivisible people. In the Iraqi context, references to Assyrians as ‘Arab Christians’ or ‘Kurdish Christians’ reflect political attempts, both past and present, to assimilate Assyrians into Iraqi society at the cost of their identity.

After the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 and following the political instability during the first years of democratization, the situation for Assyrians deteriorated. As a consequence many Assyrians had to flee their homes to seek refuge in northern Iraq or in neighboring countries. Over five years later, minorities’ issues are still neglected despite international attention and efforts to pacify the region. While Assyrian political representation within the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has progressed, Assyrians continue to press the international community to recognize their nation as one in need of protection and to support their legitimate pursuit of autonomy within the territorial boundaries of a centrally-governed Iraq.

Assyrians fully support the efforts to consolidate a united, secular and democratic Iraq, capable of respecting and bringing together its culturally diverse society.  An Assyrian autonomous region would therefore encompass the Assyrian ancestral lands located between the Greater Zab and Tigris rivers and extend to the Republic of Iraq’s international borders to the north and west.

Although more Assyrians now live outside the Middle East, mainly in the United States and Australia, large numbers of the diaspora wish to return to their homeland if stability returns. The return of young, highly educated, Assyrians represent a good opportunity to bridge Iraq’s new democratic society and Western countries into a new era of mutual dialogue and understanding.

 

POLITICAL SITUATION

Since 2003, political instability in Iraq has left the Assyrians in a particularly vulnerable situation and approximately 250,000 Assyrians have fled Iraq to date. According to UNHCR data, religious minorities, including Assyrians, are overrepresented in Iraqi refugee’s census, representing 36% of the total number, even though they account only for 3% of the total Iraqi population. 

Those who remain in Iraq must still live with the legacies of past Ba’athist policies and continue to face problems with socio-political recognition within the country. After Saddam Hussein’s fall, Assyrians continue to face identity insecurity with severe restrictions on their linguistic and religious rights. Christians in ‘disputed areas’ are on the fault lines of political power struggles between Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens. Extremist religious-nationalist groups target them with harassment and intimidation as part of a wide political agenda. And in other cases, Assyrians are forced to identify themselves as Arabs or Kurds in other to benefit from public services such as health and education.

Amendments to the Iraqi Provincial Election Law (2008) and the Kurdistan National Assembly Electoral Law (1992), guaranteeing reserved seats to specific communities, such as the Assyrians, have been welcomed but are still not sufficient to protect Assyrian political rights. 

Furthermore, religious extremism has made Iraq an insecure place for non-Muslim religious groups. It has made the practice of Assyrian cultural rituals, including church services, increasingly difficult. Today, the Assyrian population in Iraq continues to be subjected to violations of their human rights and international humanitarian law with discrimination, displacement and arbitrary executions among the main abuses.  

 

UNPO PERSPECTIVE

Assyrians have paid an instrumental role in the development of modern-day Iraq and they continue to be key to the country’s economic, political, and social recovery.  To protect their rights, UNPO believes it imperative that Article 125 of the Iraqi Constitution is observed and upheld in protecting the administrative, political, cultural, and educational rights of Assyrians within Iraq’s federal constitutional framework.

UNPO believes that should be the first step to achieving the unequivocal recognition of Assyrian nationhood by both the Republic of Iraq and the international community.  Assyrian assertions of autonomy within Iraq are set within the context of the Iraqi Constitution and are based on clear popular support from the Assyrian community in Iraq and abroad. 

The creation of an Assyrian administrative unit within Iraqi federal framework a solution already foreseen under the Transitory Administrative Law and incorporated into Iraq 2005 constitution. Acknowledging territoriality to Assyrians would mean guaranteeing political representation and physical protection. 

The ongoing intimidation of Assyrians within Iraq, and the failure of the Iraqi Government to prevent attacks against the Assyrian community, makes the establishment of such an autonomous region a prerequisite if members of the Assyrian diaspora are to return to Iraq. Consequently, UNPO advocates for both Assyrian calls for an autonomous region and the return of Assyrian diaspora to their homes in Iraq.        

