Who Are the Assyrians?

Today’s Assyrians are the easternmost indigenous Christians of the Middle East. They form the last ethnic world community to preserve Aramaic as a native language – the language spoken by Jesus – that was the lingua franca of the region before Arabic displaced it when Islam emerged. Assyrian churches were the first to take Christianity to China and India. Their mother language is the oldest continuously written and spoken language of the Middle East. Aramaic is the oldest preserved alphabetical system for human written communication and serves as the basis for Hebrew, Sanskrit and many dead languages of the Middle East.

A minority people today, with distinctive cultural, linguistic and Christian traditions, the threat to Assyrian survival has increased for the past one hundred years and more with the formation of chauvinistic nationalist regimes in Turkey (1914), Iraq (1932) and Syria (1945). The rise of Islamist fanaticism threatens this lesser known, but historic, Christian community as never before, even on the Nineveh Plains, the historic Assyrian core.

Assyrians are familiar in the West by their church names: Assyrian Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox Church, and their two Oriental Catholic off-shoots, the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Syrian Catholic Church respectively, as well as parishes affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church and Protestant denominations. With the exception of Iran, where, since the 1906 constitution Assyrians enjoy ethnic identity, elsewhere in the Middle East, Assyrians have been recognized only through their churches as prescribed under Islamic rule, but not as an ethnicity. Even today this pattern of denial of indigenous ethnicity is systematic in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria and even in the emerging Kurdish state. Protestant Assyrians have rarely received recognition by Middle Eastern states.

Yet, all are one people, with one language, and shared historical narrative from the ancient period through the medieval Syriac-anchored scholarly period, to the modern period when they flourished under Russian, American, British and French protection.

During the 21st century much of this European protection ended. Assyrians have been left to the unkind embrace of their antagonistic neighbors who regard them, erroneously, as western inserts in their midst rather than indigenous people. Genocidal attacks on Assyrians did not begin with the 1914-1923 period but that genocide spurred flight of the 1/3 of the community who did not die or face forced conversion. Immigration has meant reduction of populations, especially in Iraq (Mesopotamia) their main strength, as well as in Iran, Syria, and of course in Turkey from where the genocide originated.

An Assyrian visited the United States first in 1842. The first individuals settled in the 1890s. The largest immigration from the Middle East, until the present upheavals caused by the rise of the Islamic State, occurred during the 1920s following the devastation of WWI.

Assyrians form important communities in Los Angeles, Modesto, San Diego, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose, Turlock, Chicago, Detroit, and Phoenix and in states along the East Coast from Pennsylvania to New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Assyrians in Diaspora, whether living in Sweden, Germany, France, Greece, Russia, Armenia, Georgia, or the United States, integrate well into their environment, learn national languages and contribute to the societies in which they are settled. They serve as elected officials, physicians, attorneys, educators, and in business and the arts. The Assyrian Arts Institute is one of the many self-help organizations that, over the decades, has worked to promote Assyrian culture and preserve Assyrian identity globally.