 

UNPO MEMBER PERSPECTIVE  

The AUA is an international alliance made up of Assyrian national federations and organizations throughout the world. The AUA was established on 13 April 1968, as a world-wide organization seeking to represent a powerful voice for the Assyrians, committing itself to upholding the Assyrian culture around the world, whilst working to secure the human and national rights of the Assyrian people in their homeland and elsewhere.  All Assyrians are automatically members of AUA.

The background of the organization is set against the emergence of Arab Nationalism in the Middle East, when Assyrians were seen by Arab governments as a fifth column because of their Christian faith. In the absence of any official or organized leadership, Assyrians were therefore forced to embrace either Arabist national ideology or to abandon their historical Assyrian lands and villages. Amidst rising concern about the situation facing Assyrians and their future worldwide, Assyrian leaders decided to create the AUA and gave it a centralized leadership capable of dealing with the growing challenges facing the Assyrian nation.

Since 1968, the AUA has held annual congresses that analyse the situation of Assyrian communities around the world. The General Secretary of the AUA is the Honorable Yonathan Betkolia who also represents Assyrians in the Iranian Parliament. The AUA has five regional secretariats, dealing with the Americas, Europe, Australia, Asia and the Middle East.

 

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

From the Assyrian Empire to the British Mandate

During the first millennium BC, the Assyrian Empire was a multi-ethnic society composed of citizens that today could be identified as Assyrians, Egyptians, Israelites, Arabs, Anatolians and Iranians. The unity around an Assyrian identity started in the mid-eighth century BC. Following the arrival of Aramaic speaking people from modern-day Turkey and Syria, Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Assyrian Empire and it was adopted as the everyday writing system for administrative affairs.  This, allied with a shared identity related to a semi-divine king, taxation and conscription systems contributed to the social and cultural cohesion of the Assyrian Empire.

As a result, Aramaic-speaking peoples of the Near East continued to identify themselves as Assyrians even after the fall of the Assyrian Empire, to the Achaemenid and Macedonian Empires in 612 BC. In the first century AD they were among the first people to embrace Christianity and from this time Assyrians have found themselves the target of persecutions.

Isolated from Christian centers for centuries, the Assyrian identity was close to being lost but in the mid-nineteenth century direct contact was again established with the western world. Because of their importance in the history of Christianity, Assyrians again became the focus of worldwide attention, with western missionaries coming to the region in a quest for the origins of Christianity. Experiencing a cultural renaissance, Assyrians built modern schools, colleges and technical institutions in Iran and Iraq during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Despite this cultural resurgence, Assyrians continued to suffer persecution because of their religion and ethnicity. Under the Ottoman Empire, in 1842-1847 massacres contributed to Assyrians’ diffidence towards Ottoman authorities. While the Young Turk Revolution in 1908 made school tuition in the Turkish language compulsory

As World War I engulfed Europe and the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers, the Porte issued a fatwa in November 1914 declaring all infidels who were not citizens of the Central Powers enemies of the Empire.  Because of their faith Assyrians became the target of reprisals and were drawn into an ill-fated alliance with the Entente Powers in 1915. Subsequent deportations throughout the Empire uprooted communities and ultimately cost the lives of two thirds of the Assyrian population living in South East Turkey in a devastating genocide.

At the end of World War I, the Assyrians had to retreat again from Iran (where they had been fighting along with Tsarist Russia)  in order to reach the British forces in Baghdad. In this long exodus, the Assyrians lost more than two-thirds of their population.

As the Great Powers disassembled the Ottoman Empire, Article 62 of the Treaty of Sèvres, from 1920, promised safeguards for Assyrians. But the abolition of the Sultanate in 1922 invalidated the treaty and led to the Lausanne Conference in 1923. The Conference resulted in the Treaty of Lausanne that called for the protection of non-Muslim minorities but rebuffed all Assyrian requests for national statehood.

Concurrently, the British and French Mandates, established by the Conference of San Remo in 1920, had provided religious minorities with some provisions regarding the protection of their rights.  Furthermore, Iraqi Constitution of 1925 extended nominal protection of minorities and the freedom of cultural, religious, and political expression.  During this period, many Assyrians supported the British mandate, simultaneously earning the distrust of Arab nationalists whilst being used by the British as a justification for their occupation.

Independent Iraq and the Ba'ath Rule

When the British lifted the mandate in October 1932, Iraq became independent and Assyrians were left with no effective protection. Consequently, tensions between Iraqi nationalists and Assyrian became more visible. In 1933, increasing political tensions between Iraqi recently independent government and Assyrians factions led to the Simele Massacre. On August 7, Iraqi authorities entered in the little town of Simele, in the Dohuk’s region, and killed most of the civil population, including women and old people. In one day more than 3,000 Assyrians were slaughtered, leading to a massive flight of Assyrian refugees to Mosul and to the French-mandated Syria.   

From its independence Iraqi politics was dominated by increasing centralization of power. As a consequence, security for minority groups, including Assyrians, became a pressing issue during the period of Iraq’s consolidation as a modern state. After the Simele massacre, those Assyrians that remained hoped to be settled within an autonomous region in Iraq. However, politics evolved to make this impossible. In 1936, the League of Nations Trustee Board for the Settlement of Assyrians of Iraq, aiming to solve the impasse, decided not to count exclusively on Iraqi assurances for the Assyrians provisory settled in Mosul, but also to proceed with a population transfer to Syria. Assyrians settlements were thus created in Khabur, in the extreme Northeast of the country. Those Assyrian villages in Syria have endured and in the 1990’s there were still Assyrians 33 of them in Kabhur.   

From the period between Iraq’s independence and the 1958 revolution, political instability inside the country had a negative impact on Assyrian welfare. At the time of the newly independent Iraqi Monarchy, two competing nationalisms, an Iraqi one and a Pan-Arab one were at the origin of political turbulences. In 1936 Iraq suffers its first military coup d’état, led by the General Bakr Sidqi. With the ascension of his Pan-Arab Sunni government, emphasis was given to an exclusive ‘Arab identity’ that was not able to conciliate the ethnic mosaic of the country. 

Differences between pro-British tribes and anti-British political groups were exacerbated by the Second World War. The Axis’ countries profit from an anti-British sentiment and it was only in 1943 that Iraq declared war on the Axis. The WWII aggravated social and economic tensions in the country. While, Iraqi leadership remained in competition with the emerging ‘Pan-Arab identity’ led by Egypt General Gamal Abdel Nasser. Inside and outside the country political groups were struggling for power.

The 1958 revolution of Iraq overthrew Faisal’s monarchy and brought to power a new generation of political figures attached to the ideology of Pan Arabism. Following a period of internal violent political instability, with several successive coup d’états attempts from communists and Arab nationalists alike.

In 1968 the Ba’athist party manages to assure its leadership, and since then they start to deny the existence of people in Iraq under the name of Assyrian. Assyrians were referred to as ‘Syriac speaking Christians’, and encouraged to identify with the Sunni-Arab dominated regime. Moreover, through several ‘Arabization’ (ta'rib) policies, cultural and political life of the non-Arabs in the country has become very difficult. Once again, Assyrian nation were threatened in its ancestral homeland.

In the following decade, Iraqi politics were dominated by an increasing polarization between Kurds and Arabs. After years of violence and instability, a peace agreement was reached in 1970, with a plan of guarantee of Kurdish self-rule in the Northern region, heavily inhabited by Assyrians. 

After Saddam Hussein’s arrival into power in November 1978, the Eleventh World Congress of the Assyrian Universal Alliance that convened in Sydney experienced the first chemical attack by agents of Saddam Hussein's regime. The five-member delegation attending from Iraq had brought sweets poisoned with mustard gas, packaged in Iraq, which were offered to the other delegates of the Congress. At least nine people suffered from poisoning.

In 1979, the Assyrian situation deteriorated within Iraq during the years of Ba’ath rule. The International Federation for Human Rights lists more than 196 Assyrian villages obliterated by the Iraqi government and part of the Assyrian population in the north of Iraq was forcibly transferred to larger cities such as Baghdad, as the government tried to homogenize north-Iraq population. For the progressive perception of increasing repression, also in 1979, the Assyrians found the Assyrian Democratic Movement (Zowaa or ADM) an organization to campaign for Assyrians rights welfare. During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, Assyrians were once again caught in the middle of regional volatility, and many fled their homes, in a massive emigration from the Christian community in both countries, most of them settling in the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

The 1991 Gulf War further aggravated the situation of the Assyrians, as the establishment of a Kurdish safe-heaven in Northern Iraq accentuated the opposition between Assyrians and Kurds. Both suffered a lot under Saddam’s rule. Still, during the first years of Kurdish Autonomous Region, there was no legal mechanism and no political expediency in protecting other national groups. While the incursion of the Turkish army into northern Iraq in an attempt to end violent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) activity in Turkey in 1995 also had negative effects on the political stability, threatening civilian population including the Assyrians.

From 1996 until the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, the continuous internal fighting between the two main Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led to armed conflicts in the Kurdistan region and communities not aligned with either of the two main Kurdish groups lived under fear and intimidation.

Iraq After 2003

In the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s fall, the expectations of Assyrians rose toward hopes for a safer future within an Iraq with a federal framework. Nevertheless, the multiple challenges of a newly democratized Iraq and the instability generated by the war following the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority, accentuated even more the differences between ethnic groups. The ascension of a dominant Shiite-Kurd coalition in Iraq has actually changed the situation for the worse. Instead, this new coalition shifted the ethnically-motivated discrimination caused by Saddam Hussein’s regime to the more dangerous religiously motivated crimes. In the meantime, more attention has been focused on Iraq’s Shia, Sunni, Kurds, and Turkmen than Assyrians.

Since 2003, Assyrian’s situation has dramatically deteriorated. Many Assyrians, working as translators to the US-led coalition in Iraq, were seen as ‘collaborationists’ and thus persecuted. Others, alcohol shops owners had their business destroyed and start receiving threatens to leave the country. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that one in three Assyrians are now refugees and a significantly larger number are internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Mr Sarkis Aghajan is a well-known Assyrian among the Kurdish Region and in Iraq for his commitment to the Assyrian community, his efforts to rebuild villages and churches destroyed by the previous Iraqi regime and for promoting and protecting Assyrian rights with all different Christian denominations. He was appointed the Assyrian Christian Finance Minister for the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG’s) Minister for Finance and the Economy in May 2006 and in 2007 he established the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Council.

In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI awarded Mr Aghajan the Knight Commander of the Order of Saint Gregory the Great for his work with the Assyrian Christian community in Iraq.
Mr Aghajan and his Council are pushing for an autonomous region for the Assyrian Christians and other minorities in the ancestral lands of the Assyrians, a region with its own parliament, cabinet and budget. The proposed region will fall either under the administration of Baghdad or Erbil.


CURRENT ISSUES

1. Lack of Political Representation

Despite being one of the indigenous people of Iraq, Iraqi constitution does not provide recognition or protection to Assyrians in respect of their indigenous or ethnic status. But rather, Iraqi government considers Assyrians as a religious minority. Iraq fails to name Assyrians together with the other segments of Iraqi population as basis of Iraq’s rich history and culture.

In particular, restricted interpretations of Article 2(A) of the Constitution, stating “No law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam” raises Assyrian fears that as in the past, political groups may use the Islamic majority identity of Iraq as a way to restrict other non-Muslim communities’ rights. Opposition to the building of new churches has given credence to these fears.

Until 2009, there were no seats reserved for the Assyrian community in nationwide elections. After the 2005 parliamentary elections, six Assyrians were elected to Iraq’s Council of Representatives out of 275 members. The only Assyrian list elected was the National Rafidain list that got the minimum required votes for a seat in the parliament, which was given to Yonadam Kanna. The other Assyrians elected came from the Kurdistani List and the Secular List. In the Iraqi governorate elections of 2005, the Assyrian Democratic Movement was the only Assyrian party to win one seat out of forty-one available seats in the Nineveh Governorate. Of the 34 current government ministers, none represent Assyrians. 

Progress has been made to improve Assyrian representation. Law No. 36 of 2008 (‘Elections Law of the Provincial, Districts, and Sub-Districts Councils’) reserves seats for Assyrians, Turkmen and Yezidis. These so called ‘component seats’ are located in Nineveh, Baghdad and Basra. Moreover, Article 125 of the Constitution also proposes a guarantee of administrative, political, cultural and educational rights to the various nationalities in Iraq. In reality however, such limited promises are not sufficient and Assyrians continue to be victims of electoral malpractices.

During the 2005 January Provincial Election held in Kurdistan, many Assyrians of the Nineveh’s residents claim they were denied the chance to vote as a result of widespread polling irregularities, as lack of ballot boxes, fraud and intimidations. 

Despite some recent improvement on the political rights of minorities within the Kurdish autonomous region, such as the five reserved seats to Christians in the KIP, Assyrian’s continue to aspire to self-governance and disputes continue as to whether these seats are in fact an underestimation of the true size of the Assyrian population.

2. Linguistic Restrictions

Assyrian or Aramaic is listed by UNESCO as a “definitely endangered” language and within Iraq it has always been considered a minority language. In 1972, the new Ba’athist government issued Presidential decree #251 which granted cultural rights to Assyrians (considered as ‘Syriac speaking Christians’) and autonomy to Iraqi minorities. However, with Saddam’s ascension to power, decree #251 was revoked and many Assyrians schools stopped teaching Syriac in favor of Arabic. 

Since 2003, in the northern safe-haven, with diaspora aid, and following the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, the Assyrian community was able to establish small schools in several dozen villages. Under funded and small in number, these schools remain the sole means of propagating the Syriac language. Plans are also underway for the foundation of a Nineveh University which would work to promote Assyrian language studies.

The main printed media outlet for Assyrians in Iraq is the weekly Bahra (Light). It is printed in Baghdad in Arabic (10,000 copies) and Syriac (2,500 free copies). Other printed media outlets for the Assyrians include the monthly Bet Nahrain Newspaper for the Bet-Nahrain Democratic Party, the Qoyama Newspaper for Assyrian Patriotic Party and the periodical Ma’altha (Entrance) magazine of the Assyrian Writers Leagues.

3. Religious Restrictions and Persecution

Assyrian religious rights such as freedom of conscience are constantly under threat. The main source of Assyrian persecution in the Middle East was historically their Christian background. Since 1933 in Iraq and especially under the regime of Saddam Hussein, Assyrian suffered from state persecution. However, after the Ba’ath Regime’s collapse in 2003, Assyrians became the target of sectarian violence because of their distinct ethnic and religious identity.

Despite recent constitutional guarantees, in the Iraqi Constitution and the Kurdistan Regional Constitution, minority religions do not receive adequate protection or state support. Iraqi government lacks effective capacity or incentives to protect Christian communities from abuse. Current violations of Assyrians religious rights include the ongoing church bombings in which 59 churches were attacked since 2004, forced conversion to Islam, kidnapping and assassinations of members of the clergy and the destruction of Assyrians shops.

Christians, who under Saddam were permitted to trade alcohol, have been singled out by hard-line Islamist movements for murder or forced conversion. In response to the violence, Christians have fled by the thousands to northern Iraq or neighboring countries. Many Christian educational centers and seminars have also closed or been forced to move.

4. Refugees and Internal Displaced Peoples (IDPs)

Since 2003, Iraq’s non-Muslim minorities have tried to flee the political instability that engulfed the country. The UNHCR estimates that approximately 2 million Iraqis are now outside the country with a further 2.2 million internally displaced. Of these, minorities making up 30% of the total and Assyrians are overrepresented among the refugees and IDPs. According to the Assyrian Aid Society, as of January 2008, about 15,000 Assyrians IDPs moved to the governorates of Erbil, Dohuk and Nineveh.

For those who remained in Iraq, the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) allocated homes to Assyrian IDPs in the Kurdish autonomous region but they face three major problems: lack of property rights, confiscation of land, and unemployment due to discrimination and physical intimidation.

Of those who have left Iraq as refugees by 2005, approximately 700,000 (UNHCR) took refuge in Syria. Of this number, 36% were Iraqi Christians, a disproportioned number given their represented 3% of the total Iraqi population. There are an estimated 250,000 Assyrian Christian refugees stranded in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey today.

 

KEY QUESTIONS

1. What are the Assyrian main demands in Iraq?

The Assyrians are the indigenous people of Iraq; therefore the constitution of Iraq should recognize them as the original nation of Iraq and not as a religious segment or a community. 

Secondly, the Assyrian people of Iraq are entitled to an Assyrian autonomous region or an Assyrian province corresponding to Nineveh and their ancestral lands. This Assyrian region should be administrated and protected by Assyrians under the jurisdiction of the central government of Iraq. An Assyrian autonomous region would encourage the return of Assyrian refugees and protect Assyrian cultural and religious rights. 
Thirdly, the federal government of Iraq must ensure the adequate and equitable provision of humanitarian and economic aid to Assyrian refugees displaced to Iraq’s northern region.

Assyrians also demands that the constitution of Iraq contain a minimum guaranteed quota for Assyrian representation at all levels of government, based on the Iraqi census of 1957 which without being updated states official Assyrian population amounts to 2,500,000.

Finally, the federal government of Iraq should establish, train and support an Assyrian security force as part of Iraq’s national security forces to help protect Assyrian towns and villages.

2. Is Assyrian identity under threat?

Assyrians have had an independent and unique heritage for almost 3,000 years. But for much of this time, their culture has been under threat. In Iraq today, Assyrians face efforts to limit their culture, attempts of physical annihilation and ongoing exodus.

None of the Iraqi governments have honored their commitments toward the international protection of minority rights and official policies have denied Assyrian identity as one of the founder’s nations of Iraq. Under Saddam’s rule, Christian artifacts were hidden from public view and from the sacking of the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, in 2003, over 7,000 works of art remain missing.

The Assyrian diaspora maintains nation’s identity. And within Iraq, committed Assyrians work to sustain their tradition as part of Iraq’s rich multiculturalism.

3. Are the recent political changes on the Kurdish Autonomous Region sufficient to fulfill Assyrians aspirations?

The year of 2009 has seen two major political shifts on the Kurdish Autonomous Region concerning minorities’ rights protection. Firstly, on March 2009 amendments on the 1992 Kurdistan National Assembly Electoral Law redesigned the Kurdistan Iraqi Parliament (KIP) seat-distribution as to contemplate political representation of Turkmen, Assyrian and Armenian communities. Starting on the Parliamentary Elections of July 2009, Assyrian political lists can run for 5 out of the KIP’s 111 seats.

Secondly, on June 2009 the KIP passed the amendment 35 to its Constitution, recognizing autonomy rights for its diverse residents. This decision enables different people living under the KRG’s jurisdiction to establish autonomy wherever they comprise a majority. Although the passage of this amendment provides a conditional opportunity for Assyrian people to establish autonomy, it neither guarantees it nor fulfills the aspiration of the Assyrian people.

As such, Assyrian still calls on the government of Iraq to enact article 140 of the Iraqi constitution and grant their request for establishing the autonomous region, as part of their long-standing national aspiration for a self-governed region. An autonomous Assyria region on ancestral lands, in what is known as the Assyrian Triangle, part of the Republic of Iraq, shall be administrated and protected by Assyrians themselves, who may freely elect their own officials, and will allow for their political, educational, linguistic, religious and cultural protection.

4. What are the challenges facing Assyrian autonomy?

Assyrians have had an uninterrupted presence in the Nineveh Plain and Dohuk (Nohadra) to the North for almost seven thousand years. Article 125 of the Iraqi constitution guarantees local administrative autonomy in the realms of health, education, taxes, economic development planning and social welfare. However, Article 125 does not provide the security guarantees Assyrians require. Consequently, Assyrians call for an autonomous region in the Nineveh Plain. But those territories are now at the centre of competing territorial claims between Baghdad and Erbil. The outcome of the implementation of Article 140 of Iraqi Constitution will shape the framework within which Assyrian autonomy will be formed.

The provisions of Article 140 could lead to a change in the Nineveh Plain’s status, from an Iraqi governorate to an autonomous region. But an unwillingness to compromise has delayed the national census to 2010 and impasse continues.

Should the disputed areas be granted to the Kurdistan autonomous region, Assyrians would gain limited minority protection under the provisions of the KRG constitution. But, this would fall short of Assyrian’s desires to administer and secure their traditional homeland.

If claims on disputed areas are conceded and Baghdad authority is able to reasserted, there is the opportunity for a referendum to be held on the formation of an Assyrian autonomous region. These constitutional steps have already been tested with the 2008 Basra referendum.

 

CULTURE AND ENVIRONMENT

LANGUAGE

Assyrians speak Assyrian, which is also referred to as Neo-Aramaic, Chaldean and Syriac. Aramaic is the oldest of the family of Semitic languages. Aramaic was originally brought to Mesopotamia by tribal groups that formed small political entities largely incorporated into the multi-ethnic and multi-racial Assyrian Empire. The gradual decline of Aramaic began with the spread of Islam and Arabic. During the consolidation of the new modern states in the Middle East, priority was given to Arabic without any state protection being given to other communities’ languages. This contributed to the destruction of Aramaic educational resources as well as the physical existence of the Aramaic-speaking communities. 

Aramaic, like historical and contemporary Arabic, is separated into several important dialects. These dialects for the most part, do not have continuous written documentation some dialects still do not have a written form but have relied on classical Aramaic the Classical Syriac, for written purposes. At present, the use of Aramaic may be divided into four sectors: the liturgical language of Christian church communities, the vernacular dialects of the modern Assyrians, the Aramaic spoken by the small remnants of Mandeans (Sabeans) of Iraq and Iran and the Aramaic of three villages near Maalula, Syria. Aramaic is listed by UNESCO as ‘definitely endangered language’ with an estimated 240,000 speakers.

RELIGION

Assyrians are among the first people to embrace Christianity, in the first century, after the fall of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, respectively in the seventh and sixth centuries BC. Assyrians practices variations on the faith that recall some of its most timeless traditions. Assyrian Christianity is divided into different denominations including the following four Assyrian rites: Apostolic and Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, Assyrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, the Chaldean Catholic Church (established in 1553 but effectively only in 1830) and Protestants.

ENVIRONMENT

Iraqi main environmental issues consist of inadequate supplies of potable water, air and water pollution, soil degradation and erosion and desertification.  Furthermore, dams’ constructions (especially the Makhul Dam) along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, as a consequence of water disputes with Turkey, have a negative impact on Assyrians settlements, and archeological cities such as Assur. As warned by the United Nations Environmental Program in 2002, the planned project aims to build more dams than the actual rivers’ capacity, creating serious environmental problems and damaging consequences to near-by populations.

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